Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown

Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown

Back in 1994, MicroProse released the cult phenomenon XCOM Enemy Unknown (also known as UFO Defense). This alien hunting, squad based strategy game is considered one of the found fathers of the entire genre, and has since spawned endless clones on various platforms. 11 years after the last entry to the series, 2K games and Firaxis have teamed up to revitalize the venerable series, and my god have they done a good job.

Aliens have begun their attack, the world is in a state of panic and the nature of these attacks is as of yet unknown. Enter XCOM, an international anti alien initiative with funding from every continent on the globe. It is your duty to lead a squad of the world’s elite against the mysterious invaders, discover why they have attacked and ultimately save the planet. It sounds like your run of the mill sci-fi story, and that is because it is. The story is familiar enough that you won’t get much in terms of shock value, but engaging enough that you want to keep playing to see what happens. A mighty fine mix indeed.

XCOM Enemy Unknown

Gameplay wise, XCOM has a lot of offer. The main campaign will last you 15-20 hours on the Normal, and will give you control over literally everything. You must manage funding, research, base construction, base layout, engineering new tech, setting up adequate air defense, providing satellite coverage, manage basic politics, perform autopsies, train new squad members, manage equipment, promote and level up squad mates and just to top it all off, save the world. It is certainly a lot of undertake, but the sense of urgency is constantly present. You want to research the next priority tech, but you know that you bog standard equipment is not cutting it anymore but you are also aware that your Interceptors are struggling to tackle UFO’s and that all of Asia is revolting against you. Managing all of this is hard, but rewarding.

The you get to the combat. As is common in these kinds of games, you move each of your units and then the AI moves theirs rinse and repeat until someone dies; simple stuff. XCOM however, differs slightly from this formula in that movement, positioning, skill usage, scouting and tactics are all major players when it comes to success. The first mission you undertake literally kills your entire squad to show you that what seems like a good idea really is not. One wrong move can spell doom, and just to make it even more tense, death is permanent. You run out of life, you are dead. You have to hire a replacement, train them up and this ultimately costs money and time. Losing an entire squad is a very real possibility, and in doing so does not lose you the game. You simply lose the mission, take the massive drawbacks such as panic levels and the fact your squad just died, and have to start from scratch…only the enemies and missions are still getting harder and you have just got a lot weaker.

But, despite all the hardship, the game is not unfair. Everything that happens is down to you. You are nearly always outnumbered, out gunned, and out equipped so you have to play it safe. Moving slowly from cover to cover, using over watch suppressing fire and smoke grenades are all vital to success. Games can be difficult, but they are usually frustrating and not always fun. Other games are fun, but not always challenging or rewarding. XCOM manages to be right in the middle mixing difficulty and fun perfectly, and then it throws in a bucket load of tension to spruce things up.

When all is said and done, you can replay it on harder difficulties. This is where the classic XCOM shines through. Playing Impossible with IRON MAN turned on literally changes how you play. Every decision is final, past saves are deleted and it saves automatically every couple of seconds. Normally replaying games on harder difficulty levels is a cheap way to extend a games life, in this case you want to play it again, and you want to see just how far you can push yourself.

To top it all off, the presentation is top notch. Graphically, the game is gorgeous with strong art direction and details throughout. Everything is made to look cinematic without sacrificing gameplay. When you stumble across an enemy cluster, the game will show you them up close and personal, when you make a long range sniper shot it will go into slow motion and zoom in showing the plasma bolt tearing through the air. Heck, even the environments are destructible just to add that extra flare. Then you have the stellar voice acting and soundtrack to get you in the mood. Few games of this genre go to such lengths to engross you, the care and attention that has been given is usually found in First Person Shooters, not top down strategy games.

XCOM Enemy Unknown is the new benchmark when it comes to Turn Based Strategy games. If you are a fan of the genre or a fan of the classic XCOM then you owe it to yourself to pick this up. If you are none of the above, download the demo, fall in love and buy it.

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