Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC/Steam)

After taking about nine months to finish my first proper XCOM run-through, I finally feel ready to express how I felt about Firaxis’ re-interpretation of a storied PC gaming classic.

But why did XCOM take me 9 months to complete, firstly? Fair to say, the original XCOM games hold a lot of nostalgia points, and Enemy Unknown certainly scores highly in terms of capturing the mood and atmosphere that made the original games so enjoyably stressful endeavours. I enjoyed every minute I played Enemy Unknown for, but I had my heart in my mouth the entire ride, wondering just when a Sectopod would annihilate my lovingly-reared squad of colonels, or a mind-controlled sniper would blow up the Skyranger. But having now put a play through under my belt, I feel ready to face the oncoming storm once more!

I had a few teething issues that marred my initial experience of Enemy Unknown and left me questioning what Firaxis had done to the franchise. Why was autosave not protecting my progress with an initially-buggy game? Why was my squad just four strong to begin with? I’d heard that Firaxis had given the classic game’s mechanics an overhaul and streamlined them – but the danger word, that of a “simplified” game started to ring in my mind.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game. There’s a great look and feel; the graphics are fresh, if a little cartoonish but vibrant and inviting. Even as a three-year-old game, in 2015 the graphics still look fresh and punchy – the environments for missions convey a depth that the map size might not be able to carry on but there’s a certain environmental atmosphere. The small squad size (the original XCOM game let you take dozens of hapless rookies to their deaths from the get-go) certainly promotes a more tactical, thought-out strategy then leading lemmings over a cliff. And having small squads fosters that feeling of every member being valuable that made the original game such a bastard to play.

Constant comparisons to the 1994 original do Enemy Unknown a disservice, but it is hard to avoid. I felt there were some worthy additions and refinements of the original format that showed that while Firaxis “got” why the original worked, there was plenty of room to modernise the format. Working on having satellite coverage (and the strategy of which nations to launch satellites over and when) is a rewarding additional layer of gameplay – satellites work to detect UFOs but also act to reduce “panic” in relevant nation states, and providing continental coverage can give important meta-bonuses to the XCOM project. Side missions from The Council are, too, a good means for both farming experience for one’s soldiers but also fostering good relations (and goodies) from the Council itself. Soldier specialisation as they level up add to that soldier’s value, and adds tactical variety. What abilities do soldiers get? And how does that integrate with the squad on a mission-by-mission basis?

What worked for me with Enemy Unknown was the sense of value your soldiers got as they ranked up and became more powerful. I felt like I almost “knew” some of these guys, having led them through some pretty deadly missions. Seeing a soldier critically injured, especially a high-ranking one or even one that had survived a long time, led me to rush to their aid, even if that jeopardised the mission. The atmosphere of the game is fantastic, and it really does feel like XCOM is the last bastion of a planet under attack. There’s decisions to be made about what targets are important, what to research, and the time is always ticking until the next mission. The tactical game was great; I found it easy to grasp the core concepts of cover and I felt that as my campaign progressed, my rank as a commander grew with the abilities of my troops. And yes, like the original game, the random number generator was an absolute sod at times!

I recently approached the final mission of the game with great trepidation. Some missions – the Alien Base Assault, the Battleship assault – had been absolute bloodbaths that were great to finally complete, and it’s a credit to the level design. I thought the level design for that final mission was perfect, slowly taking the squad through a proxy of the campaign so far, through some mean challenges to the epic final battle. I’d be happy just to play that mission again and again, just to try out my new strategies!

Enemy Unknown, despite being quite linear in mission scope, is very replayable. I definitely felt my confidence to play more grow. There’s loads of interesting gameplay modes to try once the game has been beaten once, and in conjunction with the strategies and tactics the player themselves learns, leaves the game with ample room to be played again and again, for a better score, a shorter time to beat the aliens, and more fun ultimately.

I do however feel the tiny squad size was unsettling at first, though I understood why that was the case. It promotes the use of tactics and the preservation aspect is cemented into the player’s mind. The initial setup, where a lot of stuff goes on at once, can overwhelm the player a bit as they find their feet. And yes, the legacy of the 1994 game lingers overhead – the game took me 9 months as I kept working myself up about playing an “XCOM game”, but it’s a good, enjoyable kind of stress that promotes the best a player can give, and adds to that atmosphere.

Having beaten this game once, I feel I’ve learned a lot and can’t wait to face the aliens again! XCOM is a fantastic strategy game and with the upcoming sequel, I look forward to seeing where Firaxis chooses to evolve the franchise further!

Buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Steam

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