XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
9.2our score

The streets of Manchester usually look a bit worn down, but nothing could have prepared Elise ‘Archangel’ Mulder for the scene in front of her. An overwhelming noise of emergency response and air sirens penetrated the air – but even this couldn’t stop the terrifying sounds coming from the darkness beyond. Even a seasoned veteran such as Archangel still shivered at the thought of an alien feasting on a human being, infesting them with their offspring. She knew the mission ahead of her squad was gruesome, but vital to the survival of the human race. Equally terrifying, she knew most of her squad would die in the next few hours – if any of them would return at all…

If I said the above scene was rare in XCOM, it would be a total lie. This is a direct excerpt from the play through which ultimately lead to victory, but it was an incredible road getting there. I remember the names of most of the fallen soldiers and found myself visiting the excellent ‘Memorial’ section in the base frequently just to look them up. It contains a list of all soldiers who died, their rank, what mission they died on, etc. It’s there to remind you that you are staring the complete loss of the human race in the eye and that you are there to do a job. Lives depend on it, literally.

XCOM Skyranger Mission

XCOM Skyranger touching down at the beginning of the Tutorial Mission. (Which incidentally is excellent)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not a direct remake of the original game, as a lot of the core game mechanics have changed – but it has certainly captured the XCOM spirit perfectly. A lot of ‘nay-sayers’ will shout otherwise, but I’ve sank hundreds of not thousands of hours in the original XCOM, Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse. We shall not mention ‘the one that shall not be named’ and I spend a lot less time with Interceptor. It just wasn’t what I was after at the time and it doesn’t stand up to the test of time to play it later on. But we digress. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is different from the original and they’ve done away with a lot of the micromanagement that the original game had. But did this make it a worse game? Absolutely not, in fact I believe it did quite the opposite. Whether or not people want to admit it through their rose-tinted glasses, a lot of the original XCOM involved doing the same tedious chores over and over. You knew exactly what to do and when, you just had to click a few hundred times to get there. I don’t miss buying individual grenades or ammo, quite frankly that was a pain in the arse. But let’s go through the new game at a more deliberate pace and cover some of the new aspects.

What is XCOM?

As hard as it might be to believe, a lot of people will not have played the original series. And they’ll still be extremely interested in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as it is an absolutely outstanding experience for anyone serious about tactical strategy games. XCOM is a paramilitary organisation funded by governments across the globe. Their mission is to protect earth against exactly what happens in XCOM: an alien invasion. You are the commander of the XCOM project, which is funded by a council of 16 major countries across the globe. As the aliens attack earth, it is your job to stop them at every opportunity. Do well, and the council will continue to fund the project. Do poorly, and countries start withdrawing from the council and once you lose half of the council the game is over. And trust me, this is easily accomplished, even if you win the vast majority of your missions.

XCOM Interceptor

Futuristic looking aircraft to shoot UFOs down with: Check. Ridiculous over the top launch system for said aircraft: Check.

XCOM has a semi-linear overarching plot, but it will play out slightly differently each time. As in, the plot only advances if the player achieves certain key objectives – and everything else that happens is different each time you play. The strategic side of the game is played from your base of operations and you spend a great deal of time looking at the globe and waiting for the aliens to do their business, so that you can respond to it. Your primary goals include shooting down UFO’s, stopping Abductions and occasionally fulfilling a special request from the council. Missions are carried out in tactical turn-based combat, and once successful result in alien corpses, artefacts and if you’ve done really well: some live aliens. Back at base you have research and engineering teams itching to get their hands on these artefacts and they’ll do their best to help you research and reverse engineer the technology from the aliens to help balance your odds. That’s things in a nutshell – but let’s look at the various aspects the game offers in more detail.

The Base

One of the things a lot of veterans complain about is the fact that you only have one base. Let me throw my own opinion in here: I love it. Quite frankly, in the original game you ended up building additional bases in a very specific manner, and they were mostly outposts that hosted additional interceptors. I believe that reducing things to 1 ‘real’ base and have the rest function only as interceptor bases was a good decision – it helps you focus on things which matter rather than needlessly micromanage the transfer of equipment between bases. Honestly, it wasn’t adding that much value anyway.

In return we got an incredibly detailed base, nicknamed the ‘ant farm’ due to the look and feel. You see people running around and doing their business, and observant players will notice little additional touches to this. For example, the globe on your zoomed out view mimics the exact situation of the world, so if countries are close to abandoning you they will be coloured red on the ant farm as well. Capture a live alien and you’ll see it sitting in it’s containment facility. It’s little touches that do it for me, and I for one love it.

XCOM Council

Don’t expect things to look this pleasant on harder difficulties.

Building facilities is slightly different from what you’re used to. You now build in 4 underground layers, each layer accessible once you build an access lift to that floor. Facilities need power, so managing your generators becomes an important factor in your base layout. Adjacent facilities often provide additional bonuses, so it’s well worth planning your layout in advance. You especially want Satellite Uplinks and Workshops in ‘squares’ as this provides you with the maximum amount of ‘adjacent’ bonuses for the number of facilities you place. The system isn’t completely perfect but largely speaking I found that it works well and that there’s a nice level of planning and decision making involved (especially early on in the game).

From the base you can also undertake research projects (provided you recovered the right artefacts to start them) and start Engineering projects. I can’t say too much about these without spoiling things – but I found the research and engineering options sufficient to keep the game both interesting and to give you a steady progression against the aliens. You will really feel it in your tactical missions if you fall behind in research against the ever increasing alien threat, and it’s incredibly rewarding to use your new technological advances in combat. It is worth noting that you no longer hire or fire Engineers and Scientists directly. These are awarded to you by the council at the end of the month, and occasionally after completing missions. This system works surprisingly well for me, as it provides an additional layer in your decision-making process when choosing what mission to accept and which countries to abandon to their doom.

XCOM Crash Site

Hurrah, we shot down a UFO. Now for the hard(er) part.

And speaking about doom, your success or failure is measured by the ‘doom tracker’. Each country has a panic level ranging from 0 to 5, and once it reaches 5 the country will withdraw from the council if it remains at 5 at the end of the month. Panic is gained and lost in various ways, but the main one is when Abductions occur. Generally speaking Abductions happen in 3 countries at once, and you can only choose to help one. The other two countries receive additional panic, and all other countries on their respective continents gain a small amount of panic as well. If left uncontrolled, this can quickly cascade into a number of countries withdrawing from the council. Deploying satellites reduces panic, as do successful missions within that country, so there are luckily a number of ways to manage this somewhat. Losing your funding however, can be a devastating blow to your progress. Especially if you lose one of the bigger funders, such as the United States or Russia.

 

The Soldiers

This is an aspect of the game I absolutely love. I’ve not felt an attachment to my troops like this since well.. I am not even sure since when. I guess since the original XCOM games if we’d really have to find something to compare it to. Yes, things have changed dramatically – you no longer have a one-size fits all type soldiers which you can equip as you see fit. They also have a significant reduction in the number of statistics reducing it to Hitpoints, Will and Aim. No strength, time units or anything of the kind. This will frighten some veterans, but actually it works really well.

XCOM Operation Falling Apollo

This is what we call success. Failure looks much worse.

Your soldiers start as generic Rookies, but once they are promoted to ‘Squaddie’ they’ll gain one of four possible classes: Heavy, Assault, Support and Sniper. Each class has access to a completely different skill tree, and most ranks offer you a choice between two mutually exclusive perks. Personally, I really enjoy this system – though it does have one major flaw I’d like to mention. On harder difficulty levels you absolutely will lose a large number of soldiers and you have virtually no control over which class you get. A small change which allows you to choose what class a Squaddie turns into would make quite a big change in this regard and I am unsure why the developers left this random. There is a certain attraction to uncertainty but you end up with 10 Heavies, whilst your tactics might involve only bringing one or even none at all. I often find myself lacking the classes I’d really like and this can be a little frustrating.

Nevertheless, the classes themselves are a fantastic addition and they each offer completely different tactical options on the battlefield. The Heavy carries a machine gun and a rocket launcher and can really unleash a large amount of destruction on the battlefield. The support class is fantastic, specialising both in providing some extremely useful medic perks – as well as being incredible support soldiers on the field. Some of my very best soldiers with the most kills have been support class, and I’d never go anywhere without at least 2. The assault class is a close combat soldier, with a perk which allows them to close in on enemies and literally shoot them in the face with a shotgun. The sniper is exactly what you’d expect: a long range soldier, best put somewhere in a spot where he/she as maximum vision on the battlefield. A high ranking sniper can literally one shot many enemies before they ever become a threat. Getting them to that high rank is a different story of course.

 

Tactical Combat

XCOM Building Damage

Telling me collateral damage is of ‘no concern’ in this mission was kind of asking for it.

Now we get to the meat and bone of the game. Let me start by saying that the tactical combat did not disappoint at all. I’ve played a huge number of missions and the map/scenery is nicely varied and generally well laid out. I miss the farms and fields of the original, but I am sure this will come in either DLC or a mod at some point. The atmosphere in these missions is fantastic and instantly reminded me of the original games – just with much better sound and visuals. Alien turns can be utterly nerve wrecking, while you watch your soldiers die or panic one-by-one under alien fire.

Besides for the expected UFO crash sites, UFO landings, abductions and terror missions – there are also a number of special missions in the game. These range from VIP escorts to Bomb Disposals and on harder difficulties they have turned me into a nervous wreck. This game is not for the faint hearted or for people who get easily stressed. On harder difficulties (and I highly recommend Classic Ironman) you absolutely will lose soldiers. In fact you’re lucky to get out of missions alive at all. This may sound like an unpleasant gaming experience but in XCOM you are supposed to be constantly 1 inch from utterly losing, this is part of the charm. The feeling of despair, terror and dread really add to the atmosphere and the game is really designed to be played in that manner. If the game feels ‘easy’ – definitely crank things up, you’ll thank yourself for it later.

I mentioned a lack of time units earlier. In the original games, Time Units was what dictated movement, attacking and any other action. Each action would cost specific number of TU’s and as your soldiers levelled they would gain more TU’s, thereby increasingly getting more powerful. Quite frankly, by the end of the game some of your soldiers were nothing short of gods and it got a little unbalanced. This system has been replaced by giving each soldier 2 ‘actions’ per turn. Unless a perk dictates otherwise, a soldier can only attack once per turn, but he/she could use both actions to move. (Also known as ‘dashing’). Most of the time you want to be incredibly careful and ensure your soldiers end their movement in as much cover as possible, since alien turns are brutal and soldier standing out in the open in the majority of cases is a dead soldier.

XCOM Skyranger

The new Skyranger is pretty fucking cool if you ask me.

Having played a huge number of missions I can say this system works very well. Due to the way the perks interact and change some of this for specific classes, the system is generally well balanced and ensures the game remains challenging throughout. Your Major or Colonel rank soldiers are significantly better  than your lower ranks, but they’re not the invincible gods they were in the original games. And if you lose such a highly experienced soldier, you will really notice. Rookies are utterly terrible in combat and are extremely likely to panic and shoot one of your other soldiers, thereby causing you a huge problem. Throughout the missions as your soldiers gain ranks, gain a nickname and live through some truly spectacular moments, you grow incredibly attach to each and every one of them. I can’t say I remember all the rookies which died in various gruesome ways, but I sure as hell remember all the soldiers who were with me more than a few missions. I freely admit moments of nerd-rage occurred when some of my highly decorated veterans finally met their untimely demise. But, that’s XCOM and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

XCOM: EU vs. Original XCOM

So how does XCOM: Enemy Unknown compare to the original? Quite frankly, I don’t care. Having played this game for quite some time now I will say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an utterly brilliant game in its own right. It’s different, but it’s different in a good way. Is it perfect? No, it has plenty of flaws and things which could be improved. As do all games. But oh god, this game is a lot of fun. I’ve been playing it since it was released, beat the game on ‘normal’ within 2 days and have been doing nothing but Classic Ironman since. I just can’t stop. The game has so much atmosphere, so many little touches I keep noticing, such a lovely destructible environment, such well designed enemies. Some of my friends know my soldiers by name – they get informed when a veteran dies. This game is awesome and I’d strongly recommend at least trying the Demo if you have any interest in strategy games whatsoever.

And avoid official trailers and most other articles, they’re filled with spoilers and things which are fun discovering by yourself. The video I shot was the first play through I did (I make some terrible mistakes!) on one of the very first missions. You’ll encounter everything in it extremely early – so it wont really spoil much. Still, just go and play it already – you’ll love it.

Comment on the score: I have to be fair as a reviewer and mention that the controls are not completely without flaw. Generally speaking it works pretty well, but there are some issues with targeting over multiple floors/stories, especially inside UFOs. Also, the graphics are extremely functional and the effects/lighting is lovely but they are using the slightly dated Unreal Engine. The game came out on PS3 and Xbox360 as well, which is partially to blame, and on the flip side it will run quite well on older machines. I am not saying the game is ugly, but zoomed in on soldiers and weapons in cut scenes you’ll notice it’s not exactly hyper realistic. This doesn’t at all reduce the quality or enjoyment of the game, but it is worth mentioning.

the author

Managing Editor of ManaPool, Peter lives in York, UK and is a great fan and master of turn-based strategy games. If he isn't playing one of those, you'll probably find him in a role-playing game instead. He's definitely not afraid to provide a straight up opinion on any game and has a strong like for indie developers. We all start small, after all.

  • Kraken Wakes

    It’s a smart game, from what little I’ve seen in the demo. I used to like the UFO series, particularly Aftershock, and this looks like it would compare very well to that!

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    The UFO series (Aftershock, Aftermath, Afterlight) are completely separate from the original XCOM series but were decent games in their own right. Not perfect, but certainly worth a go if you can pick them up at a decent price.

  • Simon Kulberg

    I enjoyed this game also and finished the campaign on classic in about 40 hours. But I don`t really see the replay value personally since the main story is pretty linear. I suppose I could always fail on purpose just to see what happens, or play it on ironman but this feels weirdly unappealing.
    And I just can`t stand the skydiving aliens since they make any sense of tactics go right out the window, as does the alien`s ability to shoot right through full cover all the time. This does not make for a good ironman experience. It`s also graphically buggy, especially with floor views and positioning, which you mentioned and could have used a few more weeks of game testing and bug fixes.

    Still a good dame though, but I`d drop the score down to eight or so. Releasing bugged games needs to be penalized I feel. Releasing a tactical game with several anti tactical elements or the tactical part of the game sabotaged also needs to be penalized. So that`s two down from 10. Simple!

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    Simon, although the ‘story’ might be linear, this game isn’t really about the story. The story provides a backdrop to surround the progression and gameplay with a greater sense of immersion. The re-playability comes from the randomness of the missions and unpredictability of who your soldiers are and what will happen to them. To a large extend, that is the real story.

    Shooting through full cover is not bugged or lacking tactical sense – it’s purely a game of chance. The fact you’re in full cover does not make you invulnerable to enemy fire and the same applies the other way around. I’ve killed countless aliens cowering behind full cover.

    On ‘classic’ the only difference is that the aliens tend to have a slightly higher chance at hitting you than the other way around, but this difference is incredibly small. It feels larger than it is, both because there are more aliens and because they start with far superior weaponry than your soldiers are able to carry. Late game the difference is almost none. Bear in mind as well that any time your soldier dies it feels far more dramatic than when an alien dies so we as the player have a slightly biased few on the matter.

    I’ve certainly not encountered enough problems to not play Ironman – if anything it’s actually quite easy after a while. See my guide on Ironman for more details and you’ll see that the comment section is filled with people who had a great time.

    What I do agree with wholeheartedly is that games should not be released in a buggy state. I’ve got an article planned on just this topic which will be released before the end of the year.