Hello, Commander, welcome to the XCOM project. You will head this paramilitary organization of multicultural, but strangely all American sounding, soldiers trained to defend the Earth from alien attack. Good luck.
Released in October 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of the big releases of 2012, creating a huge splash in the market and garnering great praise from critics. However, the game was met with trepidation. The original 1994 series is one that, I must admit, slipped me by. I had never even heard of XCOM before this game, nor did I know about the huge fan-base, the host of critics citing UFO: Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defence in North America, as the pinnacle of gaming greatness.
So Firaxis, the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the very popular Civilization series, took a great risk in making this game. Not only was it a departure from the style of games they normally produced but it was one that was going to be held against an incredibly high standard. Not a simple challenge.
This is the basic premise of XCOM: Enemy Unknown: aliens attack the Earth (proper thin grey men at that) and you head the organization designed to repel them. The gameplay is split between a management mode where you build up your base, research upgrades, outfit your soldiers and generally keep control of your finances and the level of panic across the globe. Let the panic rating of each country get too high and they withdraw their support of the XCOM project. Lose too many countries and that’s it, game over. The second mode is the turn-based strategy mode where you control your soldiers directly to complete objectives such as investigating crashed UFOs, defending citizens from mutant/zombie spawning aliens, escorting VIPs to safety, and more.
There’s not much plot to XCOM. The main story missions are few and far between and there’s not a great deal of depth beyond figuring out why the aliens are here and what their ultimate goal is. For me, a big fan of plot, this was a little bit of a flaw. I didn’t feel the main story was in depth enough and when I got to the end, discovered all the secrets, and got to the closing cinematic I didn’t really feel very engaged in this story.
There is a reason for this rather thin story: the main plot of XCOM is the one you make yourself. Your squad of 4 – 6 soldiers (depending on upgrades) becomes very close to you. You remember their names and nicknames, you remember when they pulled off that great shot (or you pretend that they did and it’s not the result of a random number generator), and when they inevitably die it’s a shock.
Because XCOM is pretty hard, it’s designed to be. It’s designed with atmosphere in mind and it does it so well. You know you’ve got a tense game when managing your finances becomes a real point of excitement; because if you don’t manage your finances and don’t get to outfit your soldiers properly you have as good as killed them.
This is probably the thing XCOM does best. The atmosphere while managing your base and commanding your soldiers in the field is this grim combination of fear and inevitability. While in the base you are constantly waiting for there to be an alien encounter just before you finish a vital piece of research or before a soldier recovers from their last encounter. While you’re in each mission you’re waiting for the next level of alien to appear and kill your best soldiers before you have a chance to react. It is really tense in a thoroughly enjoyable way.
XCOM is a fun game and a massive time sink but it’s not without its flaws. First and foremost the bugs, oh the bugs. Mostly these are little graphic errors, your soldier seems to be shooting the wrong way or you actually missed the shot despite the animation showing you hitting the alien right in the head. But there are a few more game altering bugs that range from issues with a soldier’s line of sight (which, believe me, can lead to your whole squad getting wiped because one soldier apparently couldn’t see the alien that was ten feet away) to complete game breaking save issues.
My other main issue with the game is its difficulty curve. The game does start off very difficult and it stays this way through the mid-game; but somewhere around the last third, once you’ve got some of the best armour and weapons, you can run through missions pretty easily. For a game which has such a great atmosphere of tension it’s a shame that it doesn’t last for the whole thing.
Many fans still (rather vocally) claim that this XCOM is not as good as the original. But speaking as someone who hasn’t played an XCOM game before I really enjoyed it and don’t think it deserves to be constantly in the shadow of its predecessor.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown does a fantastic job of drawing you into its universe and, when things go right, making you feel like a tactical genius. When things go wrong it hits you really hard in a way not many games do. If you are a fan of strategy and games with a real sense of tension then you can’t go wrong with XCOM.
Currently on Steam for: £29.99