[Review] XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

All your base are base ar— I mean: click-click-mumble-hum-click.

 

TITLE: “XCOM: Enemy Unknown”
DEVELOPER: Firaxis Games
PUBLISHER: 2K Games
PLATFORM: Microsoft Windows (also on PS3 and Xbox 360)
RATING: Mature (17+)
RELEASE DATE: October 9, 2012

October 2012 saw the re-imagining of the 1994 classic UFO: Enemy Unknown – a turn-based strategy game that had the player commanding a special ops team to take out a worldwide alien menace. XCOM picks up everything that made UFO a cult classic and improves it in its own subtle and not so subtle ways. Make no mistake, XCOM is a worthy remake and a great game in its own right, so let’s pick out the few weaknesses straight away before laying out the all the things that make the game really fun and enjoyable.

Dialogue

So a lot of people might disagree with me on this one and give one simple counter-argument: it’s about the gameplay, not the dialogue and story. I don’t disagree, but given how well polished the core gameplay is, it’s a bit disappointing finding out that the dialogue is full of trite and cliche phrases and pretty much completely lacking personality depth. Hey, it’s of course a matter of taste, but getting yet another set of stereotypes on the screen and through the speakers gets old really quickly. So much of the game screams polish; why fall short here?

What’s my line again?

Command Mode Pacing

When you’re back at HQ and distributing resources, picking missions, and customising loadouts… Actually, let me stop there. That sounded like it happens quickly and easily. That’s the problem: it felt like every time I wanted to do something back at HQ, there was a cutscene preventing me from doing it. The pacing felt off and the game’s ‘pushiness’ – for lack of a better word – was not appreciated. Granted, this was a lot more pronounced toward the first part of the game, but it definitely left an impression.

Tactical Commands

The final thing that I want to point out is the implementation of the in-game commands. I play a lot of games across a variety of genres. Turn-based, twitch-based, it’s all good. So why is it that I got confused so many times by skill selection (and firing at enemies in particular)? It felt like when I wanted to just select a skill, it would activate it, and vice versa.

 

Well, that’s more or less it for the obvious flaws, now onto the good stuff!

 

Well-Executed Gameplay

For those not familiar with the gameplay of Enemy Unknown, it’s a strategy game in which you give orders to your squad members to take specific movement, defensive, offensive, and utility actions and take turns with the enemy. You do stuff, they do stuff. Simple concept, but like with many games in this genre you quickly lose track of time due to the fun to be had in getting a mission to play out just the way you want it. XCOM does this beautifully. It’s balanced, provides great feedback (both in success and failure), makes you feel in control within each level’s constraints, and provides a great combination of detailed descriptions and subtle visual cues to guide you. Combine that with multiple difficulties and a mode in which you can’t reload to undo a bad decision, XCOM is a very satisfying game to play!

Flank ‘em!

 

Ambience

Firaxis did a great job setting the mood in the game. From the eerie combination of shadows and glows to the perfectly fitting background music and sound effects, the game seamlessly sucks you in.

 

Character Customisation

Let me get it out of my system first, because I had so much fun with this…

Yes, I always dress this way. Sup?

Yes, those were some of my characters in the game. You can have a blast changing the styles of each squad member individually, as well as equipping them with different weapons, armour, and utilities. You can either take it seriously or have a complete laugh (like I did) when seeing your bright pink armour + hair guy running around killing aliens that are seriously threatening the world.

Cinematic Moments

The cinematic moments in XCOM are quite the little joy. They can happen at specific parts in each tactical area and come in two flavours. First is the ‘this is a movie’ type of cinematic moment, like when one of your squad crashes through a window in a dramatic manner. The first time one of these happened, the over the shoulder-running-cam perspective made me think “Gears of War.” Luckily, they don’t happen so often as to become boring and repetitive. The second type is when you automatically get zoomed into the battlefield and close to either your squad or the enemy, at which point an action is shown up close and personal. The cinematic moments add so much to this strategy game: the occasional change of perspective adds to the immersion by breaking the detachment that can set in with a tactical bird’s eye view.

NOOB! Missed!

 

Management Galore

For all the micro- and macro-management buffs, both the missions and the headquarters give plenty to do and consider. Set up the lab and choose which research to focus on. Let Brazil panic while saving the Russians? No problem! Throw a smoke grenade under a squad member’s feet so that he can sneak in and zap an alien? You could do that or go in guns blazing and risk losing a soldier. The choice is yours and it’s fun, whatever your choice may be!

THE BOTTOM LINE: 88% (B+)

“A great achievement that gets held back just a bit by some needless flaws.”

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