XCOM: Enemy Unknown User Review
First things, first: I love X-COM. I first played it when I was 10 years old, back in '94, and have played it on and off for the following 20 years. When I heard about Enemy Unknown, I was very excited, but somewhat skeptical. When one of your top 5 games of all time gets remade, it's something that you want done right. And with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it was done right.
Other fans who are like me, experienced strategy gamers with a deep love of turn-based, tactical play, will be very pleased as well. Some things have changed, some things have remained the same, but the heart of X-COM most certainly remains with XCOM, and the added bells and whistles have only enhanced that.
Visually, this is a very good looking game. Firaxis knows how to put just the right amount of polish on their games. Like with their acclaimed Civilization series, XCOM looks just good enough to be impressive without distracting from what strategy gamers care most about: the gameplay. The style is a retro mixture of B movie and comic book, both of which play nicely into the overall aesthetic. Your team gives off a strong action figure vibe, but it's the aliens that really shine. Each species has a distinctive look and feel and retains a level of seriousness that the original sometimes lacked.
The sound is a close copy of the visuals: impressive without distracting. There is a small amount of voice acting, which is as good as it needs to be. It isn't stellar, but it doesn't have to be. The music and the effects, however, are stellar. Every mission has loads of atmosphere and the music is a large part of establishing that. And what the music establishes, the sound effects cement. Everything that happens sounds authentic and puts you right into the action.
Ultimately though, people aren't going to play XCOM because of the way it looks or sounds, good though that may be. With any strategy game, it's all about the gameplay. And it's the gameplay that XCOM delivers on the most.
There are certainly several significant changes to the gameplay of XCOM over the original, but those are inevitable considering the 20 years that has passed and in every meaningful instance, not only has there been a solid reason for the change, but the changes have, by and large, been significant improvements.
Just as in the original, there are two major facets to the gameplay: the micro-scale tactical aspect and the macro-scale strategic aspect. Let’s begin with the macro.
The main focus of the strategy section is the XCOM base. Unlike its predecessor, you can only build one base and the decision of where to build your base confers a bonus other than location. Each of the five continents available (Antarctica isn’t a choice and Australia is lumped with Asia) provide distinct bonuses to things such as scientific research or alien interrogation, among others. Once built, you find that your base is equipped with the bare essentials needed to combat the alien threat: barracks for your soldiers, research laboratories, manufacturing space, etc, with additional options becoming available later.
One positive addition is the extra layer of strategy inherent to building new base facilities. Whereas in the original, all you had to worry about is initial cost, monthly upkeep, and space, you have all of those considerations in the update, but also must take power (which requires building generators to produce), excavation (which takes additional time), and adjacency bonuses (which provide bonuses to adjacent facilities of the same type). Now adding to your base requires much more planning.
Within the base though, there are six main areas of focus. This has both positives and negatives as it both focuses upon what is actually relevant to the tactical aspect, and will predominately render most of the work creating such a great visual of the base (colloquially called the ‘ant farm’ by XCOM developers) out of most players’ thoughts.
The first of the main areas is Engineering. Engineering has several things that will become increasingly important throughout the game. The obvious first one is the construction of new weapons, armour, and craft equipment. Unlike the original, the vast majority of these are built instantly, so there’s no longer any awkwardness when an important mission pops up while you’re still waiting on the latest gear. The next is the construction of satellites (which does have a construction time), and finally the ability to upgrade equipment via the Foundry. The Foundry is a base facility that may be built that allows to you begin projects to upgrade various equipment and ability. From the creation and upkeep of Heavy Weapons Platforms (called S.H.I.V.) to several upgrades to Pistols, the Foundry is not something to be neglected.
Next is Research. Research remains a vital part of XCOM, with any new weapon or armour requiring research before engineering can manufacture them, as well as alien autopsies to perform, and live aliens to interrogate. The big change is that, in addition to time, there is also a material requirement for each research project. In many cases, especially towards the beginning of the game when such things are more scarce, this requires players to have to make careful choices between research and engineering.
Hangers are the next area, and probably the simplest. There are only a few things that can be done here, including the transferring of XCOM craft to any continent (each continent has its own Hanger) and reequipping each craft.
The Barracks are among the more important areas as there are several things that must be done. Not only must you hire new soldiers as your current ones are injured or killed, but you must also upkeep them, (customize their names/appearance, change their equipment, or assign new abilities). In addition, as your soldiers advance in rank, new abilities may be purchased at the Officer’s Training School (increasing the mission cap from four to five and then six soldiers should be among each player’s highest priorities), and eventually select soldiers to receive psionic training.
Next is the Situation Room, which has the important function of keeping track of each of the Council’s member nations require the most attention. The Council is the organization that funds XCOM and keeping each nation satisfied is important not only to have them increase their funding, but also to prevent them from leaving the Council all together. The first (and most important) way to do is to assign satellites over each nation, which you do from the Situation Room. A satellite requires that you not only build them from Engineering but that you build enough Satellite Uplink facilities to be able to coordinate them all. Without a satellite over a specific nation, you’ll have no way of knowing if there is any alien activity for that nation. Assigning satellites is, by far, the most important duty in the Situation Room, but it also contains the Grey Market, where you sell various things to the supplement your monthly income. The Grey Market changes significantly from the original, and makes it much more balanced than it previously was. First of all, you can’t buy anything here. You always have enough of the starting level equipment (rifles, pistols, etc.), you know longer buy scientists or engineers (you’re instead awarded them per month, depending on continent bonuses, and automatically receive more when you build new Manufacturing Bays / Research Labs), and Interceptors and soldiers are acquired from the Hanger and Barracks, respectively. The next big change, which changes up the balance of financing dramatically, is that you can no longer sell anything you’ve manufactured from Engineering. Now, you must rely on the Council almost exclusively to continue your funding without the possibility of manufacturing your way to self-suffiency.
And finally, there is the Geoscape, whose only role is to scan your satellites until alien activity is reported. Which brings us to the tactical portion of the game.
There is both more and less variety into the missions themselves. While new mission types, such as Asset Recovery and VIP Rescue are both very fun and give extra objectives than just “kill all the aliens”, only assaulting one alien base reduces one of the more challenging aspects of the original to a single mission, and the complete absence of XCOM base defense, removes a good deal of the tension of being too successful in thwarting the aliens in a given area.
That small quibble aside though, the missions are even more tactically challenging than in the original. Most obviously, the game begins with you only able to bring four troops into battle. And even though you can increase that to six eventually, it’s still a far cry to the 14 troops that the original Skyrangers could bring to a mission. That will take some adjustment from series veterans, but once those adjustments are made, it’s a real positive to the experience. Every soldier counts on every single mission. You’ll know longer complete missions with half of your troops still in your craft. Nor can you be careless with anyone just because they’re a rookie. Any time you send someone off to scout a new area or to chase after a lone alien, that’s one fewer soldier that can be sent after the bulk of the alien forces.
Complicating this even further is the new class and rank system. Whereas the only thing that separated soldiers before were their stats, upon reaching the rank of ‘Squaddie’, each soldier is now randomly assigned to one of four classes: Assault, Heavy, Sniper, and Support. Assaults are your frontline fighters. They use shotguns and excel at gaining ground and taking the fight to the aliens. Heavies start off with rocket launches (and can eventually wield the awesome Blaster Launchers) and can unleash huge amounts of damage to clusters of aliens. Snipers, predictably, hang back and pick off aliens with long range fire. And Supports are XCOM’s field medics. They heal soldiers who are wounding and have a chance of reviving fallen comrades. Troops gain their first class abilities as ‘Squaddies’ and unlock new abilities each time they gain rank.
Not only have the soldiers gained more variety though. So have the aliens. There are now more types of aliens (although some, like the Snakemen, have unfortunately not returned), and the alien species are no longer segregated. Unlike the original, which only had alien / terror unit combos (such as Snakmen / Chryssalids, Sectoids / Cyberdisks, Ethereals / Sectopods, etc.), XCOM can combine any number of different species on any mission. So you never know exactly what you may be up against.
Tactically is also where the game makes some of its bigger changes, but in practically all cases, this only improves the consequences of the decisions you’re forced to make. Time units are obviously gone, but those were a clunky mechanic anyway and aren’t missed. In their place, each soldier’s turn is broken into two phases: Movement and Action. Each soldier has a finite amount of space where he or she may move, after which he may take an Action, such as firing, using an ability, or even moving a second time. My only real complaint here is that you must move before taking an action. However, since they added that as an ability of the Heavy class, I can understand why they didn’t want to open it to everyone.
Cover is the next big change. X-COM missions often had your soldiers out in the open as they discovered and fought the aliens, but XCOM allows you and your foes both to utilize the environment to provide cover. This also introduces another area in which XCOM shines. It has a surprisingly interactive and destructible environment. Especially as your weaponry improves, building, cars, and trees are simply unable to stand against such firepower and the rock that your Sniper ducked behind in one turn may only be a small pile of rubble the next. A common complaint though is the lack of free aiming. With such a highly destructible environment, it would make sense to allow soldiers to specifically target an alien’s cover so that the next solider will have a better shot. I originally was of that opinion, but as I played, I discovered that utilizing cover and using various class abilities to mitigate cover is such an important part of the gameplay that simply allowing anyone to blow an alien’s cover up would deprive players of important choices
I believe that that sums up my feelings on XCOM better than anything else. It may seem as though you’ve been given fewer choices than in the original, but upon further investigation, that’s really an illusion. The width of your choices may indeed be smaller, but the depth and the meaning of those choices have expanded to such a degree as to make up that difference several times over. XCOM lives up to every bit of its predecessor’s legacy. This is a game that any strategy gamer must play and is also a game that even the most anal of X-COM fans will love too.
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.