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XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Graphics: 8.5
Gameplay: 9.1
Sound: 8.7
Control: 8.6
Replay Value: 9
Rating: 8.8

Strategy really isn’t my milieu. It wasn’t back when Command & Conquer came out and it still isn’t. However, once you toss in a turn-based mechanic and allow me to take my time, ala Final Fantasy Tactics or Valkyria Chronicles, my ears suddenly perk up and I’m going, “Okay, now I want to try it.” And the blend of action and strategy found in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is such that if I were a bigger fan of the genre, I’d be drooling all over the controller. And that’s because, despite a few small drawbacks, the game really is that good.

As is the case with most games that put a premium on strategy, thought, and patience, the graphics don’t need to be extra flashy or photorealistic. That being said, I was surprised to see the level of detail and fantastic environmental design and detail in the latest from Firaxis. The coloring is a little weird at times, but we have to remember that aliens have invaded and essentially, the landscape is borderline post-apocalyptic. Sci-fi fans will really appreciate the obvious effort expended to bring this engaging and intimidating world to life. Besides, if one compares this to other strategy titles, the visuals are actually exceptional.

The sound is pretty special, too, as a solid and gripping set of music and effects accompany your exploits on the battlefield. The music doesn’t play quite a big enough role in my opinion, but then again, I’m often asking for more pronounced soundtracks (and many might call that intrusive). The effects are very much like the impressive visuals, in that the designers paid attention to every small detail, thereby providing us with a technically proficient package that backs up the relative depth and action within. This audio won’t be blowing out your speakers but it’s both effective and well implemented, so it deserves lots of credit.

The theme and setting isn’t exactly original but that’s sorta what makes it classic. The original XCOM that debuted back in 1994 really caught on with gamers and has since become iconic. Now, please bear in mind that I did not play the first title (I was into RPGs, not strategy), so I can only report on the research I’ve done to compare Enemy Unknown with the original XCOM. From what I’ve read, the new one has more of an emphasis on the action and doesn’t feature quite the same level of intricate depth, so take what you will from that. I’m here to simply analyze the game before me…and I say it’s pretty freakin’ great.

There are essentially two parts to this game: The first involves cautious preparation while the second relies on sound execution. The XCOM soldiers require ammunition, weapons, general equipment, and bases. As is typical with any strategy game, resources become your primary concern during the preparation phase and almost immediately, you realize that you’ll have to make some tough decisions. There’s just no chance you’ll do everything you want to do and in fact, you won’t be able to accomplish everything you really need to do. This is more about survival first, conquering second. And despite the action, I still say the strategy aspect is quite sufficient.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

You really do have to take a macroeconomic approach to your planning. There are still UFOs coming in, bringing more invaders, so you might have to spend some time and cash on satellites that give you critical information on the position of those UFOs. But wait, your troops are going to require sufficient arms and training. Factor in a constant sense of urgency and dire importance associated with most every decision and choice you make, and you’ve got a seriously intense experience. It’s great because this melds with the slower, less pressing style of turn-based command selection, so gamers of all types should feel satisfied. The turn-based battles are satisfying as well, but they do feel just a little light.

The areas into which you will lead your squad aren’t exactly large, and although you can flank – and it’s crucial to appropriately position your team – and strategy always plays a role, the combat portion still might feel too much like action for fans of the original XCOM. That’s just a guess, of course. For me, I liked the blend, and we can’t forget that we can pay close attention to each of our troops as well; earning experience unlocks a variety of abilities and powerful skills, and you can dictate how each soldier progresses. Yeah, you don’t have a ton of room and there’s a lot of covering and firing, but it’s hardly simplistic.

I think my biggest complaint centers on the apparent lack of direction. The entire game feels somewhat open-ended; I don’t want to say “aimless” because there are primary goals…they’re just not always obvious. Therefore, there may be times when you’re going, “Wait, what should I really do now…?” The only time it really seems clear is when you’re in those relatively straightforward tactical combat encounters, where the RPG/strategy elements tend to take a backseat to the action. During the preparation, the true strategy part of the game, you’re usually trying to evaluate the situation very quickly, and the game won’t help out much.

That being said, I’m willing to bet that hardcore strategy aficionados will like this, as it’s basically the opposite of handholding. Nobody likes to be told exactly what to do all the time, especially when it comes to the realm of strategy. Still, any newcomers to the game may have to play through once before they really feel checked out on the game’s progression. That may sound like a negative but in truth, given the depth, intensity, and excellent pacing and balance of the campaign, there’s almost no doubt that fans will be up for another play-through. Trust me when I say that everything you learned will make you much more comfortable.

One also has to appreciate the inherent challenge. Not only is the AI quite competent and even downright deadly at times, you really have to try to stay alive. Dead allies are a bad thing, as you’ll soon discover. It isn’t until you gain the ability to recruit higher-level dudes that you breathe easier; up until that point, if a well-trained soldier falls, you’re really going to feel that loss. This generation has seen the marginalizing of death in video games and sometimes, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s sort of refreshing to see a game that requires you to keep the characters alive because the challenge is automatically higher.

This is critical because some may criticize the combat for not initially providing a huge challenge, as the turn-based option may feel outdated and give you too much control. However, I’ve never been of the camp that sees turn-based as “outdated;” quite the opposite, in fact. While it’s true that the enemies won’t even come after you until they’ve seen you (thereby giving you time to make additional plans based on the enemy types and positions), the emphasis on staying alive adds requisite tension. Not everything has to be done in real-time, folks. Combinations of various mechanics can work extremely well; we don’t necessarily have to go all-out real-time in every single interactive experience. Firaxis understood this.

You just have to love how this game is set up. You get a little of everything and all of it is quite fulfilling. You also might not expect it, but the environments in which you fight are highly destructible, which not only adds some nifty special effects and amps up the adrenaline, it also adds to the strategy. Yeah, that wall that just fell down? Get behind that sucker for cover! Of course, you can’t always tell what will happen if you fire a freakin’ rocket in the general vicinity of buildings, but that’s part of war, is it not? It’s not often that a strategy game truly captures the chaos of massive international conflict, but this one does a fine job.

That’s the last thing I’ll mention: One of the reasons I was more into RPGs was because they were more likely to transport me to a fantastical, believable world. Strategy games were almost entirely about the gameplay; you never felt personally invested in the battle when you were looking at those maps from above. It just looked like a bunch of little faceless units going at each other. The idea is to be like a general, analyzing and commanding from afar, but that just didn’t do it for me. This, on the other hand, constantly has your attention. The atmosphere might be the best ever for a game of this type, I swear.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a triumph of inspired strategy creation. The critical will focus on the minor shortcomings, perhaps because it’s not exactly like the first XCOM, but the polish, relative depth, and overall intensity is absolutely unquestionable. This places you in the midst of a seemingly impossible situation, and you know right off the bat that only the toughest, savviest, and most determined will survive to the end. If you can manage to defend Earth, you’ll give yourself a pat on the back and very likely start over, if only because you’ll never see another game quite like it. Given the fall lineup, your wallet won’t like this but…you just gotta try it.

The Good: Highly stylized presentation. Solid technical components. Atmosphere is second-to-none in the strategy genre. Appropriately challenging difficulty. Great blend of strategy and action elements. Overarching feeling of intensity and urgency throughout campaign.

The Bad: Tactical combat may feel cramped and a tad simplistic. Little in the way of direction. Can feel overwhelming.

The Ugly: “They’re coming…I feel so helpless. …wait, that’s not really ‘ugly,’ is it? Kinda the point, right?”

10/8/2012   Ben Dutka