Let this serve as a warning: if Earth is ever in peril and I’m tasked with leading a group of you into combat against impossible odds, you’re probably safer taking on the task alone. I took time to painstakingly recreate my friends and coworkers into the world of XCOM: Enemy Unknown hoping that would give me a psychological attachment to my group of elite soldiers; however, all I really learned is how quickly I’m willing to sacrifice my girlfriend as a bullet sponge to a horde of angry aliens. Chad Goodmurphy didn’t even make it through his first mission before I had to make burial plans. If this is the best the planet has to offer and I’m deemed the most capable to lead them, we may as well close up shop now.
I’ll start this review off with something XCOM: Enemy Unknown fails to give you: a warning. XCOM can be punishing even on normal, and getting through the game intact will take a combination of skill, strategy and luck. You’ll lose valuable crew members, countries will abandon the cause and you’ll undoubtedly screw yourself over somewhere along the line. If you start off strong there’s a decent chance you’ll do fairly well throughout the game, whereas a poor start could have damning implications. The game is in no way impossible, but this isn’t a title that will hold your hand through the experience.
Another warning you should have going into the game is that the autosave feature is turned off by default. This cost me roughly four hours of playtime when I had turned off the system before discovering this little quirk. Once you turn on autosave, however, it seems to save almost too often. The game will save before each turn, allowing the temptation to simply roll back a save if things go sour and removes much of the charm to be found in the game. It’s a shame this wasn’t implemented better, but with some self-control it can be overlooked. Not having it on by default is a fairly glaring problem, though.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game’s heritage, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a spiritual remake of the 1994 cult hit, X-Com. The world is under attack from a massive alien invasion, and it’s up to you to lead the XCOM Division as they make their last stand for humanity. The turn-based battles play out as you send your team to tactical choke points in order to get the best jump against the invaders before inevitably failing miserably, leading to a swift alien-induced death. The members of your squad that survive will level up, unlocking new skill sets that should dramatically increase their lifespans.
While death is permanent for your characters, it invokes a fantastic connection to your squad. I took a few minutes to name my squad after friends and co-workers, and I have to admit that I had more than a few tense moments where I didn’t want to let my friends die. A little piece of advice; I highly advise against putting your girlfriend/boyfriend/sex robot into the game unless you’re willing to handle the guilt trip that comes with leaving them for dead. If you’re reading this, I still accept no blame for your early demise. If you didn’t want to get shot in the face with a laser, you probably shouldn’t have run out from cover.
On the lower difficulties, the aliens will be waiting in monster closets found around the map, only going on the offensive once you’ve made initial contact. The harder difficulties will have them hunting you from the second you put boots on the ground, leading to a stressful game of cat-and-mouse unlike anything else out there right now. The aliens have a decent amount of enemy variations that require unique strategies to combat, and it’s fairly easy to get overwhelmed if you don’t plan out your attack.
Failing a mission will not only cost you your squad members, but will increase the panic in the host country. Once a country’s panic levels hit critical mass, they’ll resign from the XCOM program, costing you valuable resources and reinforcements.
Between missions, you’ll be tasked with building up your base and planning out which upgrades you want to research. There is a finite amount of resources you’ll have access too, so think carefully on how you’d like to proceed. A fully automatic plasma cannon will do wonders on the ground but, if your fighter jets can’t shoot down the UFOs circling over countries, it will be only a matter of time before they pull their funding. I personally would have liked to have seem more options when it came to base management, such as having the ability to start a secondary base on another continent. There is a wealth of things to do, but I kept finding myself demanding more and more out of the game.
One thing that all developers should take away from XCOM: Enemy Unknown is its control scheme. It’s tough to translate a turn-based strategy game to consoles, but Firaxis Games nailed it here. Rotating the camera is done through the directional pad and switching characters is as simple as hitting one of the bumpers. Your characters will automatically hide behind cover and switching between character abilities is as simple as moving the curser over the desired skill. There were a few issues where I thought I had moved to cover but was still a step away, but these were few and far between and could have easily been fixed if I had paid closer attention.
The story progresses through cutscenes between missions detailing alien autopsies, new research finds and other assorted government activities. The character models won’t wow you, but the voice acting is on point and does a fantastic job of hammering in the gravity of the situation you’re in. It’s hard to go into much detail without spoiling major facets of the game, but know that you won’t be the only one questioning your decisions.
Multiplayer is in the game but, to be brutally honest, it may as well not be. The idea of having intense tactical battles with friends is compelling, but it doesn’t work that well here. There are only a few maps (and the ones to be found aren’t all that fantastic), units are completely unbalanced and there are some design choices that are questionable at best. The host can set certain limits to try and fix balance issues; however, in its current state, it’s only worth a cursory glance. If this was done well, it could have been a fantastic addition to a great game, but as it is currently it’s a mildly interesting distraction.
Things aren’t all fantastic in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You’ll encounter countless camera angle and clipping issues with battle cinematics, and the maps are largely uninspired. I made it about halfway through my initial play through before I started seeing maps repeat. This wouldn’t be a huge issue; however, the game really tries to emphasize the fact that each country needs to be handled individually. It was disconcerting to find myself in front of the same gas station in Monaco, Tokyo and Dallas.
At the end of the day, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the most addictive games I’ve encountered this year. I’d sit down at 8 pm, planning on only playing for an hour or two before working on something else only to look up and realize that my 7:30 am alarm clock was about to go off. It’s an invigorating experience, and stands out as one of this year’s best games. It may not necessarily win game of the year, however there is definitely a strong case for its candidacy.
This review is based on a Xbox 360 version of the game given to us for review purposes.