A modern classic in the making
There’s a moment in a South Park episode where one of the characters, shortly after having been dumped by his girlfriend, muses that he couldn’t feel so sad now if he hadn’t felt something really great before. His sadness, he concludes, is a kind of “beautiful sadness” because of that. If there is anything which can sum up XCOM: Enemy Unknown in a nutshell, it’s that same feeling of incredible highs, made all the sweeter by the bitter sense of defeat.
Enemy Unknown is, as anyone reading this probably already knows, a rebirth of the 1994 classic, X-COM: UFO Defense. It has the same premise as its predecessor: aliens are attacking the earth, we don’t know why, and you are the commander of an internationally-funded coalition which is the sole force capable of defending the planet against this attack. The two games are very much in the same vein, gameplay-wise. Both are turn-based tactics games with an overarching strategic component in between missions (think something analogous to Total War’s strategic campaigns, and you won’t be terribly far off).
Enemy Unknown certainly doesn’t pull any punches. In this game, your soldiers can (and will) permanently die, their experience and battlefield advantage gone forever. This is what makes the tactical battles so engaging, and adds a sense of urgency to every action you take. You will find yourself uttering silent prayers when your sniper takes a reaction shot against a charging enemy, knowing that even the best shot can miss. You will celebrate when enemy fire misses one of your soldiers, and shout curses fit to peel the paint from walls when a veteran breathes his or her last. The battles drip with tension from the moment your dropship touches down, to the final victory (or shameful defeat, as the case may be). It’s stressful, but delightful because of it. When the risks are so high, how can you not feel the rush of a hard-won victory?
The tactical portion is only half the game, however. In between missions, the game offers broader decisions that will shape how well your fight against the aliens plays out. You can build more facilities which offer diverse benefits, direct your scientists on what research to pursue, buy upgraded equipment for your soldiers, and hire new rookies to replace losses. All the while, you are keenly aware of nations which are panicking due to the relentless alien attacks on them or their neighbors. Without sending them aid, they will abandon their contributions to the XCOM project (and, should too many nations abandon you, cause the game to end).
The catch is, you can’t afford all the options at your disposal. Everything is useful in some way, and it forces you to make hard choices about what to pursue: do you buy upgraded armor so your soldiers can (hopefully) live longer, or do you launch satellites whose coverage will soothe a nation on the verge of leaving your efforts?
There is a razor-fine balance to be struck between all the options, and you can never hope to do enough. Your efforts in Enemy Unknown will be those of a force stretched to the breaking point, never able to cover all the bases. Missions will be offered two or three at a time, forcing you to choose which nation to assist. Will you aid China, who can offer you scientists you desperately need? South Africa, who isn’t in danger of abandoning the coalition, but will give you a large sum of money (something always in low supply)? Or France, who won’t offer you any reward you need right now, but is becoming too panicked to ignore?
This element of choices (and coping with their consequences) permeates the entire game, and how well you can manage this balancing act will define your game. It’s all too easy to get into a death spiral where failures reinforce each other: you lost too many soldiers on that mission, so now you have to waste money hiring more, but now you can’t buy equipment, so you will probably continue to bleed soldiers… on and on. With great challenge comes great reward, however, and mastering the balance of these interlocking gameplay elements brings a satisfaction like nothing else.
Those who crave an even greater challenge can tackle the game’s higher difficulties, and the ironman mode – you get only one save, and can’t reload it to undo bad decisions. These options add replayability to the game, as does the random nature of the campaign. While there are not an infinite number of maps to play on, you will never see the same campaign twice due to the variable missions and events that are offered to you.
In addition to the single-player campaign, there is a multiplayer mode included. It consists of 1v1 battles in which each side can purchase any units they wish (even aliens) using a point-buy system. The point limit, and other game options, can be set by the host. The multiplayer eschews progression systems and gives you all the options available immediately, and promises to be a change of pace for those wanting one . Make no mistake, though – the game is primarily focused on its single-player campaign, so for those who want to primarily play against others, this game may not be for you.
Despite the game’s excellence, Enemy Unknown is not without its flaws. There are noticeable graphical issues, such as soldiers occasionally standing on thin air 6 feet up from the ground. The camera, in particular, is problematic. While it works very well most of the time, it doesn’t handle map or building edges well at all, and the instances where the camera negatively impacts your ability to play (while rare) are incredibly frustrating, moreso given the otherwise polished game.
Because maps are not dynamically generated, you will see the same map come up more than once (particularly if you start a second campaign). Due to enemy placement being different every time, this isn’t a huge issue for the challenge of the game, but it still feels jarring to know the map like the back of your hand before you have even explored it. Players who are interested in multiplayer should also be aware that there have been reports of bugs where one player in a match was unable to act at all, and had to join a new match to resolve the issue. Map variety gripes aside, these are the kinds of issues which will no doubt be patched, but they mar the game and hold it back from its full potential.
Unfortunately, I haven’t played the original X-COM, so I can’t offer anything in the way of comparisons to the previous classic (though many reviewers have done so). That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Enemy Unknown absolutely stands on its own. You need not have played any of the older games in the series to enjoy this, nor (for that matter) tactics games in general. While the game is clearly a labor of love by the development team, it comes with a tutorial that will prepare even the greenest player to face the challenges ahead.
Any gamer fond of strategy or tactics games can tell you that the best games in the genre will suck you in, making you not realize how it got to be 4 in the morning on a day you have to go to work. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is absolutely one of those games, and seems destined to become a modern classic. It will captivate players both new and old, and is not to be missed.