Publisher: 2K Games
Choices have consequences, but most games tend to forget it. Barring the cause-and-effect of trigger, bullet and hitbox or grenade and explosion, only the best games force us to genuinely experience the ramifications of our actions - and even some of the shining beacons of our industry sometimes railroad us into decisions when push comes to shove. Many of us look back to the past for the freedom to make our own luck and our own mistakes, to franchises like Julian Gollop's X-COM, which gave us genuine agency over our... well... government agency.
In an ironic twist of fate, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is itself a product of action and reaction. 2K Marin's proposed FPS reboot lead to a backlash of staggering proportions (which might not have been entirely justified, frankly), but the demand for a strategic reboot spurred Firaxis into action, who were dead set on creating a return to form that lived up to the series' momentous legacy without compromise. Not only has the protracted battle against an implacable alien terror been re-realised with a stonking amount of player freedom in mind, but the veteran strategy studio has laboured to remove the tedium and fuss that's often inherent to the turn-based strategy genre, creating a game that delights in making its cavernous depth both accessible and visceral to armchair generals and action junkies alike.
Never mind all that, though, because XCOM: Enemy Unknown ultimately presents us with a single important choice: should you buy it? At the risk of making the rest of this review completely redundant, the answer is an emphatic YES.
It's the right decision, and one of the best you'll make this year.
As the commander of XCOM, an international agency tasked with defending the Earth from a concerted alien invasion, you'll deploy small squads of hardened operatives into hazardous battlegrounds around the world. To stop this extraterrestrial menace from abducting innocent civilians and terrorising the populace, you'll engage in tight isometric turn-based battles that put the focus squarely on effectively positioning your troops to execute a well-planned strategy. The odds are long and your enemies are ferocious, featuring familiar returning foes such as the versatile elfin Sectoids, hovering floaters and the hateful, terrifying Chrysalids who revel in cutting your forces to ribbons and turning them into zombie thralls (damn you! Damn you to hell!). You'll need every shred of nuance and skill that you can muster to survive the onslaught, let alone defeat it, so series fans will be overjoyed to discover that XCOM puts an enormous amount of tactical depth at your disposal.
Compact yet deceptively vertical maps grant you space to flank and outmanoeuvre your foes, securing lofty vantage points from which to punish unwary aliens in overwatch. Squad positioning is key, conferring bonuses to critical damage and hit percentage if you manage to sweep around from an unexpected angle. Buildings can be breached from any window or door, while cover can be destroyed with well-placed explosives. Different team members pack unique abilities and gadgets, such as smoke grenades, medical kits and devastating psionic powers, all of which can turn the tide when used at exactly the right time. Reloading operatives need to be covered. Fields of fire can be overlapped to create deadly killboxes. There's enough depth here to fully satisfy even the most hardened commander, but XCOM's major strength lies in its accessibility.
Instead of gating its content behind impenetrable menus, an intuitive interface allows you to move units quickly and effortlessly, with at-a-glance icons showing you the effectiveness of each piece of cover and how many enemies are within each operative's line of sight. Firepower and abilities are a simple context-sensitive click or trigger pull away. Enemy turns take next to no time at all, and important actions such as smashing through a window, charging to cover or pulling off a headshot are accompanied by joyously visceral camera pans that frequently deliver the intensity you'd expect from a big-budget action game. There's no waiting, no tedium or timewasting, just exciting and uncompromising strategic action brought to explosive life by slick Unreal-powered visuals and a rich colour palette. Whether you favour a mouse or console controller, the turn-based genre has been blown wide open for everyone to enjoy.
Enemy AI is top-notch. Not only will the alien hordes react intelligently to your incursions, feints and probes, but they're pleasingly vulnerable when caught out of position or searching for your troops. Individual enemies feel like real soldiers, scouting and falling back effectively, and capable of making their own poor decisions if you've managed to outsmart them. Your sense of fair play will occasionally be tested upon encountering foes in the open who retreat to cover (and sometimes even enter overwatch) on your turn, but in the main, the challenge is steep, just and satisfyingly taxing.
Any veteran X-COM (or Cannon Fodder!) commander already knows that keeping your squads alive is absolutely paramount - if frequently difficult. Upon surviving missions, squad members gain experience and ranks, conferring a range of specialisations, perks and even nicknames. You're free to rename and cosmetically customise your troopers at any time, which creates a strong personal bond that leads to utter despair when a chance shot or ravening Chrysalid manages to permanently kill them. Knowing when to rotate your squad to power up rookie soldiers and when to risk losing your heavy hitters is a constant source of mental gymnastics, not to mention equal amounts of triumph and heartbreak. Sometimes sacrificing a friend is worth it to secure an objective or bring back a captive, yet the fact that it's always possible to do better will keep you motivated to excel.
The battle may be fought in the isometric streets and wilderness, but the war will be won back at base. As in the original games, you're the commander of the entire XCOM organisation, not just a battlefield operator, and you'll spend the majority of your time preparing the world for total war. Since you're funded by numerous governments, you'll scurry to deploy satellites into orbit to scan for alien incursions, splitting your limited time and resources between multiple simultaneous threats. Helping out one country will result in discrete and unique benefits, but those you choose to ignore will become panicked and potentially even withdraw from the XCOM programme, cutting your funding if you don't manage to find the right balance. It's an open-ended experience that's equal parts action and reaction, with players able to massively affect the state of the world and challenged to respond to its ever-changing dynamics throughout multiple playthroughs.
Keeping abreast of the latest technology is a key concern for any successful commander, so you'll need to frequently visit your laboratories and task researchers with new projects. Bringing back artefects, corpses and prisoners grants you new equipment to play with, psionic abilities or improvements to existing weaponry and armour. I personally feel that Firaxis completely missed the opportunity to explore some more exotic and exciting weaponry (barring a menacing S.H.I.V. mecha tank and the awe-inspiring hovering Archangel armour, most of the upgrades are incremental rather than game-changing), but there's still an enormous amount of potential paths to explore in each playthrough. Deciding which research project to greenlight next can be as tough a decision as any combat encounter - do you need a bigger gun, better armour or more powerful interceptor jets? And in what order?
Your engineers will manufacture this new equipment, weapons, satellites and gear, though you'll need to balance the need for expansion and bleeding-edge tech with incredibly limited resources. Money and alloys will be stretched to the limit, as will your initially small team of technicians. To fully counter the alien incursion, you'll have to expand your base to provide more workshops, satellite uplinks and generators to power it all, which becomes an engaging minigame in its own right. Learning where best to place new structures to confer adjacent benefits takes time, but can pay off in spades.
Critically, everything comes at a cost. Not only does each research project, piece of equipment and base module expend precious resources, but it takes up valuable time. Choosing one option will deny you others, often catching you short and unawares. Even something as simple as equipping one of your interceptor jets with a more powerful gun takes 24 hours, which could potentially be enough time for a UFO to penetrate your weakened defence grid and destroy an essential satellite. One research project may come at the expense of affording better armour for your troops, or hiring more rookie soldiers. It's a thrill when sound planning comes together into a glorious victory, yet expansive choice can sometimes lead to you becoming completely overwhelmed. In a profoundly compelling way.
It's worth noting that XCOM disables autosaving by default... and I'd urge you to keep it that way. Though the urge to manually save every thirty seconds can become an overwhelming compulsion, maintaining your willpower and seeing your decisions through allows you to learn from your mistakes, making your failures just as important and inspiring as your victories. Every loss, every man down, will spur you on to bigger and better things, whether in this playthrough or the next. Don't cheat yourself out of experiencing real consequences in one of the few games that lets you. If you crave a truly hardcore challenge, the appropriately-named Ironman mode locks you into a single save file.
XCOM's non-linear, choice-driven campaign makes it inherently (almost infinitely) replayable, but a 1v1 multiplayer mode is also on hand to increase value further. It's a lean and muscular affair that challenges you to assemble a team of both human and alien forces on a tight points budget, allowing for only a couple of elite units or a small and versatile team. Though a combination of elite sniper and spotter tends to be somewhat overpowered at this stage, especially if you equip the nigh-omniscient Squadsight perk, it's still a fun and eminently enjoyable distraction. Indeed, it's a perfect way of providing a competitive element without compromising the core campaign.
- Staggeringly deep strategy made accessible and brutally visceral
- Cerebral non-linear gameplay predicated on choice
- Open-ended, replayable and massive in scope
- The freedom to make your own mistakes and luck
- Some recycled maps
- More exotic and esoteric weapons/research projects would have been nice
- Foes can move to cover on your turn (annoying, though not unfair)
The Short Version: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a sensational game and a truly exquisite reboot. Fans will fall in love with the series all over again, while the classic turn-based formula has been blown wide open for new players to consume and enjoy. You'll have the freedom to make many terrible choices over the course of countless non-linear campaigns, but make the right decision from the start by buying this outstanding return to form.