[Review] XCOM Enemy Unknown [PC]

TITLE: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
DEVELOPER: Firaxis Games
PUBLISHER: 2K Games
PLATFORM: Microsoft Windows
RATING: Mature (17+)
RELEASE DATE: October 9th, 2012 (NA), October 12th, 2012 (EU,AUS)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that has its roots dug well into 1994 and UFO: Enemy Unknown. Having never played the original however, I shall be reviewing the sequel (or “Re-Imagining”) squarely on its own merits. Developed by Firaxis (Civilization Fame) and published by 2k Games the game itself already has a fair pedigree. 

The Story

The year is 2015, comets are raining down from the sky which turn out to be alien artifacts. Civilians investigating them soon find themselves being abducted or worse, killed. Countries across the world are in panic, nobody knows what to do or who to turn to. As a reaction to this a group of people calling themselves only “The Council” initiate the “XCOM Project”. You, are in charge of this project and most likely in charge of what will become of Earth. As the months pass, you will make many important decisions; do you research Armour to protect your Soldiers or do you invest in Weaponry to make the aliens hurt? Do you choose to build more interceptors to protect the the skies and inevitably your income or do you choose to build additional labs and workshops to advance your technology? Defeat is a real possibility. You do of course, have advisors in the form of Dr. Valen (Research) and Dr. Raymond Shen (Chief Engineer) so you are not alone. They provide valuable insights and the research reports Dr. Valen produces are well written and worth a read to expand on your knowledge of the aliens and the backstory of the game. 

The Game

Reviewing the game I found genuinely quite difficult simply because its split distinctly into two parts. The Base/Resource management and the Ground Operations turn based Combat, each are equally as important as the last. Die on the ground and panic increases across the globe, affecting your support and ultimately your income. Mis-manage your resources and you end up sending out ill equipped soldiers against vastly superior enemies. I got my resource management horribly wrong on my first attempt and found within a few months I was being slaughtered by the aliens (and this was on Normal!), armed with a bit more patience and advanced knowledge my second playthrough was much more successful. 

Command and Control, Base of Operations

You will spend a lot of time in your main menu screen. This is where you make many important decisions, but most importantly where you manage your resources. Resources come in the way of Dollars which are provided by member nations of XCOM, providing you have a satellite above their region. Income varies depending on where you place this satellite but as you will learn with this game its not as simple as “Oh hai, he gives me most cash, launch ze satellite!!”. Placing satellites is an extremely strategic decision, do you place it over a country with a high panic rating to calm them down? Do you lay claim to the largest income? Do you launch several only within a single region in order to claim the regional bonus? The amount of satellites you can launch are also directly linked to your facilities, do you have the facilities (in terms of power and Satellite management ) to launch them? This was one of the most frustrating parts of the game for me, deciding in real terms whether to expand my satellite portfolio or to upgrade my troops equipment. In order to succeed you need to do both, making your decisions especially early on really matter as the game evolves. There is, of course, plenty to spend your hard earned cash on, not just satellites and equipment. Research though it doesn’t cost, does take time and often unlocks new equipment. You can create new armors, improved weaponry and purchase your way to aerial superiority given enough funds. But you also need to replace lost souls by recruiting from the barracks, Officer training to help you manage your troops better and of course to build new facilities to help you advance with the XCOM Directives. This depth means you will be micro-managing from the Base of Operations. But this micromanagement only really applies while you have money, meaning between missions that pay well (normally 1-2 a month) you only have income at the end of a month making it a painstaking wait (managing your satellite production/launch to coincide with going live just before payday for example). This wait becomes worse as the game progresses, as you finish your research, complete your satellite portfolio and only have paid research in the form of the Foundry to complete, you have less and less to do. 

Command and Control, Ground Operations

Combat is turn based, the player (At least on normal difficulty) will always get the first go. Positioning is very important, placing cover between you and your enemy is hugely important, meaning turns usually consist of moving between points of cover. The spanner in the works to this, is the “Fog of War” you do not know where your enemy is until they are within line of sight meaning you could end up covering from one side, to be attacked from the other or as often as the case can be, being flanked from both sides. Your moves come in two, you can either move a short distance and shoot (use an item), go on “overwatch” (unless your a sniper) or move twice as far and end that units turn. I quite often found myself moving from cover to cover in short distances and “overwatching”. Often enemies could ‘spawn’ within your sights or even between your troops which can cause some tactical issues!

Killing an enemy grants Unit Experience which when the unit is promoted at the end of a mission, can unlock unique abilities depending on the class of the unit. There are four basic classes ( Assault, Support, Heavy, Sniper) each with their own specialist unlocks. Assault uses either a rifle or a shotgun and is usually the first one in, can take a few hits but can also dish out devastating damage (especialy with the shotgun). Support is your medic of the group, favors a rifle and can also offer suppression and smoke screens to assist your group. Heavy as you might imagine is the bulldozer of the group, carrying the heavy rifles and rocket launchers excellent at demolishing enemy cover. Sniper is my personal favorite, get this unit up to high ground and they can be unstoppable, however, their drawback is they can’t move and shoot in the same turn. Each ability grants some customization to your character on the battlefield and utilizing these abilities can be the make or break of an ambush later in the game.

Unfortunately it isn’t without its flaws, multi Level terrain appeared to have become a problem for the devs, quite often I would want to travel to a higher area (Top of a spaceship) but the movement indicator would stubbornly opt for the ground floor. A quick fix for this was often rotating the camera (often accompanied with cursing!) Another frustrating point would be ‘luck of the roll’ hit chances, often reminding myself that it is a game of chance. When you target an enemy you are given a calculated hit chance in percentage(%) early on with inferior equipment this is often in the 30-50 range and more often than not you could unleash hell on an enemy with all 6 soldiers and each one would in turn, miss. Statistically improbable, but definitely possible of course. One final mechanic that I’m in two minds about is the “Willpower”. Your soldiers, as they get promoted gain more willpower, so a Rookie has about 40 and a Colonel about 100+. What this means is, if facing superior numbers, intimidating enemies or a dead teammate, a soldier with low Willpower can panic, becoming unpredictable. I had one mission where I had mind controlled an enemy ‘Muton’, I walked him inside a spaceship to almost certain death (and revealing enemy positions in the process), inevitably he died. However what I hadn’t banked on was that three of my soldiers panicked as a result of losing their ‘teammate’. Their reaction was to shoot the closest thing to them which happened to be each other, three deaths later it was the biggest loss of soldiers in one campaign month on my second playthrough! This of course can be prevented, don’t take a large amount of rookies with you into a single mission (This is where micro-managing your troops to rotate in rookies with the vets, pays off towards the later game). 

Graphics

I played this game on my PC, Win8, Quad Core AMD Phenom 3.6, 16gb DDR3 1600 Ram, AMD 6950 and it sat at a comfortable 30fps on highest settings. Given its a turn based game anything above 15fps is more than ample. Scenarios include sparsely populated forests, cityscapes invaded by aliens and a boarding party on a huge alien ship. Textures and models blend seamlessly and though heavily re-used, do not detract hugely from the environment. The world was developed to feel ‘alive’ in the environment you are in, giving great immersion. For example, the forest level has leaves being blown around by the exhaust of the SkyRanger, birds fly around the environment and trees are scattered, destroyed or burning from the downed ship. The environment is also destructible, to a degree. Using explosive or high energy weapons burns cover to a crisp, blows down walls and causes fires which can burn for turns which, in turn, destroys further cover. The Base of Operations however is a glorified 3d menu, not as detailed as the deployment environments (this is also apparent by the 60+ fps) it still looks good particularly as you expand on your facilities giving you a visual representation of your progress. 

Audio

Audio isn’t anything to shout home about. However there isn’t an awful lot they can do with it. It’s not an FPS so you don’t need pin sharp audio to hear movement three corridors away so tactically it is not a necessity. The troops have scripted lines they say, scream in agony when they die and the music pipes up when you are in combat. It certainly doesn’t distract from the game, but I often find myself playing with my own music in the background while I slaughter various aliens of shapes and sizes. The voice acting is done well, with a few cringe worthy moments (Mostly when talking to “The Council” it is rather cliché) but your advisors, Dr. Raymond Shen and Dr. Valen are done well which given they do most of the talking is welcome. 

Conclusion

Overall, as someone new to the XCOM universe this game will keep you entertained for hours. Gameplay is as fast or as slow as you want to make it and the graphics, though not groundbreaking, fit well within the universe and game. Micro-Management gives huge perceived depth to the game and decision making can make a real difference to your fortunes (or misfortunes) late on. My only complaint would be how linear the game becomes towards the end, your progression path is simple. Unlock a new armor, recover new alien artifact (or interrogate) and you have the next tier of armor unlocked. Same story for weapons, its very linear. You can’t actually ‘skip’ a technology for example, by not capturing the appropriate alien – so even missing out on capturing aliens won’t hurt you too much in the long run. Because of this I am going to award it 8/10 overall. Early on in the game, this isn’t apparent because you are overwhelmed by choice and micro-management; but as you manage efficiently and the game evolves, you find yourself with less and less to do.

Final Score: 80% (B-)

“Overall, as someone new to the XCOM universe this game will keep you entertained for hours.”

Notes

Though the game (On pc at least) did have its share of bugs, this has been resolved with a few patches since and as such I have avoided talking about most of them.

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