XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

By Alex Rubens - Posted Oct 08, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a brilliant return to the series, with beautiful graphics and hours of missions. It mixes the best of management simulations and turn-based tactics for the perfect blend of action and planning. It's a great entry point for players new to the genre, especially on consoles.

The Pros
  • Beautiful graphics and UI throughout
  • Turn-based tactics combat at its finest.
  • The open-ended structure of the game allows for you to play differently each time
  • Online multiplayer is exceptional and fits the nature of the game.
The Cons
  • Minor graphical errors like clipping.
  • The extreme difficulty of the game might not be welcomed by all players, especially those new to the genre.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review:

When UFO: Enemy Unknown (later renamed XCOM: Enemy Unknown) was released on the PC and PlayStation, it was a huge hit that spawned five sequels and two cancelled games. It has been absent from the minds of gamers since 2001, when X-COM: Enforcer was released, but now the XCOM series is back with Enemy Unknown, and it’s here to stay.

If you haven’t heard of XCOM before, that’s alright, because you’ve certainly played games that have been deeply influenced by the genre that XCOM brought alive. Sure, there had been other titles that relied heavily on turn-based combat mechanics, but XCOM was among the first to mix this with real-time management simulation. It isn’t just about shooting aliens, you also have to manage your squad’s position and anticipate your enemy’s moves. Though there’s plenty of action, it’s more about thinking things through, rather than operating on run-and-gun adrenaline.



Planning? Not just ‘SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT’?

In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you must take command of forces from around the globe to investigate and combat alien forces abducting and taking over areas of the globe. As a commander of the XCOM initiative, you’re in control of leading the forces for twenty countries and protecting them. Each country contributes to the resources that you have available to you, whether that’s funding, soldiers, engineers, or scientists.

Combat will be very familiar if you’ve played any turn-based tactics games in the last decade or two. You must move your squad around the map, one at a time, until you’ve accomplished your objective, which is usually extracting someone important from an alien infested area or just killing every alien in sight. You have two options each turn, you can move within a limited area and then use one of your actions or you can dash at a greater distance, but forfeit your action for the turn.

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100% Change of Success

It all depends on the soldier that you’re using at time and how they’ve been equipped, but there’s usually four basic actions that you can count on: fire, overwatch, items, and hunker down. Fire is pretty self-explanatory and the action skill that you’ll find yourself using the most. When selected, it will target one of the enemies in range, show you the percentage change you have of successfully hitting that target, and the amount of damage that a perfect shot could do. You can easily cycle between targets that are in range depending on their proximity to another teammate, their low health, or anything else that might make them more important than another target.

Overwatch is just as useful and, in some cases, even more useful than running out and firing at whatever you can find. When in overwatch, you’ll stay behind cover and wait for an opponent to make a move. When they enter your soldier’s sights, he’ll fire on them, though his accuracy is slightly lower. It works well for when you’re in a tight spot and might not have a good shot on an approaching enemy.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

“We need that alien alive, Commander!”

Now, it all depends on what you have equipped, but if you do have any items, this is where they’ll show up for use. I stuck with frag grenades for a good portion of the game, because they were good at destroying cover and exposing the enemy for my other soldiers to fire at, but there are plenty of other options, like the Arc Thrower, which captures an alien alive for research when used at an extremely close range.

Another one of my main soldiers had a rocket launcher that had two different types of shots for taking out buildings or multiple enemies at once. If you put the time into researching and building new technology, there’s dozens of different items that you can equip throughout the game that make for cool upgrades to the regular weapons. Among my favorite was the Plasma Sniper Rifle, which did much more damage than the regular human rifle.

Hunker Down is probably the simplest of your actions, as you stay behind cover and earn an added defensive bonus for your opponent’s turn. It’s great when you’re under enemy fire and have to wait it out until you can move another soldier over to save you. As your soldiers kill aliens, they’ll work their way up the ranks and earn upgrades along the way. There’s branching paths too, though it’s extremely limited in scope.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Panic is Spreading Across Europe!

With each counting alien invasion, countries will start to panic and if that panic reaches a certain level, the country will leave XCOM, as you aren’t doing your best to protect them. It makes for a really interesting balance between countries and often leaves you with the decision of which country you’re going to have to let go. It isn’t easy, but there’s enough stats to see which country is more beneficial to keep around.

As you respond to alien abductions and shoot down UFOs with your jets, you’ll collect materials that, once researched by a team of scientists, can be used to build new weapons, armor, and devices to help you defeat, and occasionally capture, your opponents. Research takes time and scientists, so you’re limited on how much you can do at any time, but developing new equipment is essential to your success in the later areas of the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

All Your Satellites Are Belong To Us

You’ll need to expand your base to accommodate all the extra equipment though, so this means that you’ll spend a large amount of time building lifts and excavating to the lower levels under the base. I found that once I had built a foundry and other essentials for continued development, most of my expanding was done to allow for more satellites in space to monitor for incoming alien attacks. You can’t just buy satellites and launch them up either, as you need a satellite uplink, but that requires another power generator. There’s an order to things that makes it necessary to plan things out far enough in advance.

The basic concept might sound simple, but XCOM isn’t an easy game by any means, and it isn’t supposed to be. It is meant to challenge the player and make them think about their actions. It’s brutally difficult sometimes, especially in the later areas. It is the type of game that you can play for ten hours, lose, and have to start all over.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s like chess, but with guns.

There’s online multiplayer as well, which pits two players against each other in a deathmatch-style elimination. Before the match starts, each player will choose their squad and outfit their characters with different weapons and abilities. To keep people from choosing only top of the line equipment, each item has a different point value and there’s a limit on how many points each team can bring into battle. It helps keep it from turning into an all-out war and makes it more about your individual play style.

You can also play as the alien creatures during multiplayer matches, but they were extremely overpowered and the matches ended in only a few turns. It’s much more suited to a human v human battle, rather than one person using aliens and steamrolling the whole time.

Even if you never played the original, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is turn-based tactics and management at its finest, and a perfect introduction to the genre. It plays wonderfully with on both the PC and consoles, with a controller being a great way to play the game. It’s an exceptionally solid return for the series, and one that every turn-based tactics fan should experience.

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Editor's Note: XCOM: Enemy Unknown was reviewed using a PC copy of the game; however, we also played the console versions, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the PC and the console versions of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.