XCOM: Enemy Unknown
- Street Date:
- October 9th, 2012
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- January 16th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- 2K Games
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
Digital PC version reviewed. 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' was played with both the controller and mouse and keyboard with both options being equally suitable.
Firaxis, best known for the 'Civilization' series, has already proven itself brave. The long-standing strategy game developer is putting its reputation on the line by revisiting a similarly long-standing boon of the entire genre. Firaxis is rebooting 'XCOM' with 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown,' taking on the challenge of modernizing a beloved series while keeping it exactly the same, so-to-speak.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
I've been watching a lot of 'The West Wing' lately, Aaron Sorkin's chirpy expression of life in the most powerful residence in the United States. A big tenant of the show, outside of following the communications team, is evaluating the burden of power on one person as he balances being a man and being a leader. It's about calculating loss and maintaining a firm eye on the greater good. 'The West Wing' does this very well. Martin Sheen's performance is incredible.
But 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' does it much, much better. You are the leader, the burden rested squarely on your shoulders, the fate of the world in your hands. My performance wasn't so impressive. Let's call it a learning experience, but a highly entertaining one at that.
You are the Commander of XCOM, the first and only response organization created to combat a brand new alien threat. Powers above you and beneath you are constantly pulling at your support, but the end goal remains the same: ensure the survival of the human race. The losses and failures you suffer along the way are as inevitable as they are wrenching, and so you are molded as a leader. Will you send in your talented yet vulnerable troops to battle, risking their lives for something as simple as a couple more engineers for your base or continued support from an ally?
Of course you will, because the ground combat is just as enthralling and tactically pressing as the broader metagame you experience back at base. Decisions are everywhere in this game. You'll never know if you're making the right one.
For the uninitiated, "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" is a turned-based combat game. You control up to six individual infantry units on the battlefield, maneuvering them into cover and flanking positions, utilizing their varied weaponry and abilities in a methodical albeit nevertheless nerve-racking manner. Despite the fact that you take turns with the enemy moving your players, the "fog of war" (a shadow masking enemy positions around your units' field of view) and overwatch (a unit's ability to stand alert and take a reaction shot at any approaching enemy) functions keep you on constant engaged, trying desperately to get the advantage. Enemies won't shoot at you on first contact, instead taking up defensive positions, which makes the proceedings thankfully less harrowing and encourages forward momentum.
Often these missions have you eliminating most of the alien threat on the ground while achieving some perfunctory objective. Finding a high-value civilian, saving innocents on the street or seeking a power source on an alien ship are all very exciting the first couple times through, but a bit more variety would have been nice in the long run. The flip side is the game continually throws new enemies with new abilities at you, so a repeated sort of mission, on a repeated map even, can feel fresh in the later hours.
Back at base you're taking on the manager's roll of the XCOM project, sort of like the coach or owner modes in sports games, only here you get to view the layout of your ant farm-style base. Constructing facilities, researching finds from the battlefield, assessing worldwide panic levels and upgrading your equipment and soldiers all funnel directly into the decisions you make in combat. Choose to respond to one nation's call for help often results in two others losing faith in the XCOM project. You lose the game when a certain amount of nations drop their funding, creating an imperative to keep an eye on the world alongside your crew.
That's where that whole "The West Wing" thing came from. It's incredible, but every single decision I made over the course of my first playthrough, not excluding monetary decisions that often meant emphasizing my solder's lives over worldwide tranquility, let me know how terrible a leader I might actually make. Your squaddies can die, taking all their combat experience and unique abilities with them. The veterans, powered up and experienced, die just like the rookies, and the loss you feel can be devastating. About 80 percent through my first run, I lost an elite shotgun soldier I depended on in my tightest moments. He would often eliminate the most dangerous enemies just before a devastating blow. His valor and bravery was surely missed.
Too often, I chose my people over the world, and it sometimes meant losing a nation's trust by ignoring their pleas for satellite coverage and the aid that follows. I'd rather my sniper have a better rifle at her disposal.
And as the game rolls along, introducing new, more dangerous enemies, from the fragile groupings of stereotypical little grey Sectoids, to lumbering and powerful Mutons, your options continue to expand almost exponentially, just as their aggression and resolve. Later on, spending money on a sniper rifle doesn't just take away a potential satellite, it prevents you from upgrading your response fighters to shoot down bigger alien aircraft or building an advanced power generator in the base. Countries are pulling out of the program left and right, the aliens seemingly growing stronger and stronger, humanity's future darkening faster and faster. As a video game, it's engrossing to manipulate the unraveling of an alien attack, time and limited resources working in favor of the extraterrestrial threat. Let's just hope I'm nowhere near leadership when Rolland Emmerich's wet dream actually comes true.
The game is lacking, however, in the narrative department. The setup is great, with the shadowy council assigning you, the Commander, in charge of XCOM at the outset. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be, but in between those heart-pounding missions and thumb-to-the-chin moments of decision-making back at base, is what amounts to a prolonged fetch quest. Unlike the 'Civilization' series, and that may be an unfair comparison, you only win 'XCOM' one way. Spoiler alert, there's a super weapon, and you bounce from one odd goal to the next in a narrative hopscotch. It's a bit disappointing, but all it means is that the main story is you, and not something Firaxis really put together.
On the other hand, the tone of this game deftly balances the overwrought paranoia of your typical alien invasion story with a subtle awareness, but it's only present in the details, not the mainline narrative.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Firaxis has turned what could have been the visual dynamism of a board game into a surprisingly cinematic experience. In battle, the camera often swoops in and captures little bits of action. It adds nothing to the tactics, of course, but oddly enough there's an intangible improvement to the overall pace and tone of the combat. Taking a second to watch your assault trooper burst through a door, only to find alien foes on the other side, creates a connection to the battlefield other turn-based infantry games are sorely lacking. The thing is, I would have never known those other games were lacking had "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" not implemented these touches for itself. It speaks wonders to the inventiveness of the development team.
And every aspect of the game, whether you're consulting with the shadowy council or experimenting with new, dangerous technology back at your buried base, feeds well into the narrative tone. The ever weirder cast of alien enemies are countered by battle-hardened human soldiers. Your slightly futuristic transport ship plummets into battle with urgency. The only drawback is that after a while, and with a game with so much replayability, the environments and visual themes get a little repetitive. You're not going to a shootout at a candy factory or amusement park because it simply wouldn't fit, but I would've appreciated some sort of dramatic shakeup now and again. Even fallen alien ships feel drab after a while.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
A steely dark voice, the only one more commanding than your own commander voice, issues orders as leader of the council. This is a world as much defined by its voices and sound effects as it is the purple skin of a hulking beast. "We will be watching," the voice says, just before cutting off. The constant worry of your scientist back at base, the drumming excitement of the score leading you into battle, that steely voice, all keep reminding you of your dire situation, and the unbridled power at your fingertips.
It gets worse, by which I mean better, on the battlefield. A veteran might cower and cry at the loss of a nearby ally, while the scurrying footsteps of a nearby, yet unseen enemy impend your doom. When the sounds around you aren't dire, they're eerie. And it's all the more rewarding when a cheerful applause rings through your base after you successfully shoot down your first ship. 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' thrives on its atmospheric sound design.
Firaxis's solution to increasing the challenge in later playthroughs is, for me, a controversial one. The game is difficult enough on normal difficulty to be replayed again without going any higher, as finding new ways to play and tackle missions, creating new kinds of soldiers, emphasizing different objectives, can't be done in a single playthrough. It can't be done in five. However, once you do find it necessary to amp things up, and even turn on Ironman, which eliminates the ability to save at any point in the game and reload if you make a mistake, frustration can set in quickly for those without the patience and willingness to totally reassess tactics learned in previous playthroughs. Instead of throwing in more enemies, or creating more dire situations, harder difficulty levels simply make individual aliens more powerful, more accurate and, as a result, much more difficult to deal with. Early on, this means you're going to approach a group you might have thought easy to take out, only to find out they're far more likely to hit you than you are to hit them from the same exact distance.
It's a pretty harsh way to make a game harder, but diehards should find it compelling. Throwing out tactics you had previously assumed to be successful, however, just felt cheap and disappointing to me. I'm just no Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum.
There's also a multiplayer mode that, while fun, is fleeting due to imbalance and remarkably cheap tactics employed by desperate-to-win devotees. I can't really recommend it, but it's there.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Multiple add-ons, including the massive 'Enemy Within' expansion, extend an already lengthy and thick game. Those who need more will surely get it.
Firaxis, against all of its own set of odds, manages to balance all its interweaving systems with grace and individualized importance. Every researched item feels useful the moment you receive it and every call to your attention feels essential to success. It makes ignoring some calls in favor of others, or choosing an assault soldier over a heavy for a given mission, feel real and impactful. It turns a game into a mission. And it's a special mission indeed. There may be problems with the later difficulty curve, a bit of mission repetition or the weak narrative, but the sheer complexity of 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' earns itself a pass on those admittedly minor problems. Leadership, as I've learned, is no cakewalk. But it's educating. It's thrilling. It's harrowing. It's horrifying. It's fun.
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