XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review: Terrifying, brutish, and brilliant
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game, the return of a classic franchise that has laid dormant for over a decade. Developed by Firaxis Games (perhaps you've heard of Civilization V), XCOM is a tactical romp that pits your grizzled, heavily armed soldiers against a seemingly never-ending horde of alien invaders. And that sudden chittering sound means a rather graceful mission has just gone sour.
Things were going so well too; I'd marched through this abandoned shopping center like a well-oiled machine, tearing through alien scum with nary a scratch to show for it. Just one storehouse left, one last possible hiding place before I can pack up and head home. So I send the rookies in to investigate, with my prized high-ranking sniper standing guard by the door in case they bit off more than they could chew.
"Chew" being the operative word here: a pack of ferocious insects leap down from an upper level (always check those ladders, folks). I spend one turn getting the rookies into a decent position, and... oh. One rookie down. The other panics, firing blindly before the insects tear into him. My sniper has already taken more damage than I'd care to risk so I pull her out hastily, and bring the rest of my team up to finish the job. Mission complete, I picked up a few new corpses for the scientists back home to study, and nothing of value was lost.
Terrifying, brutish, and brilliant — X-COM is back, and it's arguably just as good (if not better) than it ever was. The story, as always, isn't exactly novel. Aliens have run amok, razing cities, abducting Earthlings and generally being a nuisance; you're tasked with stopping them. Most of your time is spent in combat scenarios but there's a proper narrative lurking here, teased out through suggested research items (helpfully highlighted in your Laboratory queue), or optional missions to tackle at your leisure. The result is a campaign that's engrossing but subtle, sitting at the fringes of a strategy experience that couples tactical combat with unadulterated terror.
If you're a fan of the classic X-COM series, rest assured that while the experience is simplified and the visuals have been spruced up, it's left largely intact. Combat is turn-based, with squads of four to six soldiers getting two action points to spend on movement and abilities. Weapons can generally only be fired once per turn, which lends a palpable sense of wariness and immediacy to every step you take.
The game's soldiers are divided up into four classes: the Heavy class wields a minigun and devastating rocket launcher. The Assault class specializes in close-quarters combat, charging headlong into a fight armed with a shotgun and lots of hit points. The Support class is a sort of jack of all trades, and can receive a few bonuses to healing abilities (my de facto medic). The Sniper class does what it says on the tin, delivering high damage at long range. As squad members participate in missions, they'll gain ranks, which unlock new abilities — you'll have a pair to choose from at every rank, which allows for a fair amount of customization for every squad.
XCOM encourages a sort of surgical precision, with victories doled out to those who can build a balanced team, and keep a level head while a clever AI picks their squad apart. Cover and proper positioning become critical, as a tree stump or highway median can absorb the shots aimed at your soldiers' fragile frames. But the environment is also destructible, which encourages you to keep your troops moving. Battles here aren't about firefights, so much as fighting smart.
Charging headlong will only get your soldiers killed: instead, you might use a Heavy's suppressing fire to keep enemies pinned, while Assault soldiers poke around for a rear entrance and catch the enemy off guard. As you progress through the game, your tactical options grow wider still: heavily armed robots, psychic powers that can turn foes into friends, and jet packs (jet packs!) make for a dizzying array of tactical options — provided of course you've planned accordingly. The maps aren't randomized, and blasting through the same gas station in Canada and Nigeria can be a bit of a logical disconnect, but the experience is wondrously mutable. I started from scratch four to five times to recover from devastating losses, and while particular areas started to feel a little familiar (and helped me plan my approach), no encounter was ever nearly the same.
There's a catch, of course: Death is final and once a soldier has been laid low there's no coming back — and they'll be taking all of their experience and earned abilities with them. The classes are integral parts of the XCOM whole, and losing a single high-ranked soldier can be devastating — particularly if there's no one left to fill the role. Taking unskilled rookies on missions is encouraged, but inexperience brings its own troubles; lower-ranked soldiers are likelier to crack under pressure and can fall into a panicked state, potentially harming themselves or their squadmates (and occasionally, the enemy).
There's substantially more to XCOM than combat. Funding for the game's fictional military organization flows from the Council, a collaborative effort between 16 countries spread out across the world. Every month the Council issues a report card that assesses your progress and doles out rewards — money, and staff for your facilities. Council members will only chip in if they're being protected, which requires launching a surveillance satellite over their nation to keep an eye out for threats. You'll also need to station interceptors nearby to, well, intercept UFOs, lest they destroy your precious satellites. When aliens attack, a nation's panic level rises. You can lower it by successfully completing missions; let it rise too far, and the nation will withdraw from the Council, cutting off a potential source of revenue.
It all sounds simple enough: launch satellites, destroy aliens, collect paychecks. But you'll also need to fund research to learn more about the enemy (and their weapons). And pay for base expansions, so you can host more satellites and facilities to conduct research and build equipment. Can't forget your troops — they'll need the best weapons and equipment you can afford to go toe to toe with the alien menace. There are difficult decisions to be made, as numerous countries will request aid simultaneously, leaving you to decide who is the most dire need (or is offering the best reward). Then there's the timetable to consider: aliens can strike at any moment, but it takes 20 days to build a satellite (and another 4 to launch it), while research and construction projects will vary wildly.
XCOM is ultimately a grand juggling act, with your play time spent managing research and construction projects, balancing budgets and praying to the Random Number God that you'll be spared any major calamities until your veteran sniper is out of her sickbed. With the exception of a few scripted major events and the monthly council reports, there's no telling when or where the aliens will strike, encouraging you to keep all of your balls in the air in a mad race to stay one step of the enemy. An engrossing interface helps things along, with clear concise menus, simple movement controls, and a fully animated base that comes to life as you bolt new parts onto it.
The game is far from perfect, with its clichéd narrative and ultimately repetitive gameplay mechanics. There are also a few glitches, including a camera that doesn't handle multiple levels of terrain all that well. But the visceral thrill of the experience remains, and you'll be hard pressed to find a game tactical or otherwise that can instill the same level of gravitas to every move you make. Should the thrill lessen or you hunger for new targets, there's always multiplayer, which brings the game's combat engine and teams of your own design into a competitive public space.
If you were once an X-COM fan, buy this game. If you like strategy games — particularly turn-based ones — buy this game. In fact I'd be hard pressed to think of a reason to steer clear, though I'm admittedly smitten by titles that can combine complexity and fun so well. All told, it's a good day to be a strategy fan.