XCOM: Enemy Unknown review – Mars attacks! 
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Garth Holden
October 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm

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Welcome to the battlefield. Earth is at risk, as aliens sow terror across the globe. Outnumbered, outmatched and outmanoeuvred, you are in charge of the XCOM project, the only line of defence against the Extra Terrestrial threat. Can you survive the fight against the unknown?

Perhaps the most pressing question is: Why are the aliens here? They have superior technology in every aspect, yet they seem to be toying with humans, rather than leading a systematic genocide. Could there be more to why they are here, or are these beings enjoying torturing humanity, proving just how helpless we are against their superior firepower?

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Thankfully, XCOM has some of the greatest minds working together to try level the playing field. Both the research and engineering departments are working around the clock to try improve your chances of survival. Reverse engineered weapons, autopsies, improved armour and more, you will need every tiny bit of advantage to reduce your fatality rate. Because there will be deaths.

Conversations between Central Command, Dr Shen, head of engineering and Dr Vahlen, head of research, use the in-game engine, showing how flexible it is. From a fully zoomed out view of the base using the Geoscape, a kind of ant colony view, to zooming into a building and watching a conversation, Enemy Unknown sometimes feels like several games stitched together. In a good way.

Assume complete control

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Everything in this game depends on you. How your soldier levels up, how you build your base, who you protect, what you research, what tactics are used in the field and who gets deployed. Without you, everything is going to spiral out of control. This doesn’t mean you are some disembodied being in the sky either. You can only see what your soldiers see, and you can only detect alien craft in countries that are covered by one of your satellites.

Your squad is clustered near the door of an abandoned diner. The jukebox continues its playlist, the diner’s patrons freshly abducted. Pausing to check the source of movement nearby – a scavenging pigeon – your man on points opens the door and jumps over a countertop for cover. His shotgun unloads at the alien that was hiding near the cash register. Soldier two tosses a grenade at the prefabricated wall on the far end of the room, hurting the enemy lurking behind it, while destroying their cover. The sniper capitalises on this, two quick taps of the trigger popping two heads. But something heard the noise and came to investigate, a hulking beast with a large weapon that glows green. He isn’t alone either, and three members of your squad are now without ammo in their weapons…

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XCOM is a tactics game, almost like a deadly game of chess. Your soldiers move in a grid, your squad taking its turn before the enemy does the same. There is a caveat: there can be reactions during your turn and vice versa. For example, the first time you see an enemy, they are allowed to react to your presence, often splitting up and moving into cover. Both sides can make use of the overwatch ability, which allows for a reaction shot if someone moves through their line of fire. This turn-based style of combat will be highly familiar if you played the original XCOM (or games like FF: Tactics and Valkyria Chronicles), but may seem daunting if you didn’t. Getting flanked is easier than you might think, making the distance you engage at rather important.

Dealing with the first loss

Like games of yore, from the days when Oldvideogamer was just Videogamer, we were used to things like a single save file and permadeath. While you can choose to play with multiple saves (which will save your sanity, believe me), permadeath is not something you can disable. Your soldiers can and will die and you will feel terrible. They died because they followed your orders! They trusted you and even though they knew the risks, they had faith in you. Finding a replacement is going to be hard and take a lot of time. But no one will ever be able to really replace your favourite soldier, Alex ‘Mack’ Garza. You helped mould him, you gave him his callsign. He was the soul of the team, the optimist in the barracks and the heavy-set guardian in the field. His name takes a place of prominence on the memorial wall, a list of successful missions and his X-ray kill count displayed with pride. A testament to your failure, your inability to lead. The squad that watched the indomitable Mack die also took a permanent knock to their willpower, making them more likely to panic during high-risk encounters.

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You will also lose whole nations if you are not careful. Besides a loss of funding to your project, every nation that leaves the XCOM project results in the doomsday clock ticking closer to midnight. Lose eight of the 16 nations funding XCOM, and the Council will declare the project a complete failure. You are poised on a knife’s edge where your choices, responses and inaction all accumulate into extra burden on your shoulders. Yes, you can hit 10 hours and fail the game, meaning you have to start all over again (or load an earlier save).

Finding balance

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While the sniper sounds like a great soldier to have around, a squad of snipers may not be the best. A group of soldiers with grenades and rocket launchers, while sounding really cool, isn’t the best option either, as you destroy alien equipment with your explosives, leaving less to salvage for R&D. The same applies to reacting to abductions. Do you take the easier mission that offers cash, or do you try the harder mission in a nation without satellite coverage, where panic is close to consuming them? Finding a balance between ease of completion versus short or long-term reward adds more deliberation to your growing list of tasks.

Take a break, soldier

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Your job is a stressful one. Your decisions could result in death or failure, making every choice, from what to build and where and how to outfit your troops to your soldiers’ actions, important. All this responsibility, mingled with tension and fear of the unknown, all take their toll. Unless you want to be a jittery wreck, XCOM is not a game for playing all day long, believe me. You will need breaks, to prevent yourself from cracking and to make sure you don’t start making sloppy judgment calls.

You aren’t the only one who needs a break. Your soldiers will need time to recover from injuries in the field, meaning you should probably train a few back-up soldiers. If you want less troop downtime, research better armour for them, because they only need time off if their wounds in the field exceed the extra health that armour gives. Or don’t let them get shot.

Back to the roots

If you are an XCOM veteran, you might find the idea of having only one base limiting. This is not so. There is more than enough room for what you need to do, and it makes a lot of sense to only build one high-tech underground super expensive base. You have gathered the best of the best in one place, one final bastion. This shows how close to the end of the world the situation really is.

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Besides a more forgiving difficulty option, this feels just like the original XCOM. The reason for this, which is something I wish more developers would enforce, was making the entire dev team play and finish the original. By doing this, the tension and atmosphere of the game has been preserved.

If you want to show off your tactical prowess, head over to the multiplayer section of the game. Here it is squad versus squad using a point-buy system. Set how many points each side is allowed to use to build and outfit your squad and build an anything goes squad. Aliens working with soldiers, you can do anything. Just remember, the more powerful a unit or piece of equipment, the more points it costs. Multiplayer allows for ranked and unranked matches, depending on your fancy.

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Personally, I’m skipping the multiplayer as much as possible to leave the aliens as more of an unknown, because even after dissecting their bullet riddled corpses, the aliens are enigmatic and scary, and this is before you see the more elite troops in the alien armada. I’m off for some R&R, with a tinfoil hat, because I’m still tense even though I beat the alien invasion.

At what cost though?

Scoring:

Gameplay: 8.5/10.

It takes a long time to feel like you are on a level battlefield, something the enemy will quickly undo by throwing new units and tactics at you. The constant battering is intense, at some points too intense. This game will punish and taunt you, making you taste failure. But you will bounce back, ready to show them a truly human welcome.

Design and Presentation: 8.5/10.

An uncluttered interface coupled with great graphics. The Geoscape is teeming with life, an ant colony of human desperation. The abandoned areas are teeming with detail, from the price of gas to scavenging pigeons and a grimace on your wounded soldier’s face. A few graphical glitches happen on levels with multiple elevations, such as multi-storey buildings, something that should be sorted out by release.

Value: 8.0/10.

Game 1 took me a brutal 15 hours. While this might not sound overly long, the game generates a lot of random encounters as time in the game passes, meaning less efficient bases that need more money from the Council monthly, will end up spending more time doing damage control. Multiple difficulty levels, ramping up to XCOM classic and impossible, as well as the ironman option of only having one save, mean this game will keep punishing you as long as you are willing to take it.

Overall: 9.0/10

Brutal, fatal and exhilarating. The feeling of dread when you realise you are doing damage control against a complete unknown entity. The smack of shame when you lose a nation or a soldier. The sense of achievement when your guns are big enough to one shot some of the lesser aliens, or the mission where you get home without anyone going to the infirmary, will leave you giddy. If you like tactics or the original, you will not be disappointed. Enemy Unknown shows that old school games still have the reach and punch in today’s hand-holding environment, if you can handle its niche. The best thinking game I have played in a long while.

[Reviewed on PC]

Conclusion

9.0

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was reviewed by Garth Holden