XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactical strategy game with role-playing elements. Firaxis Games developed the title for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. 2K Games published the title and released it on Oct. 9. This is one of two XCOM games that 2K Games has in the works. The other one is simply titled XCOM, which is a reboot of the original X-COM video game franchise turning the game into a first-person tactical shooter; 2K Marin (Bioshock 2) is developing that game with no release date announced. Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a re-imagined remake of the original X-COM game, UFO: Enemy Unknown originally developed by Mythos Games and Micro Prose in 1994. Firaxis’ XCOM was announced and developed after the 2K Marin version and while they are not set in the same universe, there has been communication between teams. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is also notable for being Firaxis’ first game without the Sid Meier header on the title.
A council of nations forms the XCOM project to defend against these extraterrestrials. This alliance is all that stands between the Earth’s freedom and alien domination. The aliens are meek in their attacks at first and the XCOM soldiers are simply responding to distress calls and stopping the aliens as they show up. Eventually though, the extraterrestrials change up their patterns and go for full assaults on cities around the world. This attack is a reminder of the distress, fear and destruction that the civilians in these cities are facing with these alien attacks. When this happens, the XCOM project must take a more proactive approach and starts trying to attack the aliens directly, but it also becomes more difficult to fight them.
The key to taking the fight to the aliens is by capturing some of them alive and interrogating them. The chief scientist, Dr. Vahlen, gives this dangerous task to the commander forcing him/her to think about the good of the Earth and the safety of his/her soldiers. By working closely with Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen, the chief engineer, the XCOM commander captures an alien called the Outsider who is made of energy. When interrogating the Outsider it disappears leaving only a crystal. When isolated this crystal emits a particular frequency that engineering traces back to an underground base. This location allows the XCOM commander to take the fight to the extraterrestrials and stop being reactionary.
The beauty of the XCOM premise is the way it allows the player to create his/her own story moments. By setting up the premise of an alien invasion on Earth, it gives him/her a sense of investment in fighting these aliens. In addition, it starts tough by having the first mission end up with a majority of the squad dying as the player learns the soldiers’ personalities. This demonstrates that there is a huge chance that these soldiers that he/she will be attached to and level up can die if him/her make a wrong choice in the field. Thus, the stories and personality that the player attributes to their soldiers make their deaths more impactful when they fall in battle. It also creates a great sense of tension and caution when moving through a level and seeing a gaggle of aliens show up ready to gun down these soldiers. This adds stakes to each mission and to the mini stories being created.
There are two main components of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s gameplay. There is the traditional mission based combat, where soldiers are in a hot zone in which they have to eliminate all the aliens on the map for victory. Then there is the managerial, resource management aspect with the Geoscape. These two aspects comprise XCOM’s gameplay and each provides its own difficulty and nuances. It takes a deep understanding and mastery of the two to be successful in the game.
The combat aspect of the game involves level maps of various cities around the world. There are several different “conceits” of missions like recovering technology from downed UFO crafts, preventing abductions, rescue missions and assaulting alien bases. Ultimately, each boils down to wiping out all the enemy alien units while preserving technology to salvage, protecting civilians or saving a VIP escort. The units operate in turn-based combat with the player taking his/her turn first, followed by the enemy’s turn. The player can have a squad of four to six soldiers, but starts off with four and can upgrade squad size as soldiers become more experienced. Soldier units move up in rank from squaddie to Colonel; these ranks allow the player to buy benefits that improve their squad.
Each unit can take one move and one action per turn. The first move is within a blue area, allowing the unit to take available cover and still do an action. Actions that a squad member can take are shooting, reloading, Overwatch, using an item or special abilities. Doing any of these ends that unit’s turn. The other option is not to take an action and move a little further within a yellow area. The player can also move to the yellow area first in a move called dashing, but doing so will end the turn unless a unit has the ability to take an action after dashing. While moving, units can move up or down in elevation by using the D-Pad; the higher a unit is, the more advantage it has when attacking a visible unit.
The key to combat is to find a good position of cover (full or partial) that gives the unit a good angle when aiming at enemies. Weapon shots at enemies have a percentage of hitting in general or doing critical damage based on distance, weapon type or other unit buffs. In order to take out enemies under good cover, the player must have units flank them. Enemies cannot be attacked until discovered from an obscured part of the map; when they are discovered they can move to get into position while the player is still in the middle of their turn. The final key to combat is to have certain units in “Overwatch” mode, which allows them to take a shot at enemies as they move into their field of vision giving the player a chance to attack even if they do not have enemies near them as they end their turn.
The Geoscape component is managing resources and different research projects to improve XCOM’s ability to fight the extraterrestrial threat. By investing in alien research, the player gains access to new items that can be commissioned in the engineering labs to improve unit’s weapons and defense, or aircraft weaponry. Players can manage soldiers in the Barracks and buy perks in Officer Training School or see the Memorial to view all the soldiers that died in combat, reminding the player of the losses they suffered. Then there is the Hangar where players can manage and purchase aircrafts in different areas around the globe, and Mission Control where players can scan for activity and take on missions. The final part of the Geoscape is the Situation Room where players can see all countries still in the XCOM project and their panic levels. The player can launch Satellites to help monitor different parts of the globe and help calm panic by showing they are monitoring alien activity in that area. The player can also see XCOM finances, sell items on the grey market for extra funding or see any pending requests by XCOM countries to gain rewards. Each month the player gets a score from XCOM’s top brass and based on the score they will get more or less funding. As panic increases in countries, they withdraw from the XCOM project and take their resources with them. When countries withdraw the DOOM tracker goes up and if too many countries are lost then the XCOM project will fail.
While the combat is relatively similar from mission to mission, there is a depth to it and an oddly addictive quality. The strategy involved in clearing a mission with all the player’s units intact takes careful measuring and movement, weighing potential gains against losses to achieve mission success. The game does a good job of forcing the player to make quick decisions when deciding where to commit troops during abductions by giving them three choices. They can only choose one and the choice will result in increased panic in another area. Thus, it is a delicate balancing act between diplomacy and potential rewards because the player may want additional money, but they need to reduce panic in Brazil to get four scientists. It is a hugely deep and addicting form of gameplay.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics in the game have a specific style going for a more cartoonish version of human beings rather than hyperrealism. Even with story beats that focus on the civilian aspects of the invasion, the lack of realism might seem like a detriment, but it actually still conveys the emotion impact of what it would be like to have aliens invade Earth. In addition, by being able to customize units with the player’s own choices, it gives flair to the unit design. It also makes for more of an impact when a “Chyssalid” impales them in the gut and then shocks when the player sees what happens to the unit afterward. The game features voice acting for the principal characters in the XCOM headquarters. Each character that has voice acting has a personality and the actors/actresses bring the characters to life while differentiating between the various characters. On the sound effect side, there is plenty of different sounds that each of the various aliens give off that keys the player to what may be lurking in the shadows for the soldiers. The music is excellent featuring a score from Roland Rizzo and Michael McCain. It gives the player plenty of adrenaline to face down the alien threats in the various missions.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fun, addicting and surprisingly good game. Even if some has never played a tactical game before, chances are they have played a game that has similar elements to the genre. As a comparison, XCOM is like a real-time strategy game, where the units are more valuable and have more weight because they are given an identity and are limited. XCOM also has some similarities to the strategy RPG genre, where each unit has a number of turns, can be customized, gain experience and level up, and has special moves and unit differentiation. Anyone with a familiarity with those genres can find something to latch onto with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. For anyone who has not experienced an X-COM game before, this re-imagined remake has different level difficulties for players to learn the nuances of the game, while veterans can ramp up the difficulty to have a challenge. The game features multiplayer for anyone who plays on PC and PS3 free and for Xbox Live subscribers on Xbox 360. The multiplayer component allows players to mix squads of soldiers and aliens to dominate another player. While this game is likely not on everyone’s radar, it is a great game that is a delight to play and attempt to master. Anyone who has interest should download the demo of the game and if it has any appeal then go pick up a copy, because it is worth the money.