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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

5
  • PC
  • X360
  • PS3

Firaxis honors the XCOM name with turn-based strategy that shepherds players as expertly as it punishes, confidently balancing the micro and the macro all the while.

Forget a single civilization--all of mankind is at stake in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

For players of a certain age, MicroProse’s original X-COM: UFO Defense is second in lore only to Sid Meier’s Civilization in its uncanny capacity to devour all of one’s time, one turn at a time. So there’s a weird sense of cosmic balance that Firaxis, developer of all those Civilization games, should be at the helm of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the first new game to bear that name in more than a decade--and the first one to deserve it in much more than that. The beloved, long-neglected franchise, placed in the assured hands of the veteran developer who’s about as synonymous with turn-based strategy as, say, chess? This is how the universe is supposed to work, right?

Despite the addictive, turn-based parallels, below the surface, Civ and XCOM are very different beasts. There’s a slow-building amiability to Civ, where time is measured in millennia and victory need not necessarily involve guns and ammo. I think it’s important for me to be crystal clear in saying that this is not the case with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There’s still a “one more turn” seductiveness to the experience, albeit a far more grueling one.

Weight is given to what seems to be a deliberately by-the-numbers alien invasion routine in Enemy Unknown by the fact that your grunts-with-guns military might is so sorely outmatched even by the first wave of invaders, that your only chance for survival--nevermind victory--is to muster up all the help you can. Even--nay, especially--if it means turning the invaders’ own fantastical technology against them. Though the action’s all turn-based, this is a pressure-cooker of a game, where resources are constantly stretched thin, you’re hopelessly outmatched by invading alien forces, and every choice is a tough one, with hard consequences to follow.

Who will you save?

While Firaxis has instilled Enemy Unknown with a blistering kind of difficulty as an homage to UFO Defense, the key difference is that, unlike UFO Defense’s babe-to-the-wolves approach, Enemy Unknown spends generous hours peppering lessons about new mechanics into missions, holding back that next wrinkle until that due diligence is done. This isn’t to say Enemy Unknown holds the player’s hand, but that the challenge you face feels fair. Still, there are a lot of moving parts in this game--so many that it can be easy to overlook the importance of any one of them--though to do so is at your own potential detriment. The importance of vigilance cannot be overstated.

Enemy Unknown is a game of two distinctly separate, yet intrinsically connected parts which could, with little embellishment, stand as games on their own. There’s the big picture, presented in diorama at XCOM HQ, your subterranean base. Fighting a losing-odds intergalactic battle takes more than grizzled dudes, though it takes those, too (more on that later). It takes money, resources, engineers, and researchers, with a built-in interdependency between all of them. You need researchers to come up with new and inventive ways to kill aliens; you need engineers to actually build the stuff the boffins in research think up; and you need money and resources collected on the battlefield to put it all together.

Money largely comes in the form of a monthly stipend from individual countries protected by the XCOM program, which can be bolstered by launching satellites over specific countries to provide more vigilant protection. Satellites are rich targets for the alien invaders, which means you need to also invest in airborne protection, which comes with its own expense. Neglect a country for too long, and its panic level will rise to the point that they’ll opt out of the XCOM program permanently, hobbling your finances over the long-term. Additional perks can be had from launching satellites over an entire continent, and you can rake in extra coin by selling bits of alien tech on the Grey Market, though since this is the same stuff you need to build gear for your soldiers on the battlefield, cashing in too liberally has its own drawbacks. It’s all air-tight checks and balances, and part of what makes all of this so excruciating is that you never, ever, have enough money to pursue every avenue you’d like to.

Your first, last, and best line of defense.

While money's always tight, the most precious resource in XCOM is time, which is richly ironic for a turn-based strategy game. Any action you choose to undertake--researching new alien tech, launching satellites, recruiting new squad members, excavating and building new facilities in your HQ, and more--requires a certain amount of time to complete, with that time dictated by the infrastructure of researchers, engineers, and power sources you have in place. I actually find that I enjoy the jigsaw nature of the administrative part of the Enemy Unknown experience most, though to neglect the battle on the ground is to invite unconditional defeat.

While the clock is ticking ever-slowly while you’re tending to your HQ, the passage of time is accelerated significantly by scanning the globe for alien encounters, be they UFO sightings, abduction alerts, or missions dictated by the game’s surprisingly linear mission structure. Of course, when it rains it pours, and when a mission pops up, you’ll often have to choose between one of several locations, once again forcing you to make the hard choice of which ally to assist at any given moment, with those being ignored reacting in kind. Most of these missions are optional, though that’s only in the loosest sense of the word, since skipping a mission outright will have a crippling effect on your international relations more often than not. It can be awful tempting to let an abduction sighting slide for a couple of days until your next piece of tech has been completed, or your next payday comes around, but again, checks and balances.

Once you actually dive into an on-the-ground mission, Enemy Unknown shifts into small-scale tactical mode, where you control a squad of soldiers, usually between four and six. While they’re not imbued with much distinct individual personality, your (often randomly, hilariously named) international strike force is far from anonymous. Each squad member maintains a persistent experience level for the duration of the game--or, more likely, the duration of their life--ranking up as they score kills in missions. Character classes like sniper, assault, heavy, and support are automatically assigned after their first rank-up, though after that it’s up to you to choose what sorts of class perks they’ll have with each additional rank. The class distinctions, as well as the perks you choose, can have a huge impact on battlefield effectiveness, as classes limit the types of weapons soldiers can carry, and perks can bolster everything from movement range to weapon capacity and accuracy. Rank often correlates to mission survivability, though the sophistication of the gear you equip your squad with--armor, primary and secondary weapons, and accessories--can be just as important. Maintaining a certain amount of class variety is also absolutely crucial, as going into a mission with all snipers is just bad news, I don’t care what rank they are.

Who you choose to deploy, and how you equip them, can mean all the difference.

What makes all of the character stuff in Enemy Unknown so impactful is the relative fragility of your soldiers when they’re out on the field, and the permanence of their death. There is no virtue rewarded--nor tested--in Enemy Unknown as thoroughly as patience. As you advance your squad into the semi-randomized levels of wilderness, urban clusters, and alien ships and structures--all of them initially cloaked in the fog of war--one turn at a time, it’s all too tempting to rush into things, using both of your soldier’s per-turn actions to plow right into the unknown.

This, along with neglecting to keep your squad members behind bits of still-far-from-impervious cover, is a fantastic way to see them come home in a bodybag. While you’ll be able to salvage any of the pricey gear they were using, once a soldier’s gone, they’re gone, along with all of the time you spent ranking them up. While there are occasions that you can use medikits to save critically wounded soldiers, even if you make it through a mission with your whole squad in one piece, anyone injured on the mission will be out of commission for a commensurate number of days. Your in-game advisors will let you know if you’re running dangerously low on deployable soldiers, or any other vital resources, though if you lack the foresight to keep more than a mission’s worth of soldiers in your ranks, it’s not hard to find yourself facing a mission that you’ve got no one to fight. This can lead to a rapid downward spiral of abandoning countries and dwindling resources.

Most missions consist of locating and exterminating all alien threats, a fantastical menagerie that starts with little grey aliens, moves on to the hideous, zombifying arachnoid Chryssalids, and tops out with the physically frail, yet psychically terrifying Ethereals, among others, each of them requiring their own specific tactics to take down. You’ll occasionally be tasked with rescuing civilians, and there’s a strategic value to bringing your extraterrestrial foes back alive for interrogation. That’s only possible if you equip you soldiers with specialized gear, and invariably requires you get close enough to put the soldier in question directly in harm’s way. Like every action you take on the battlefield, it’s a gamble dictated by a number of variables--information the game makes available, but keeps just out of sight to prevent overwhelming the player with data. Even though the game uses simple percentages to clearly spell out the odds of a successful action, and there’s no reason to believe it’s fudging any of them for dramatic effect, the stakes are so high that every missed shot is absolutely excruciating.

You can further personalize your troops, if amplified emotional loss is your thing.

Completing individual missions can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to, well, forever, depending on how liberally you use the game’s optional auto-save system and how obsessive you are about completing missions as cleanly as possible. This is an easy hole to fall down, as even the slightest mistake can snowball rapidly into a world-ending scenario. It can be a frustrating experience, no doubt, particularly when you find yourself in an entirely possible no-win situation deep into a campaign. But it’s rarely, if ever, unclear what action--or inaction--brought about your plight.

Extreme fastidiousness notwithstanding, it can take around 30 hours to see through the single-player campaign in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, though like Firaxis’ Civilization series, there are so many different ways to prioritize the research, engineering, economic, and tactical elements of the game that it almost begs for multiple playthroughs. Add to that a one-on-one tactical multiplayer component that lets you build blended squads of human and alien soldiers, and you’ve got a package that will meet your turn-based strategy needs for the foreseeable future.

It’s also well worth mentioning that, as the first XCOM game developed for consoles as much as it was for PCs, Enemy Unknown’s smartly economic, menu-driven interfaces handle intuitively with a gamepad. In fact, even on the PC, I found myself immediately eschewing mouse-and-keyboard controls in favor of the snappier gamepad controls. With game hardware where it is at the moment, Enemy Unknown naturally looks a bit better and loads a bit faster on the PC, but there’s no real reason not to play the game on whatever your platform of choice is.

The cleverest part of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is how it bundles up all of its complexities and interdependencies and presents them in a package that, while not easy, is at least easily digested. It's often overwhelming, but in the best way possible. XCOM gives no quarter to players with the hubris to think they can play Enemy Unknown at a pace other than the one set by Enemy Unknown. This game will test your mettle in a way that will make old fans tingle with a sense of unforgiving nostalgia, and will make clear to newcomers just exactly what XCOM is all about.

91 Comments
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Posted by Eojay

Awesome.

Posted by Epidehl

The more I hear about this, the more I wanna play it.

Posted by SharkMan

so that's how long the game is.

Posted by Chop

Really wish Ryan would write more reviews. His vocabulary is staggering and it's always a treat to read his stuff.

Online
Posted by Morningstar

Wow, this is extremely well written.

Posted by RetroVirus

An excellently written review for an equally excellent game.

Posted by Skanker

Striking review, seems spot on. The game gets really easy the more you play and research stuff though.

Posted by rjayb89

XCOM BABY

Edited by ManiacMaysin

Man, I should have preordered. That classic flattop hair is awesome. Maybe it will be dlc. Also, one of my randomly generated guys is named Paul Walker.

Posted by nate6858

Great review. I sure do like this game.

Posted by masterpaperlink

The game should be played on iron man, the temptation to sit and constantly reload is too big otherwise (killing any real tension)

Posted by dicnose

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

Posted by drew327

I have never wanted a game to post big sales as much as I do this one

Posted by c_sheridan

Ashley Williams: Gaming's Sean Bean?

Posted by depecheload

@dicnose said:

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

You can literally save before every move. It's as hard as you want it to be.

Posted by Disconnect

I think someone like Ryan is perfect to review this game. Basically the worse* you are at these type of games the more fun you'll have with X-Com because you'll have a neat little ladder of difficulty to climb. Also, if you are like me, basically someone that has played games like JA2 for probably hundreds of hours, you'll end up in a position were you poke and prod too much at the game and quickly figure out the limitations and the flaws of what is otherwise a pretty rad game. Ending up cynically exploiting things like squad sight and the fact that the AI pulls like mobs in an MMO.

Also worth mentioning, the game currently suffers from quite a few bugs but the first patch has already hit and hopefully some of the line of sight/enemies randomly spawning on top of your squad will be fixed. It is a blast though.

*I don't mean this as a bad thing, don't punch me.

Posted by The_Nubster

@depecheload said:

@dicnose said:

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

You can literally save before every move. It's as hard as you want it to be.

But I have to consider what I'm doing instead of aiming and shooting until credits roll! This game sucks!

Posted by Sooty

No mention of all the bugs? I've encountered so many. It's definitely a Firaxis game.

Posted by SomeJerk

Even on Normal it can get freaking hard, but never unfair unless you play Impossible Ironman or get enemies spawning right in the middle of your squad for no reason. The deaths are your own fault, risking the lives of your soldiers, which is the daily life.
 
It's a miracle this game even got released, let alone in this difficult brutal form. Had it been under EA or Activision it would have been ravaged by focus feedback and upper management direction until it ended up nothing but a shitty fps.
 
Buy it.

Edited by evanbower

@The_Nubster said:

@depecheload said:

@dicnose said:

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

You can literally save before every move. It's as hard as you want it to be.

But I have to consider what I'm doing instead of aiming and shooting until credits roll! This game sucks!

Guys... look at his profile and see what he has posted in the past. When you reply to him, he wins.

Infact, a lot of what he says is actually stolen from http://horseysurprise.tumblr.com , where a really funny guy is purposely stupid on message boards and then catalogues it on the blog. Of course, when you steal the jokes and try to recreate it on a small video game website, its way less funny.

Posted by fastkilr

Thanks for the review. Informative and gives a good sense of the game. Will make this a priority then.

Posted by SeanFoster

...Giant Bomb's 2012 game of the year?

Posted by OneKillWonder_

This is only like the fourth game Ryan has reviewed this year. Good review, though. Not sure if this game is my thing, but it sounds interesting and I have the demo waiting to be played.

Posted by Robaota

I genuinely hope this kills it in the sales. We as consumers deserve more big budget (relatively speaking) games with this type of challenge and depth, especially on consoles. The developers deserve the sales also for not stopping at just having a good attempt at a remake, one that was a "faithful" remake, but instead just showing real ambition to try and create as great of a game as they could.

Everyone buy this. Everyone. I would like more of this type of experience.

Posted by poisonmonkey

This is one of the best written reviews I have ever read, well done Ryan.

Posted by jozzy

@evanbower said:

@The_Nubster said:

@depecheload said:

@dicnose said:

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

You can literally save before every move. It's as hard as you want it to be.

But I have to consider what I'm doing instead of aiming and shooting until credits roll! This game sucks!

Guys... look at his profile and see what he has posted in the past. When you reply to him, he wins.

Infact, a lot of what he says is actually stolen from http://horseysurprise.tumblr.com , where a really funny guy is purposely stupid on message boards and then catalogues it on the blog. Of course, when you steal the jokes and try to recreate it on a small video game website, its way less funny.

And that guy actually comes up with creative gems of dumbness like: If we don't study the mistakes of the future, we are doomed to repeat them for the first time

Posted by ervonymous

Good read. Definitely one of this year's highlights and a ray of hope even though my games have been riddled with bugs, Sectopods spawning in the middle of my squad and impossible camera angles and navigation in two story buildings.

Posted by Bobby_The_Great

@dicnose said:

This game is too hard to deserve 5 stars

Wah...

Posted by ValiantGoat

I tried the demo a few nights ago, and think I'll pass on the game for my own health. Regardless of lack of time and plenty of other games coming out at this point, I can't bring myself to spend my limited time for games stressing so much. It's a real shame of circumstances that I'll begrudgingly be passing on this game, at least for the foreseeable future.

This was a great review, thumbs up, Ryan.

Posted by morrowjo

Great review Ryan. This game has been consuming my thoughts (and time) ever since I picked it up last week.

Posted by Phatmac

I'd give this game 5 stars too. My only complaint with it us that it has consumed my life.

Posted by prestonhedges

"I find myself eschewing mouse and keyboard controls in favor of a controller..."

That's because it's a bad port job, Ryan. If the menus and interface were better, you wouldn't.

Posted by Rayeth

Probably the best review of XCOM I have seen on the net. The game is absolutely BRUTAL with the choices it presents you. Every big decision feels like the entire game hangs in the balance. Only to find out a second later that in fact the small thing was what mattered. What a rush. Great review, Ryan. 5 stars well deserved.

Posted by dropabombonit

Great review Ryan. I'm putting the game on my christmas wishlist because I don't have the time for it right now

Posted by radioactivez0r

@gladspooky: What's wrong with the interface? I haven't had any issues with M/KB at all.

Regarding the game, there was a mission last week that I was absolutely tensing up during, worried I was going to put someone in the wrong cover spot and end their life. It was awesome. I've had a few annoyances - "you need to reload!" and clicking OK spends your turn when your brain thinks "thanks for the warning"; the 2-level buildings making pathfinding a total bitch until you spin the camera the opposite direction - but overall it's been a total blast so far. Clearing the first alien base without a single KIA was god damn exhilarating

Posted by doobie

@Sooty said:

No mention of all the bugs? I've encountered so many. It's definitely a Firaxis game.

how many is so many. more than 6?

Posted by NekuCTR

Very nice review Ryan. I would probably dock it a star for it's bugyness, and how easily it is to exploit, but it's a Firaxis game so that's to be expected. Had so much fun playing through this, and will keep trying for that impossible run.

Posted by bkbroiler

Can't say I expected anything other than this, but I always love reading Giant Bomb reviews. Really great read.

Posted by Pop

He finally finished it! He must of cursed a storm through the last missions, I was thinking that was the reason why he wasn't in the I love monday video. He didn't mention the weird camera angles the game makes sometimes, minor complaint I know.

Edited by Skanker

I finished the game with having money to spare, having only lost about 5 soldiers and not having lost any countries. My Sniper's headshot and double tap abilities allowed me to kill the final boss with one soldier, on the first turn, before the aliens even had a chance to attack. Yo, the game ain't that hard. At least not on Normal anyway.

Posted by a5ehren

@Skanker said:

I finished the game with having money to spare, having only lost about 5 soldiers and not having lost any countries. My Sniper's headshot and double tap abilities allowed me to kill the final boss with one soldier, on the first turn, before the aliens even had a chance to attack. Yo, the game ain't that hard. At least not on Normal anyway.

The game gets easier once you have the money to get a squad's worth of good armor and hot hot plasma. You should probably try Classic - since you can switch difficulty on the fly, just pop into one of your old missions and try it out.

Posted by Ghostin

GOTY.

Posted by Skanker

@a5ehren said:

The game gets easier once you have the money to get a squad's worth of good armor and hot hot plasma. You should probably try Classic - since you can switch difficulty on the fly, just pop into one of your old missions and try it out.

Yeah, that's definitely what I'll do on my second playthrough of the game. I've heard some good things about the smarter AI in Classic/Impossible.

Edited by JoeGuy

Just finished the game on Normal yesterday, switched to Classic Iron Man. Damn if that is not the way to play. The culture shock from being slightly OP at end-game Normal difficulty, to Classic Iron Man with insta-death Rookies is pretty huge. Amazing game and damn addictive! When you get something right, a really complex plan goes pinch perfect or you pull off a unlikely shot to save a squad member it just feels good and rewarding, plain and simple. The whole game is a blast, except a tinge of shame when you check out all the Rookies you led out as bullet shields at the memorial wall.

Posted by Sackmanjones

Please write more reviews Ryan, they are very professional and a great read

Posted by Thor_Molecules

Fantastic review, mr. Davis.

Posted by Yanngc33

GOTY?

Posted by Phototropic

Great review. This game is crack and my GOTY so far.

Posted by DharmaBum

Sounds brilliant and I need more strategy games in my life. I'm hoping my friend ends up switching to the PC version and gives me his other copy.

Posted by PlatypusPlatoon

Just a superb review through and through. Ryan can write the pants off of "real" journalists working for mainstream publications.

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