I never experienced the original 1994 turn based strategy game XCOM: UFO Defense (also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown) because I didn’t have a PC in 1994 and by the time I finally did get one in 1998 or so the game certainly wasn’t on my radar. So I’ve come into XCOM: Enemy Unknown like a lot of gamers will: having no nostalgia for the original and no clear understanding of game’s tactics and how to best play. I’d seen the trailers and the lengthy gameplay demos that 2K Games had posted, so I knew what the game was about and that it was a turn based strategy game that was deep in strategy and some management.
Normally, I’m not much of a fan of turn based strategy. I generally prefer to get my strategy fix in the form of a real-time strategy game (for me it’s usually the years old Rise of Nations). And when it comes to consoles, you can mostly forget strategy games. But, that’s also why I was interested in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The game’s developers, Firaxis Games, developed what I had previously considered the only good retail strategy game for consoles; Civilization Revolution. I played a ton of that game and absolutely loved it, and so I knew XCOM had a great chance of being a turn-based strategy game done right on consoles (and unlike Revolution, PC as well). And after spending a lot of hours with it, I’m extremely pleased to say that Firaxis has easily topped Civilization Revolution and XCOM: Enemy Unknown now stands as the best strategy game available for consoles.
It’s also one of the best games of the year, period.
When I first put the game in, I probably played it for four or five hours straight and was enjoying every minute of it. Then I turned it off for a while, and when I went back to it later in the night, I discovered that my game (being played on normal) wasn’t auto-saving and so I had no saved game to load. I wasn’t a happy camper at that point because it was around five hours of progress totally lost. I had to begin a whole new game, and I’m ultimately glad for it. Starting the new game forced me to explore the menus, which led to me turning on auto-save, and I began manually saving my game too. More importantly, it allowed me to begin anew with the knowledge I had gained from my previous game. I was thus able to begin playing smarter, and in this game playing smart is absolutely critical.
XCOM is an intense experience that will challenge you in every possible way. Even with a squad of highly ranked individuals, you never really feel in control and I mean that in the best way possible. Aliens have invaded Earth and they’re everywhere. There is a definite gloom in the air that won’t let up, and every decision you make has a possibly bad consequence. Your best soldiers will die. Countries will be overrun with panic and will pull out of the XCOM program, never to come back to it. Civilians will die horrible deaths, and you’ll quickly find out that waging a war against advanced aliens on a tight budget isn’t easy. It’s almost impossible. You, as commander of the XCOM project, are Earth’s last hope, and the sad reality is that Earth simply doesn’t have much hope.
XCOM Headquarters – Build A Base
When you’re not in a mission, you have a front side view/menu of XCOM’s headquarters. When you first start the game, you can pick from five continents to have the XCOM base in. Already, there’s some thinking to do, as each continent provides a bonus that will make something cheaper and faster. I went with North America simply because I’m in the United States, but while you can only have one XCOM base you can eventually get the other continents bonuses by having satellites above all of its countries (not an easy task). Of course you’ll have to build Satellite Uplinks or Satellite Nexus’ before you can launch a satellite above a country, and you’ll also need to have the satellites to launch. Everything costs money, time, and you need the manpower to get things done.
Now you may think your base is just some little thing you do in between missions, but that isn’t true at all. Your base is everything and you’ll spend a lot of time at your base reading, thinking, and generally trying to figure out how to best lay it out and do so within your budget. This portion of the game is perhaps the most strategically challenging part, and it’s the economic/business management part. You’re going to have to make difficult decisions that will affect the rest of the game. This base building really does a wonderful job of portraying the grim reality of Earth’s war against the invading aliens; you’re unprepared, understaffed, and lack the necessary buildings and requirements to be truly effective. You have to start from the ground up; you’re given very little here. To make matters worse for the XCOM heroes, everything costs money (which is hard to come by in the beginning, and possibly the entire game depending on your choices) and time. In the game, it take days to research stuff, build weapons, armor, and facilities, and it takes days for orders of soldiers or interceptors, and other critical components, to arrive.
As a business management student, I enjoyed the base building aspect of this game all while trying to balance a budget (which does get easier, depending on how smart you’ve played, as the game progresses). You’re going to want to strategically plan out your base design and prioritize. Building facilities of the same kind adjacent to one another results is an adjacency bonus. I have five workshops build; three in a row and two built directly underneath them, and that results in a nice bonus. I also have all of my power generators connected, and all of my satellites uplinks/nexus connected, again providing a nice bonus that can be crucial. And while still on design choices, early in the games story you’re going to be tasked with capturing a live alien to interrogate, and to do so you’re going to need to build a tool to stun the alien and a facility to hold the captured alien. I didn’t rush through the main objectives; I actually ignored them for quite a while to build my base and my soldiers up. I put the Alien Containment facility in the furthest left corner on the deepest level of the base. Even though the alien can’t escape, that just felt logical place to keep an alien.
Earth’s First Line of Defense: The Story of XCOM1
My go-to squad, my main team if you will, is the one I code named XCOM1. The squad began as a four-person team during my very first mission. Its members may be familiar to some of you; Colonel Jack O’Neill, Colonel Samantha Carter, Colonel Daniel Jackson, and Colonel “Murray” Teal’c. It eventually grew to a five man team also including Captain Jonas Quinn. Rounding out Earth’s elite team would be the sixth man, Rookie Louis Ferretti.
This elite team, renowned for their ability to enter very difficult battles and walk out with no wounded, won a bittersweet victory on June 13, 2015 in what was codenamed Operation Patient Shroud. The team was investigating a large UFO that had landed in Russia. As had become customary, the six-man squad slowly advanced towards the ship, taking out all aliens in their way. Daniel Jackson was the first to enter the ship, and quickly spotted an enemy type that had never been seen before: a cyberdisc. Jackson quickly retreated back out of the ship and into cover beside it.
The cyberdisc exited the ship and fired upon Jackson, severely wounding him. First chance he got, Jackson dashed as far away from the alien form as he could. Meanwhile, Teal’c launched a rocket towards the flying machine that veered off course and slammed into the side of the UFO. The resulting explosion alerted three Muton’s to the presence of the team. The rest of the team retreated back a few steps and took up an overwatch position behind cover. The cyberdisc closed in on Captain Quinn, gravely wounding him and leaving him in danger of bleeding out. Ferretti made the decision to dash to the wounded captain in a last ditch attempt to deliver a stabilizing medkit.
Colonel O’Neill, who had taken position behind a tree on a nearby hill, readied his sniper laser rifle and fired at the flying menace. The disc was now damaged, and Daniel Jackson, who had just been healed by Colonel Carter, aimed his heavy laser rifle at the cyberdisc and fired. His shot missed. Teal’c fired with his heavy laser rifle, and he too missed. The team could do nothing but watch as the cyberdisc killed both Captain Jonas Quinn and Louis Ferretti in one attack.
Eventually, the remaining four original XCOM1 team members managed to take down the cyberdisc, the drone accompanying it, and the three muton’s to evac out of there. But the damage had been done; the elite XCOM1 had just lost a captain and a promising rookie who was only on the mission to effectively train by watching the top squad in action. Since the deaths of Quinn and Ferretti, two additional members have joined XCOM1: Lieutenant Cameron Mitchell and the previous leader of XCOM2, Colonel Vala Mal Doran. XCOM2 is now headed up by Major John Sheppard.
Building A Squad
Yes, I’ve turned my XCOM game into a Stargate game without the Stargate. The beauty of XCOM is that you’re free to have the story and the heroes of it fit whatever role you want it too. At first, you only send four individuals into a mission, but as they successfully complete missions and kill aliens, they’ll earn enough XP to rank up and become higher-ranked officers. Eventually, you’ll be able to enter the Officer Training School and purchase an additional slot for your team, and ultimately a sixth slot.
As I’ve said before, XCOM is an intense experience. Danger is everywhere, and one false move or one misfire (or lucky alien shot) can spell disaster. It’s this kind of experience that makes XCOM truly something special. You’re free to enter the barracks and edit your soldiers. You can change their name, their race, their voice, and their appearance. The soldiers can be made into anyone you wish for them to be, and as you send them on missions and level them up, you will become attached to them.
There will come a time, and it’ll be different for everyone, where it will appear everything has gone horribly wrong. And then your team, that you’ve spent time customizing and developing a backstory for in your head, will do something incredible. A “Heavy” will have an enemy pinned down with suppression while another “Heavy” manages to take out two or three enemies with a single rocket. That 25% chance long rage shot with an “Assault’s” rifle will connect, and the tide will turn. And when you finally complete the mission with no losses and half of your team has been promoted, you’re going to be super happy and you’ll forever declare that team to be your go-to squad.
And that’s where the game gets you. You will care about the members of that team, and you will greatly appreciate your highly ranked officers and what they’re able to do in very difficult missions. I never like to lose any of my soldiers, but rookies are a little more expendable than ranked soldiers (don’t go suicide-mission the rookies though). So far, the only “tough” loss I’ve encountered is Captain Jonas Quinn, but even that was rough because he was becoming a go-to sniper (and as my second sniper, was valuable to the XCOM1). When a soldier has fallen, their name and details are placed on the memorial wall in the barracks. That’s not a fun screen to look at, but it is nice to go into it and remember your mistakes so that you don’t add more names to the wall. Frankly, I dread the mission where I lose any of the six members of XCOM1 now, but especially the four original members (and Colonel O’Neill in particular as he is my number one sniper).
Over 2,000 words in, we can finally talk about the gameplay. Take comfort in that note though, as I wouldn’t have rambled on this long before to getting to this point if the gameplay wasn’t great. Never has a strategy game felt so good on a console with a controller as XCOM does. Firaxis’ Civilization Revolution and the PSN title Eufloria are the closest things out there, but even they don’t feel this good.
Everything is tailored to be as simple and easy to understand as possible. Your character moves by following a line you control with the thumbstick. You know if you’re moving to cover by a shield that pops up at the location; no shield means you’re not in cover, a half shield means you’re in half-cover, and a full shield means you’re in full-cover. If you’re wide open, the enemy will be more likely to hit you. If you’re in full cover, there’s a great chance the enemy will miss you.
Each of your characters can move twice per turn. Ideally, you’ll take your time and move into cover and then place the soldier in “Overwatch” (they’ll fire If an enemy moves) to cover everyone else. If you move within the initial blue box, you can go into overwatch or perform another action (such as firing your weapon or reloading). You also have the option to move further out at one time, and you’ll know you’re doing this by the color and the phrase “Dashing.” A dash consumes both of that character’s moves for that turn.
There are abilities for certain classes that will allow a character to perform yet another action; the assault class can gain the ability to move, initiate run-and-gun, move again, and finally fire. A sniper who advances to the rank of Colonel can gain the ability “In The Zone” that allows the sniper to attack flanked enemies or enemies that aren’t in cover without costing a turn. This can really come in handy if you position a Colonel sniper correctly; I was once able to kill three enemies and then dash to a new location with this perk.
As good as the controls are and as good as the game plays, there’s still numerous issues surrounding it though.
Issues and Complaints with XCOM
While the game certainly looks good, it does suffer from a number of issues. Texture pop-ins are bad at times and load times are a tad too long. But these aren’t the frustrating aspects of the game, and are thus so minor as to not even matter. What makes XCOM fall back from “perfection” is some of the design choices and resulting camera angles. To say that this game glitches or is unrealistic to an absurd degree would be an understatement.
For starters, while things are mostly fine in outdoor environments, interior settings can be hard to see and navigate through. It can, at times, be a mess. It doesn’t help when the camera occasionally lags behind, or when the framerate drops. The camera and the glitches are just something you’ll have to accept with XCOM though, as you’re likely going to encounter it at least once every mission.
The absurd part of the game comes from the design choice. If you’re slowly making you way through a forest or a street, and you spot some aliens, they’ll instantly see you too. And for some reason, they’re giving a free turn to run and take cover. The same luxury is not afforded to the player when an alien comes out of nowhere and spots you. XCOM also features horrible line-of-sight. Some enemies that should be visible to a character isn’t, and often times both player and enemy will see through and shoot through walls and other objects.
At one point, one of my heavy gunners took a reaction (overwatch) shot on a sectoid that was inside of a building when there was no possible way the gunner could have seen the alien. This wasn’t a laser or plasma gun either, this was regular bullets that traveled through a brick wall and store shelves to hit and kill this sectoid. Other times, you can be right on an alien that’s completely exposed, have a 90% to hit and miss… twice!
It all comes down to basically luck. Sure, you can get advanced weapons, level up, and increase your aim. But it’s still a roll of the dice. The game conveys this to you well enough; there’s a graphic right on the screen that lets you know what percentage you’re likely to hit your target and even how much damage you can possibly do (although you can do more if it ends up being a critical hit, which has a separate percentage). Even so, you really can’t help but laugh when you take a stupid 25% shot through cover and get lucky and have it connect, and then turn around and miss at point blank range. Generally you’ll know where you stand, but just beware that these kinds of things do happen and those of you who get frustrated easily should be well prepared (especially if your miss on a 90% chance shot results in your guy getting killed during the aliens turn).
The Final Verdict
In addition to the campaign, which I fully suggest you compliment with your own story (mine again was based around Stargate), XCOM also features 1v1 online multiplayer. I’m going to be completely honest here; I didn’t play the multiplayer and the mode has absolutely nothing to do with my review score. This is not the kind of game that I like to play online. As far as I’m concerned, this is a single player experience. If there are any connectivity issues or bugs with the multiplayer, just keep in mind that my review doesn’t factor in online play.
The audio quality is really good, and the voice work is really quite solid. At times there are visual cues in the form of radio waves that will alert you to which direction aliens are in, and if you’re wearing headphones you’ll be able to listen to the alien make a noise so that you know what type of alien is up ahead. This is useful, as it allows you to know what to expect up ahead (might want to reload before you spot the alien), but it also works in conjunction with the voice work in the game. During these cues, a character will say something like “did you hear that?” or “we’re not alone here!.” You’re not likely to hear the alien noises without the headphones, so definitely put some on to best enjoy the game. Likewise, the game’s musical score, composed by Michael McCann (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent) and Roland Rizzo, is quite good and fits the creepy, dreary atmosphere of the game.
It’s easy to look those few paragraphs under the issues section and factor all of that up and knock XCOM’s final score down a point or so. But at the same time, I think gamers, and this is individually, have to look past certain past flaws when attempting to put an arbitrary numerical score on a game that at the end of the day is insanely fun and addicting despite its issues. XCOM is a game that came close to hitting our highest score.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a truly wonderful experience that all gamers ought to give a shot, even if they’re not typically fans of the genre. If you play the game for a while, you’ll undoubtedly experience all of its flaws multiple times during a single play session. At the same though, if you sit back and allow yourself to be immersed in the experience, you’ll quickly discover how easy it is to look past the games few glitches and questionable design choices and see the game for what it truly is: an intense and highly challenging game that will make you feel connected to its world and care about the soldiers you’re commanding.
It forces you to think, be strategic and creative, and ultimately make difficult decisions. It’s truly the closet thing we’ve ever seen to an alien invasion simulator. It may not be the most highly polished game on the market, but I’d much rather have all my games be this fun and this addictive versus some super-polished game that looks fantastic and runs smooth but is no fun to play. XCOM is easily one of the best games of the year, and for console gamers who like strategy games, you’re not going to find a better game in the genre than this one.
XCOM Enemy Unknown gets a four out of five: GREAT.
* A copy of this game was provided for review.