XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Review by Ian Abbott

XCOM - Sectoids
Since XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released at the beginning of October, there have been many occasions that I have wanted to collect my thoughts and publish my reaction to the game, however I have been unable to because XCOM: Enemy Unknown has created an obsession within me and I’ve found it hard to stop playing. It’s superbly crafted, strategically taxing and brimming with enough alien razing to quench any gaming thirst, making it without doubt my game of the year.

After a worldwide alien invasion, the fate of the human race is at risk. I’d been tasked with unifying and protecting the Earth’s governments, forming an elite military organisation (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) and combining research programmes of alien technologies to neutralise the threat whilst building an operational base and preparing for heavy combat missions.

From the very first moment I felt a constant duty to ease panic and defend the entire world. I now realise that as a gamer I thrive on responsibility and genuine power. In hindsight, during my first play through I was reacting to fires and trying to stampede through the game rather than plan strategically and build an experienced base of soldiers which ultimately resulted in failure. I lost the support of too many countries and they withdrew their funding from the council. The mission ended. It was at this point that my XCOM addiction kicked in. I’d become used to games not allowing me to fail, to constantly assist me through continuous respawns, guided paths or unlimited ammo. XCOM represents an alternative, a game which tested my skill but treated me fairly and happily rewarded or punished decisions I’d made without letting me undo them.

The game excels at both strategy and combat. From my base (the anthill) I lead a team of scientists (responsible for analysing the aliens and their technology from crash sites/corpses that I scavenged) and engineers (who translate the scientists’ preliminary work and realise it in new armour, vehicles or weapons), both of whom equip my base, soldiers and aircraft with kit that suits my style of play. It is this level of investment and choice of pathway which has helped grow my attachment to the game.

The classes of soldiers (assault, heavy, support and sniper) unite to create a blend of skills that when deployed correctly wipe out most extra terrestrial resistance, but actively penalises me if for example I end up with my sniper in a melee situation with a low percentage chance of a critical hit because of their proximity to the enemy. Early on in the campaign I started to name my soldiers after faded 50s rock and roll singers but quickly learned that when death strikes, the attachment and grieving process becomes much harder. After watching Roy Orbison bleed out on the field of battle and then seeing his name on the memorial wall or waiting for Cliff Richard to spend 15 days recovering in the hospital wing, I realised that I should leave them with their automatically generated monikers and not invest that much, because death comes to us all.

The only lowlights are a soundwave that pops up clearly indicating the direction of the aliens that interrupts the measured pace and discovery of a territory as my international platoon steadily move through the mission, slowly uncovering the fog of war and the rare occasion in which different missions use the same map. As I chalk up multiple kills and mission completions, multiple ability upgrades become available for my soldiers. Therefore if I choose to take two assault class on a mission with me, their skill tree could be entirely different. There is a deep satisfaction to be gained from learning how to build a roster of 15 soldiers and rotate personnel to keep everyone progressing, not to just have a crack team of 6 soldiers with a 100 kills between them. If two or three of them die during a particularly demanding mission, I have to replace them with rookies who often panic and have poor aim and defence stats.

XCOM - Situation
There’s a deep appreciation for the source material and UFO mythology with Sectoids, Chyrssalid and Cyberdiscs represented. The Council are a constant and sinister presence relaying new missions and delivering a monthly judgement of my general progress including how many research projects have been completed, UFO’s shot down and alien abductions carried out etc. Their vocal delivery makes every engagement urgent and every choice laden with consequence. Michael McCann and Roland Rizzo have created a dynamic soundtrack that emboldens me and affects my gameplay as it responds to the delicate balance of how each mission is progressing. To be able capture and hold a player without breaking their survival instincts or the rhythm of the game, especially when it’s turn based, is testament to the power and success of this exhilarating soundtrack.

I’ve not played the original XCOM or any of the other mid 90s iterations from the franchise and so come at this with no history or attachment to the series. Even though the developer, Firaxis Games did not have a nine figure budget, it is one of the most consistently engaging titles I’ve ever played, am still playing and will play again and again and again. I’m surprised and delighted that a turn based strategy game can stand toe to toe with The Witcher 2 and Lollipop Chainsaw as my richest and most rewarding video game experiences of 2012.

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