XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

October 12, 2012

/ by Tin Salamunic

Developer(s): Firaxis Games
Publisher(s): 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, X360, PS3
Release Date: October 9, 2012

My squad approaches a deserted diner. Major James “Wolverine” Howlett holds up a hand, “Do you hear that?” Something is moving in the thick black of the fog of war. I have no idea what is waiting for me ahead. Is it a few sectoids? Easy pickings for my high-ranking soldiers. Chances are it’s a group of hulking mutons accompanied by a disc cannon, laying an ambush. Better to air on the side of caution. In fact, caution is your best defense in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
  • Deceptively deep character customization
  • Solid single-player campaign is a welcome throwback to the Old School
  • Ironman mode is a fun challenge for the hardcore gamer
  • PC build was annoyingly buggy
  • High difficulty will alienate more casual gamers
  • Gameplay has little variety
Aliens are invading Earth and you’ve been tasked with stopping them. From the situation room to the battlefield, every decision is your’s to make and you better pray you get it right, because lives are on the line. I’ve been a fan of tactical games since my brother brought home Final Fantasy Tactics back in ‘97. I fancied myself prepared for whatever XCOM could throw at me. I’ve never been so wrong.

Captain Drake takes cover at the front of the diner, propping open a door. Sure enough, three mutons are hunched over a human corpse inside and they’ve spotted us. The bruisers duck behind cover, increasing their evasion rate. From across the street, my sniper has a bead on one of them, but there’s less than a fifty percent chance of him making the shot. The odds aren’t stacked in my favor just yet.

Each soldier’s turn is divided into two steps: movement and actions. Drake’s moved this turn, but he can still attack. As a Heavy, he has a Suppression ability which lowers the target’s aim and allows Drake to take a free shot if the target moves next turn. In addition, he’s learned the Holo-Targeting ability, which means that allies firing on a target Drake has attacked this turn have an increased hit percentage. He doesn’t have a high enough hit chance to guarantee a direct attack, so I opt for suppressing one of the mutons.

Holo-Targeting pings and now my sniper, Colonel Summers, has a clear shot. I activate his Head Shot ability to boost his critical-hit chance and fire. The muton goes down with a single bullet. Or laser, actually. Back at base, I’ve been researching alien technology and now they’re getting a taste of their own medicine. Colonel is the highest rank your soldiers can achieve, and Summers is specced with one of two final Sniper abilities, Double Tap, which lets him take two shots a turn if he hasn’t moved.

I fire on one of the two remaining mutons, but the shot goes wide. I can switch to Howlett and have him lob an advanced “alien grenade” into the diner, but that’ll destroy the mutons’ weaponry, a valuable resource I’d like to bring back to base. Not to mention the resulting blast would punch holes in two walls, set the place on fire, and alert any nearby aliens to our presence. I’ll need to minimize the amount of explosives I use if I want to keep the situation under control.

I position one of my Assaults near the door, opposite Captain Drake. Major Grey is equipped with a laser rifle and has always been one of my more reliable team members. She’s got a fifty-five percent chance of hitting one of the invaders, over half, but still not enough to risk it. Even if you haven’t moved yet this turn, once you fire a weapon or use an ability, that soldier’s turn is over. This makes every attack valuable and you don’t want to waste an operative’s turn by taking a chance on a lousy shot. I use Grey’s Flush instead, a weak shot with a high hit-rate that forces the target out of cover. The muton runs from its full cover to hide behind a low counter, which provides less of an evasion boost.

Now Monroe, my second sniper, has a clear shot at the muton’s new position. She’s positioned on a rooftop across the street and the height advantage provides her with an increase to accuracy. Not to mention the scope I’ve equipped her with. I activate her Headshot and the successful critical hit is enough to down the muton. One alien remaining.

This whole time Major Howlett has been chomping at the bit to scramble some muton brains. However, his shotgun doesn’t have the range that Major Grey’s assault rifle does. He can rush into the diner, but to get within range for a clean shot, he’ll have to Dash. Every character on the map has two movement ranges. If they move within their minimum range they’ll still be able to attack afterward, but if a character Dashes beyond that, their turn ends before they’re able to do anything else. Unless, of course, you’re an Assault and you can activate Run and Gun, allowing you to Dash to a location and still attack afterward.

Howlett dashes into the diner, up to the opposite side of the counter the muton is hiding behind. He pops up and one shot from his scattergun, the laser equivalent of a shotgun, takes the beast out. I breathe a sigh of relief and wait out the enemy’s turn. To my surprise, nothing busts down the doors or blows up any of the walls to the diner before it’s my turn again, but something is moving out there and it’s close.

I decide to take the defensive. Positioning all of my soldiers behind cover, facing the diner’s back door, I switch them into Overwatch. While in this mode, your troops will fire on the first enemy that enters their line of sight. Because this happens during the enemy’s turn, it’s essentially a chance at a free shot. However, you do suffer a penalty to Aim while in Overwatch, meaning it’s not the most reliable of defenses.

Bouncing my knee, biting a nail, I wait for a disc cannon to float through the door into the diner and signal my demise. I’m not so lucky. From behind, the spinning doom-machine hovers into the diner, accompanied by two beam drones. My troops all take a shot, but the drones have entered first, and everyone fires at once. The first shot is enough to kill it, wasting all of my soldiers’ opportunity attacks. I palm my forehead as the floating metal frisbee unfurls into a robotic scorpion and pumps a stream of lasers into Colonel Summers’s chest, felling him in a single shot. “I failed you Cyclops...” I whisper to myself and load my last save.

Death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is permanent. In fact, taking any damage at all has some long term repercussions. There are five classes available to your soldiers, each with varying builds available, and normally I wouldn’t enter a mission like the one above without a Support unit, but my highest ranking medic had been wounded in a previous battle and was out of commision for a few days. Of course, I could have avoided that with more diligent quick saving, but it’s been a long time since I played a game where creep-and-save was so important. In fact, I used to despise the idea of creep-and-save before I tried XCOM’s “Ironman” mode.

In Ironman, whatever mistakes you make are permanent. With heavy decisions around every corner, be it on the battlefield or in the situation room, Ironman mode is not for the feint of heart. I tried it for a few hours before breaking into tears and restarting the game without it. Enemy Unknown is a serious challenge even on Normal, but for those gamers looking to test their mettle, you’re not going to find a game more hardcore than XCOM on Classic with Ironman mode enabled.

Off the battlefield, decision-making is more long-term. You’re in charge of a global operation, which means it’s your job to please the world. Sending a squad to stop abductions in Argentina will make them happy, but in doing so you’ve neglected China and England, who are now beginning to panic. While you’re working with the best and brightest, high-tech weaponry costs money and the operation’s piggy bank is your’s to manage. Spending money to launch a satellite over China will help push back some of the growing chaos in Asia, but you’ve just spent what money you had available on a new generator and now England’s left in the dark.

As panic levels rise, your missions will become more difficult and more dire. Breaking up the monotony of the usual skirmish missions are alien terror attacks in which you must get in, save as many civilians as you can, and get out. In addition, you’ll be investigating UFOs your interceptors shoot down, assaulting alien bases, rescuing VIPs and generally trying to keep a thumb on the escalating alien invasion. If the panic gets too out of control you can not only lose individual countries, but Earth itself. Unlike most games in today’s mainstream, failure is an option.

While I think XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the breath of fresh air that the turn-based tactics genre deserves, there were some issues while playing on the PC build. Interiors were a nightmare to navigate, because rooftops will pop between solid and transparent, making navigation a chore. At it’s best, it’s a headache, but there were times when, just before I clicked, the roof showed up and rather than my soldier running to cover like I intended, they burst through the window and climbed a pipe to the top of the building. Or rather they attempted to, but were shot dead by an alien waiting in Overwatch. This far too common occurrence, coupled with the sluggish and uninspired PC controls, had me grinding my teeth on occasion, but the rest of the game is too good for it to matter much. And if you really hate how the mouse handles, like I did, you can always plug in a controller.

Bugs and wonky controls aside, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a wonderful throwback to the hardcore single-player campaigns of yore. As I reloaded my save from the start of my mission, I knew that there was a disc cannon out there and that I needed to prepare for it. Because disc cannons are scary. Because XCOM is scary. And that heavy atmosphere wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the fact that the game refuses to hold your hand. You’re either good enough to save the Earth, or you aren’t.

Final Score “It Came From Outer Space!” 8.0
The game is far from ugly, but it’s not going to win any beauty pageants. With the current console generation nearing its close, XCOM looks more like a game you’d expect to see a few years back.
Combat is fun and engaging, with enough twists and turns to keep you entertained to the very end. Controls were pretty awful on PC, but I was able to get used to them over time.
There is a multiplayer mode, but I was unable to find anyone else playing it and thus can’t speak to its credibility. Aside from that, your first playthrough will be a blast, but unless you’re itching to tackle Ironman mode, there’s not much reason to return.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Voice-overs were well delivered, if incredibly generic. The music did a nice job of setting the ominous tone of investigating a crash site, while ramping up as soon as your first target is spotted.

Review by Jeff Ellis

I'm a freelance writer and game reviewer with a year's experience working in the game industry. I've been playing games longer than I've been able to read. In fact, I learned how to read by watching my brother play JRPGs on our Nintendo. I also learned geography from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons. Facts that I probably shouldn't be proud of, but I am. You can read more of my writing over at First Word Problems and keep updated on the site and me via Twitter @1stwordproblems. All Articles by Jeff. 
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  1. Super hard game...but super awesome!

  2. This does look like a hard game, but it looks well worth the challenge. On top of that, I think the graphics are much improved over the first one. The first chance I played was a demo version over at a co-worker’s house from DISH, and I enjoyed it. I’ve found in my experience that I end up saving a ton of money on games by just paying a flat monthly fee renting, instead of buying all the great games out there. I haven’t had the chance to play it all the way through yet, but I did add it to my Blockbuster@Home queue and it hasn’t yet arrived, and I can’t wait.

  3. very nice game i played it twice


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