XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not a game of scripted moments. It’s a call-back to a time when technical limitations and a more design focused industry meant that players literally had no choice but to write their own stories through their own actions. And now, much like in that era’s original X-COM, those stories are written in digital blood.
That being said, the best scripted moment in Enemy Unknown comes fairly early on in the campaign. After sending out an interceptor craft to shoot down your first alien ship, you’re treated to a shot of XCOM headquarters where the entire staff has broken out into the iconic “NASA applause.” It’s a warm moment in an otherwise dreadfully tense game, but more importantly it underwrites the humanity of the cast by showcasing their tremendous excitement over a minuscule victory.
Enemy Unknown does a remarkable job of making you and your troops feel human. And to be human is to be vulnerable. And make no mistake, you will always feel vulnerable.
I’m not saying that Enemy Unknown is the hardest game you’ll play all year, but it does not forgive mistakes. If you leave a soldier out of cover during a firefight, they will die. If you sell too many of your research materials for quick cash, you will be outgunned. If you begin to think for a moment that you’ve got a mission in the bag, everything will crumble around you.
And try as you might, you will always take a wrong step. Whether it’s on the ground with your squad of up to six units — who will almost constantly be outnumbered and outgunned — or in the eternally underfunded macro-game of research, manufacturing and based management back at XCOM HQ, you will only ever have enough to do more than just keep your head above water.
Skill is a pretty tricky thing to quantify in a turn-based strategy game like Enemy Unknown. If you define skill as the ability to execute an action quickly and with maximum effectiveness, then XCOM requires absolutely no skill whatsoever. In fact, it laughs at the very thought of your definition of skill. However, if your definition of skill in a game like this is the methodical application of carefully planned tactics in order to minimize the inevitably terrible things that will happen to the player and their squad, then XCOM is the very definition of a skill-based game. If you’re one of the latter, you had better tear up your dictionary immediately if you intend to hang with the brutal Mutons and mind manipulating Sectoids. Those tactics, much like the XCOM team itself, are your first, last and only line of defense.
The consequences of ignoring your responsibilities to your soldiers’ maneuvers and to the game’s economy are dire.
Each unit is a unique, randomly generated snowflake, and just as fragile. You can spend mission after mission building up their experience and choosing newer and better skills for them, but should you slip up and let him or her fall in battle, they are dead. Permanently. And even if they should only be wounded in battle, they will still become unavailable to use in missions for days or weeks of in-game time. This means that you need to treat every experienced soldier with tenderness and care, while letting your rookies take a frontline march into an alien meat-grinder. Those that survive this trial by fire may hang around just long enough to replace their higher ranking predecessors when they inevitably get wasted by a lucky critical hit.
All of this torturous tension coalesces into one of the most rewarding experiences in the genre.
When the pieces of humanity’s salvation finally fall into place, you can bask in the grim satisfaction that they’ve done so in spite of every facet of the game working against you. Even the smallest of victories is a testament to the fact that you’ve surmounted incredible odds. You quickly begin to understand the feeling of elation that those menials back at XCOM headquarters felt when they saw that first alien craft blown out of the sky, with the added satisfaction of knowing that every stroke was communicated through your hand. And from your first kill until the credits begin to roll, that feeling never dissipates.
None of this would matter, of course, if the game didn’t offer its challenge fairly. Thankfully, every scrap of information that you’ll need on the battlefield is clearly surfaced. You always know when your unit is in cover and how much protection it will provide, what the odds of hitting your target are (a 90% chance to hit means a 90% chance to hit, so don’t be surprised when you miss one in ten of those shots) and if your soldiers will be able to make their move to a new position and still take a shot. If you pay attention, you’ll always know when you screwed up and when the odds just weren’t in your favor.
Things are a bit murkier back at the home base, unfortunately. Switching out items and weapons between active units is a chore when the game doesn’t tell you what soldier has what equipped. It’s not much of an issue early on, since you won’t likely have more than the six maximum units available per mission with high skills to switch between. But it becomes a late-game grind when things begin to swing in your favor long enough to give you some options.
Adding to that annoyance, however, is the ambiguity regarding the actual effectiveness of certain equipment.
The developer has taken a quality over quantity approach to Enemy Unknown‘s writing, providing just enough dialogue between characters to make them likable if not exactly memorable. The background descriptions of in-game equipment, on the other hand, are both interesting to read and abundant. However, these background details have a tendency to ignore the clear-cut “item X is better than item Y for reason Z” information that might be useful in determining the benefits of researching or manufacturing one thing over another. Simply put, reading about why a plasma rifle is better than a laser rifle is fun, but not terribly informative.
Menus also aren’t the only things that are irritating to navigate, either. While the majority of Enemy Unknown‘s open fields and urban landscapes are easily plotted, larger alien structures quickly become the bane of the game’s camera. It’s often as if the game isn’t totally aware of what it wants to be showing you when handling multiple levels of terrain. More than a few soldiers were lost in my play-through thanks to the evils of the common staircase.
These minor issues are little more than distractions that are quickly swept away by your desire to play more XCOM. In fact, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as agitating as they are if it weren’t for the fact that they get in the way of what is otherwise an incredibly fun and addicting game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a true achievement for Firaxis, the genre and anyone that plays it. Not a minuscule victory, but a monolithic one.
This review is based on a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown purchased by the reviewer.