Sid Meier’s Firaxis have finally rekindled a beloved franchise with their latest release XCOM: Enemy Unknown – a re-imagination of the early nineties strategy classic. With 2K for company and a back catalogue that includes some of the best strategy titles ever made, it’s difficult to imagine their love child could ever be a bad game. However, with every long-absent favourite comes expectancy and hype, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a whole bunch of both to deal with.
Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Neither plot depth or detail represent the game’s strongest features, but Firaxis do manage to present something that’s ingrained into pop-culture and easily perceived by all – aliens hell bent on planetary destruction. There’s no fun, lovable-scamp type aliens that allow us insight into the hows and whys, or that enjoy road trips with Simon Pegg. Infact, it’s made quite clear from the off that these extraterrestrials are bad, very bad, and need to be dealt with in an orderly turn-based type fashion.
This is where you come in as the commander of XCOM, an organization made of soldiers and tech-heads brought together to defend Earth from any fiendish off-world invaders. Narrative is good and helps tick the game along nicely with its inclusions of powerful shadowy figures pulling the strings and the urgency of impending doom, even despite the dialogue itself being quite generic throughout. There’s even some curious inclusions of zombie-like infections someway into the game but once you’ve boiled it all down the narrative almost becomes an irrelevant means-to-an-end. XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s strengths lay elsewhere, namely in its addictiveness and gameplay, so any lack of Oscar winning story isn’t that deterring.
The visuals are okay without being great, although there are a few negating issues that some will find frustrating. Slow loading textures in cutscenes and several in-game glitches such as weapons popping through objects and strangely positioned character models – I caught one soldier firing a weapon pointing through their back whilst facing the opposite direction at one point, which was certainly a technique I thought could come in handy if mastered. It kills a little of the immersion too, especially when your character is sitting clearly behind cover and bullets fly through a solid object with seemingly no damage to said object.
However, whilst not setting the world alight with the textures and visuals themselves, XCOM: Enemy Unknown should be commended for how well the user interface translates onto console considering the genre. There’s plenty of information to be delivered on screen but it never gets in the way and is always exactly where you need it to be. Overall though, a little more time spent on the visual aesthetics wouldn’t have done the game any harm whatsoever.
Audio compliments gameplay really well throughout, whether it be general gunfire or the atmosphere inducing drones. During missions alien noises cast over the map instilling fear into your soldiers that even may sway the tide of battle. It’s suitably creepy even for you, the player, upon entering the map as you have no idea what lay ahead in the darkened areas and the dreary soundscape does well to keep you tense. There’s plenty of voice acting during missions too and it serves its purpose well, although you’ll find it’ll fade into background noise as you push on through the game and everything begins to repeat itself.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is essentially two strategy games working together harmoniously. One part is its core, a well crafted blend of turn based strategy involving squad combat. The other is based around strategic management as you build up your team and technology whilst keeping project funding nations and superiors on-side.
It’s interesting how well one has been adapted to compliment the other. The management side of the game is presented in a face on view of your headquarters that expands underground as you construct it. Here you’ll shift between rooms that represent each manageable section such as research, engineering, barracks and briefing areas where you search the globe for new missions and any alien presence.
Cash flow in this area of the game plays a big role and if you’re going to upgrade weapons, hire new soldiers and keep XCOM ticking over, successfully completing missions to create revenue will be high priority. However, there’s plenty of other distractions that also bring in income. By building satellite uplinks and placing satellites around funding nation’s territory it not only keeps them sweet but also gives you the opportunity to scramble fighter jets out to intercept UFO’s which in turn spawn other missions to bluster tech and funding.
What this all equates to is gameplay that picks up the pieces of a faltering plot and creates something that’s increasingly complex in the amount of different ways it can be approached. What’s most surprising though is how remarkably accessible it all is at the same time. Strategy games on consoles often suffer from awkwardness in the control department but XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels natural and intuitive throughout and the squad based combat missions that make up the other main portion of the game are no exception.
Once you’ve been given a task you’ll select a squad of four soldiers (upgradable to six eventually) and then enter your mission. One of the best aspects of the game is how you’ll develop an attachment to your team. Each soldier is customisable by changing some aspects of their look and changing their names, whilst successfully completing missions levels them up and in an almost RPG fashion, you’ll be able to select what abilities to grant them. Seeing a veteran you’ve been hauling along for the last ten missions killed feels absolutely tragic to the point where you’ll seriously consider loading up a save. If you’re brave enough there’s a switch before starting that makes it a one-save only game – something for the purists for sure, but this is war after all.
Each soldier has two moves per turn and can be used to either shoot, move or both depending on the situation. As simple as it sounds there’s a ton of permutations that mix things up. For starters soldiers can have different predetermined classes such as assault or sniper, whilst different weapons, reloading, cover and position all affect the outcome. Essentially it all boils down to a roll of the dice; a hit success percentage is given before committing to an attack and although there’ll be frustrations in that 95% shot missing, there’ll be an equal amount of glee when that last gasp no hope shot miraculously hits its target.
Most missions are randomly generated on a set of generic maps with simple goals such as clearing the area of aliens, escorting a VIP or rescuing civilians before they’re gutted. Some plot missions do trigger eventually which helps the sense of progression but only offer a little more in the way of variety. Unfortunately, the randomised missions do wear thin after several hours play, but no matter what the mission is or what variety of alien enemy you’re facing (of which there are several), the sheer ability XCOM: Enemy Unknown has to make you play one more mission is immense. Stepping into the unknown portion of a map has rarely been as tense and at times, terrifying, in a game as it can be here.
Multiplayer is present and correct but there’s no denying that the single player campaign is the stronger of two modes. Online allows you to form a squad made up of different classes and load-outs, but for ranked games you’ll only be allows a set amount of points to distribute between them. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be thrown into a game that forces time limits on turns and is, for the most part, a great extension of the main game. You can of course create custom games with friends that allow more control over settings and limits, either way it’s enjoyable. The PC version will most likely hold the biggest draw for an online community, but it would be a shame to see the sometimes fickle console community fade away from this. Great intuitive strategies rarely appear for consoles and it certainly deserves the continued attention.
There’s a lot of replay value to be found here. The different difficulty modes alone will keep you occupied for hours that range from easy, normal, classic and impossible. Classic difficulty is more in keeping with the original nineties game that was renowned for it’s steep challenge, the others however are just as they sound. With so much to do from a gameplay perspective plus a decent multiplayer mode, the game remains fresh for a long time. The only thing that might throw a spanner in the works is the slight feel of repetition between maps that are constantly rehashed throughout both single and multiplayer modes.
Like all great turn based strategies, namely Sid Meier’s Civilization for one, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has the uncanny ability to make you play one more turn; one more delve into the unknown where entire planets can be saved or everything can unravel with even a single ounce of poor foresight. Even with immersion breaking graphical elements thrown into the mix and the looming danger of repetition further on into the game, it’s hard not to recommend this highly addictive creation for both XCOM veterans and rookies alike.