When X-COM: UFO Defence released way back in 1994, it established itself as one of the greatest strategy titles of all time, still holding that honour to its name even in today’s market. Its exploration of science fiction kept gamers glued to their seats, perspiration dripping from sweaty foreheads as each new alien type was uncovered, the next always more fearful than the last. Microprose had nailed the turn-based gameplay, yet over the last decade, the public have seen their strategic outputs take a real-time, rather than turn-based approach. Should Firaxis Games have sped things up in their reboot of this old-school classic, or should we revel in the slow paced, intellectual action that hooked fans to the original in the first place?
Like the original, the reboot is essentially the same game in format. Set in the near future, Earth comes under attack from an alien force, instigating the launch of the XCOM project, assigning you as commander in chief. It’s your job therefore, to ascertain the nature of your enemies, and dispatch them with extreme prejudice, thereby restoring the planet to its former glory.
It’s worth noting that if you enter XCOM: Enemy Unknown expecting a gripping tale between man and beast, you’ll be left severely disappointed. The narrative takes a constant backseat to the core gameplay, and despite the addition of several cut scenes, these are merely present to serve as updated objectives, helping the game to progress. This is no harsh criticism however, as the core gameplay is where the game excels. You’ll be so gripped by its turn-based format that you won’t need a reason to remove Earth’s latest inhabitants; the lure of victory will simply be enough.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is essentially broken down into two forms of gameplay, turn-based tactical squad command, and strategic base management. When in combat, using an isometric 3D perspective similar to other strategy titles, the player gets a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, although terrain not within your soldier’s line of sight is covered in shroud. This viewpoint helps keep the tension high at all times, as an enemy could always be lurking around the next corner.
As a result, you’ll develop strong connections to your squad, with cover playing a vital role in whether you’ll succeed, or ultimately fail. For those that played Full Spectrum Warrior, combat takes place in a similar format. Starting with a squad of four, which can later be upgraded to six, you’ll want to engage, suppress and flank opponents in order to have any chance of returning to home base.
Whilst most missions assign you the objective of eliminating all opponents, there are others of a greater variety that help to alter your strategic approach and keep things fresh. For example, in one scenario you may be tasked with locating and disarming a bomb, forcing you to press forward at a greater pace at the sacrifice of cover. Another may ask you to recover a priority target important to the project, causing you to detach a soldier from your squad to permanently guard the civilian on the battlefield.
Such missions serve to ask you constant questions as a commander, and essentially, there’s no right and wrong, just a consequence of your actions. This is essentially how the game teaches you, with the in-game tutorial limited at best. There’s enough to demonstrate how the core game is played, but far too little to help you get an initial edge over your superior enemies. This can lead to great frustration, especially when played on the higher difficulty settings. If you lose too many soldiers on one mission, the cost of replacing them with basic rookies can often be too high, causing the remainder of the game to be a downwards spiral before your inevitable defeat.
Those that played Mass Effect 2 will have fond memories of the game’s advertised suicide mission. However, after completing that game on the hardest difficulty, its encounters proved to be a cakewalk in comparison to your assigned task in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. On the higher difficulty settings, the game can often become one of survival, with the challenge being how long you can last before you become overwhelmed and the project is cancelled.
For those that prefer an even greater challenge, you can activate Ironman mode, an option which prevents you from creating in-game saves, forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. This experience really helps to ramp up the anxiety, with battles becoming a test of patience, as well as skill.
When your soldiers do eventually engage targets, you’ll want to ensure they remain in cover, which comes in two formats. Half-cover, such as a park bench or the front of car provides you a small boost to defence, whilst full-cover, such as a tree or large vehicle, offers you greater protection against enemy fire.
That isn’t to say such shelter is conclusive however. You can have one solider behind full cover, only to see him taken to an early grave due to a one-shot kill from the other side of the map, despite your greatest attempts to protect him. The same frustrations are also apparent in attack. Firing on a target is broken up into percentages, with factors such as cover and distance affecting the likelihood of a round entering your foe’s cranial cavity.
As a result, you can be placed five feet away with a 90% chance of success, only to have the shot miss. This can then be followed by a rookie’s shot from across the field with a 10% chance of hitting, to see the round not only strike, but cause critical damage. Therefore, no matter how great your strategic approach is, luck can always force you to bite the bullet, literally. This helps add a certain unpredictability to combat, but such occurrences happen far more frequently than expected, slightly devaluing the importance of tactical intellect.
As well as basic attacks, soldiers are split into one of four classes, Sniper, Heavy, Support, and Assault, with each getting the advantage of exclusive abilities and bonuses. For example, a Heavy unit can fire a rocket when you need to clear some space, whilst an Assault solider can move twice, and then fire, allowing him to reach greater distances on the battlefield.
Such perks can prove to be a lifesaver in combat, and as units acquire more kills, they can be levelled further to provide access to greater opportunities. Should you lose such a unit however, they are permanently gone, and you’re forced to recruit a new solider, whereby you’re required to go through the same process over again.
Thankfully, the environments in which you fight are varied enough to delay repetition, with a range of suburban locales partnered with sprawling forests, helping to keep combat both tight and frantic, as well as open and methodical. As your troops can be called to duty at a variety of countries around the world, expect to see architecture and objects befitting such locations.
When combat eventually ceases in these areas, the mission is completed and you return to base, whereby you are assigned control over a variety of structural mechanics. The research department for example, allows you to study and analyse alien fragments discovered on the battlefield, which can then be built in Engineering for use by your soldiers who are located in the Barracks. As you can see, each feature of your base serves to compliment another, helping to create a feel of co-operation and progress in between encounters.
Such actions cost resources however, whether in money or alien technology, neither of which comes plentiful. This forces you to sacrifice areas of importance in order to specialise in an alternate field. In truth, it’s often difficult to know which is the better option, due to the game’s lack of information given to each player decision. For example, do you want to employ more engineers or more scientists? In your first playthrough, you won’t know which is more important or vital to your developments, but take to an online forum and the informed opinion is overwhelmingly biased.
This lack of information works well in games such as Dark Souls, where the player is isolated from the world. However, as the commander of a military force which contains some of the greatest technologies known to man only to lack the understanding of what tools you have at your disposal, breaks immersion and is defunct of narrative sense.
When searching for aliens, battles are initiated through the Geoscape, a virtual globe that allows you to keep track of panic levels across Earth. Should a country sustain an alien onslaught for too long without interruption, expect that country to withdraw from the project. If eight countries extract, the game is over, and again, little information is given as to this eventuality, and how to successfully prevent it.
Occasionally, you may be tasked with shooting down an alien UFO, and this is done through a simple minigame, which involves one of your ships engaging with the alien craft until one or the other is destroyed. Depending on what you purchase in Engineering, you can deploy items that boost your accuracy or increase your defence, but this feature is extremely limited in execution.
Fortunately, each mechanic controls excellently, especially on consoles where the strategic genre is almost unheard of amongst the community. Every action is almost a button press away, keeping gameplay fast and smooth, allowing you to focus on the combat at hand. There’s also a multiplayer feature present for those that want to test their strategic intellect online, although this mode could have benefitted from some greater depth. With only a one versus one gameplay mode available, it’s likely any action fought online will simply be a trial or test for the encounters present throughout the campaign.
On analysis, it may appear that I have come down harshly on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but need not fear, as Firaxis Games offer some of the most addictive gameplay mechanics seen this year. As someone who finds it difficult to engage with the strategy genre, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has gripped me where critically acclaimed products such as Starcraft 2 did not. As a new player, you simply have to be prepared to accept failure.
Is this reboot as good or as important to the industry as the original? No, but it doesn’t fall too far short. It’s a more streamlined version to be sure, and PC gamers may herald the rise of console gaming as the result of this development change, but this means Enemy Unknown is accessible to everyone, due to its simplistic controls and limited features. As a result, Firaxis Games can only improve upon the franchise from here on in, and as a reimagining of one of the greatest games of all time, the enemies may be unknown, but the quality of this game is apparent to all. XCOM: Enemy Unknown may be one of the most addictive strategy games of this generation, and as a result, deserves to be tried by everyone, regardless of your expertise within the genre. The question is, just how long will you last?
( Xbox 360 version provided by 2K for review, thanks from the Only Single Player team!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 5/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 6/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3,
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 12+ (BBFC)