XCOM – Enemy Unknown (2012) Review

I will say this right off the bat – I am a fan of the original XCOM. I’m a fan of its sequel, Terror From the Deep. I’m not much of a fan of Apocalypse. The original XCOM ranks up near the top in my library of “Games to Wreck Your Shit” for its incredible fusion of strategic and tactical gameplay, as well as its asymmetrical warfare that was challenging, unforgiving, but never truly unfair. Since then we’ve all been dying for a true successor to that venerable dreadnaught. Has Firaxis managed it? Well… how do I put this?

In short: yes. In full? Mostly.

Of course any review of a game trying to fill the boots of XCOM is going to fall victim to nostalgia, where “nostalgia” here means “the original did it therefore everything after it must do it too.” This XCOM is a different beast in some ways to the old XCOM, but unless you have an irrational aversion to change, chances are you won’t mind.

“ROOOOAAAAAR.” – Floater


I’m sure I don’t need to go too much into what XCOM is, because chances are if you’re reading DisCONNECT you already know. But in brief: aliens attack, you run XCOM to try to scramble a largely ineffectual defence while trying to drag back alien goodies to research in the hopes of one day turning the tide of the war. XCOM is all about asymmetrical warfare on a strategic and tactical scale. The aliens are better than you, always. Their weapons are better. Their armour is tougher. They are more numerous. They have excellent special abilities. You, on the other hand, use conventional bullet weapons with the best armour that humanity can provide, which might as well be cardboard. From there you respond to alien abduction attempts, terror missions, invade alien bases, shoot down UFOs, and generally do your best to police the entire globe despite never having enough resources to do so. The global council is watching you, and if you don’t meet their expectations, they’ll shut the project down. To help you, you now have a chief scientist, engineer, and some other commander guy to provide advice. A bunch of the old aliens return too, from the Sectoids right up to the terrifying Chryssalids.

Satellites are even more troublesome than bases.

Sound and Graphics (2 points)

They’re good. Who cares, on to the gameplay!

Here I come!

Gameplay (4 points)

Tactical Gamepaly

I suppose we’ll talk about the tactical aspect first, since you’ve probably played or seen the demo and are most familiar with it. Firstly, I’m not a fan of time units. I don’t think they’re inherently superior to the new system. All TUs really did in the original was add a layer of ambiguity which shouldn’t have been there. Realistically, in a turn you could either move a long distance, move a short distance and take a shot, or stay put and take a shot with a higher chance to hit. Or you could sort of exploit the system by peaking around a corner and then ducking back. This time things are different – in a single turn, each soldier can either stay still and use an ability, move one and use an ability, or move a long distance and do nothing else. There are some special exceptions to this, but that’s generally how it goes down. By “ability” I mean that you can shoot using your equipped weapon, reload that weapon, or perform a number of other actions like using special abilities, hunkering down to provide a defensive bonus, or going into Overwatch mode which allows that soldier to react to enemies moving into their line of sight during the enemy turn. Some actions, like swapping weapons or opening a door, are ‘free’ in that they don’t count as part of your turn.

The downside of course is that you have a bit less freedom in how you move compared to the original, but the upside is that it makes a lot more sense for planning out your moves, and still gives you plenty of scope to screw up and make horrible mistakes that cost the lives of your soldiers. It also tends to make battles a lot more dynamic and fluid, as opposed to crawling over the map slowly trying to hunt out the last alien wedged behind a door. Cover has become exceptionally important, and if a soldier is out of cover they’re probably going to be killed. The game is all about finding, fixing, flanking, and finishing the enemy. And the AI know how to play that game too – they capitalise on your mistakes and punish you soundly for failing to protect your flanks.

The battlefield gets wrecked.

Soldiers by default come out as rookies with their own statistics and no special abilities beyond shoot, Overwatch, and Hunker Down. After they make it to Squaddie rank (usually after their first mission) they will be assigned a class by the game (not by you). The classes are Heavy (carries heavy weaponry), Sniper, Assault (general grunt), and Support (medic/provides cover etc). After that with each rank gain you get to assign different abilities to them from within their class tree. I think it’s a bit better than simply having stats bars crawl along, and makes it a lot easier to find soldiers that are good at specific tasks. You can also customise your soldiers to a nice degree – you can change their appearance, voice (though the voices all sound fairly similar), their first and last names, and you can give them a nickname when they reach Sergeant. Stats like kills and number of missions are also tracked, and all of your dead soldiers are shown in the Barracks, along with the name of the mission that was their last.

The tactical game plays differently to the old game, but it’s not a step backwards unless you’re obsessed with turn units. The AI is still brutal, soldiers still die easily, and failure is never far away. On one mission I took my squad of six veterans out on an abduction mission. They stomped through the first wave of aliens (Floaters, who are much more dangerous than their laughable predecessors, and Thin Men who are new but somewhat replace Snakemen) but came up against the new Mutons and some more Floaters. Within 2 turns, three of them were dead, two were severely wounded, and one was hiding near the Skyranger. Another 2 turns later and I’d barely managed to get the two wounded back to the Skyranger, only to have them kill the sniper that was providing cover near the Skyranger. I assure you, you can lose this game, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.

Ready for deployment.

On the downside, I’ve noticed a few bugs. I’ve seen soldiers animate so that they aim behind them when the shot still goes to the enemy. I’ve also had significant trouble with multi-storey structures, particularly when trying to position troops near walls. The game can’t seem to decide what level it should render, so it either renders the level below (hiding the top level so that you can’t move anyone onto it) or occasionally flickers quickly between the two. Sometimes rotating the view helps with this, but it’s bloody annoying and makes it frustrating to order troops around. The camera can also seem to reset itself to a higher level when troops are inside buildings, giving you a nice view of the roof instead of your troops.

Strategic Geoscape

While the Battlescape gameplay has had a few changes, it’s still fairly similar to the old XCOM. The Geoscape has had a major change though, and if I have criticisms, they’re mostly directed at this aspect. Firstly, you only have one base now, with one Skyranger. Instead of multiple bases, you have to build and launch satellites to cover various territories. These satellites can get very expensive, and to support additional satellites you need to build base facilities to monitor them. Without satellites you miss out on UFO incursions, increasing panic and upsetting the Council. Base design is now an “ant farm” affair – a cross section view which I’m not really all that thrilled about. Panning the camera is slow and awkward, but fortunately there are buttons to take you to the most important areas.

As with the previous game, your strategic goals are to research, build, locate, and respond. You drag things back from battles to research in the lab, which hopefully turns into technology that you can later build in the factory. You keep building up your satellite network to uncover more alien incursions, and respond to them when you can. You’ll need to keep a squadron of interceptors well maintained across the globe to respond to UFO incursions. Unlike the previous game, Scientists and Engieners are awarded for undertaking missions, for building particular facilities, and based on your performance at Council review periods. If you don’t have the required number of staff, you can’t research or build particular things. Also research and manufacturing now requires resources – for manufacturing, you’ll need money as well as raw materials. Items are manufactured instantly, there’s no waiting period, but everything is quite expensive so at least in the beginning you’re short on equipment, such that losing any is a disaster. Research plays out much as it did in the previous game save for requiring additional materials, and the game still gives you a load of lore for each object researched (including autopsys, though the colourful pictures are now gone).

Satellites are even more troublesome than bases.

The globe and concept of global panic works a tad differently. Global panic pretty much works the same as it always has – fail to respond to a threat (or screw up a mission) and panic levels rise in that territory. If the levels rise too much, that territory abandons the project. The more you screw up, the higher the global panic levels rise, and you run the risk of the project getting shut down. And yes, you can lose the game. You “scan” the globe to find missions, which accelerates time until something happens at your base (like research finishes) or you find a UFO or mission to engage. When abductions occur, they occur three at a time in various territories, and you’ll be forced to select one. Missions give you bonuses like money, scientists, and other things. You’ll need to balance your needs against keeping panic levels down. In addition you’ll need to shoot down UFOs, respond to terror attacks, and do special Council missions. Abductions don’t rely on your satellite network, but UFO attacks do.

The Council review you regularly and give you a report on how you’re doing. The better you do, the more money and resources they’ll give you. Consistently do a crap job, and they’ll shut you down, and you lose. As with the old game, this often means your hand is forced in particular scenarios. For example I had to respond to a terror mission with a squad full of rookies, because to ignore it would have screwed me over with the Council. Along with the Council reviews, you can also sell artefacts to the Grey Market for extra money, and various nations will often come to you asking you to fulfill various orders for them (like asking for Laser Pistols) which they’ll often pay a fair amount for.

In all, the new Geoscape is fairly different from the old. The interface isn’t as slick as it probably should be, and while the changes tend to make the Geoscape a little less free compared to the old one, by and large it does the job. It forces your hand quite a bit by deliberately limiting your resources and forcing you to make a choice while abandoning others. In the old XCOM, you could build additional bases with Skyrangers and respond to most threats. You can’t in this game, which does reduce freedom, but also raises the stakes.

Brave soldiers, all.

Another thing which I was a bit annoyed about was the overlong tutorial. It basically removes any freedom you have for the first few missions, forcing you down its particular path. You can disable the tutorial before starting, but I think it went on for a bit too long. The game also tends to give you a bit more guidance by encouraging you to capture live aliens, and puts you down the path to progressing the overall story. The original did this a little bit in its research lore (e.g. capture a live alien, research Alien Origins which encourages you to capture a Leader, etc) but it’s more prevalent here. While I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker, it’s a bit obtuse.

Overall: 5/5 EXCELLENT

Is the new XCOM a fantastic game? In my opinion, yes. It strikes almost all of the right chords. It brings back that brutal asymmetrical warfare that the series is famous for. The Classic difficulty mode would please most XCOM fans, so long as they remember that it isn’t just an exact duplicate of the original. If you want an exact duplicate, go check out Xenonauts. This is an evolved version which drops some of the more ambiguous mechanics, mostly for the better. It’s an outstanding game, and probably the only one outside of Xenonauts that deserves the title of XCOM. Well done, Firaxis!


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