Balancing strategic depth and accessibility is a dance that many games fail at mastering, but Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown nails that particular move—executes with aplomb just about every other aspect of game design as well. This is the rare turn-based strategy game that’s full of action and intensity, a sequel/remake that manages to do its parent game proud, and a base-builder/economic sim that will enthrall the stat-hungry for hours.
The core of Enemy Unknown is the boots-on-the-ground, squad-based strategy game that pits a four-to-six man fireteam against a variety of marauding extraterrestrials in locales around the globe. Thanks to an ever-expanding arsenal of weapons and experience-level abilities, the medics, snipers, heavies, and super-soldiers can attack, suppress, snipe, and heal from near and far, allowing a nearly endless number of strategic options for fighting the cagey enemy AI. Even on its normal difficulty, Enemy Unknown’s combat is a challenge.
Surrounding the game’s tense battles is a metagame of research, development, economics, and global politics that is every bit as engaging and important as the shooting. Keeping the Earth’s panic level under control by building a network of satellites, researching alien technology, developing new weapons, and building home base infrastructure can offer a mind-boggling number of choices, all of which have lasting impact on the success of the fighting. The tutorial and early missions do an excellent job of explaining the game’s basic mechanics and hint very strongly at the direction in which the player should move, such as building generators or alien autopsy labs. Still, it’s easy to find oneself several hours into the game, suddenly faced with a world in a state of extreme panic, not enough soldiers in the roster, and meager resources.
All of XCOM’s complexity is made palatable by gameplay mechanics and an interface that is elegant and easy to manipulate, moving the somewhat superfluous elements (like customizing soldier’s names and appearance) to deeper yet easily accessed levels. Moving the squad from tile to tile, from ground to rooftop, behind and out of cover—it all works well and is frustration-free. XCOM doesn’t demand a tolerance for a sloppy UI, but it does demand finesse and concentration, and a bit of patience for learning the game’s mechanics and above all, tactics. Impetuous moves are almost punished. There is a deathmatch-focused multiplayer mode, but it’s clear that Firaxis has lavished most of the attention on the single-player experience.
Enemy Unknown looks great, with a lot of colorful explosions and just enough Unreal-engine detail to bring the settings to life (it all looks considerably better on the PC than consoles), though it’s obvious this isn’t a visual tour de force. The voice acting and cut scenes aren’t the focus, either, though they’re not terrible. On the other hand, the musical score (by Michael McCann) does the game proud. (Be aware: Some folks—myself included—had issues with soundcard-related framerate slowdowns.) The PC version controls well with gamepad or a mouse and keyboard; it’s not a game that demands down-to-the-pixel precision.
The original XCOM was a notoriously difficult game, and while Enemy Unknown makes the turn-based strategy classic more accessible, it ultimately rewards the careful, thoughtful, patiently savvy tactician who considers every move the life-or-death situation. The metagame is a challenge in its own right, full of angst-ridden choices and second guesses. All in all, Enemy Unknown is an amazing and value-laden product.
Fan of the original X-COM, or do you like it more without the hyphen? Or is this your first time dabbling with the property? Let us know over Twitter @Gamers_Hell