XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Defending an entire planet from an alien invasion is no easy task; XCOM has always been a testament to that. And for the first time in over ten years, the franchise has received a new installment in the form of Enemy Unknown. 

You play as commander of a military organization which was built in response to the alien threat. From your command center you ready your forces by researching new technologies, building armaments, outfitting your soldiers, and keeping a perspective on the global situation. Your main enemy are not the invading aliens, but time itself. Rather, you’ll find yourself between a rock and a hard place, deciding whether you want more satellite coverage or more aircraft support, better armor for your troops or better weaponry, that is the essence of XCOM.

It’s a balancing act between saving the lives of your troops, getting kills to rank them up and keeping foreign nations vested in your interest. Successfully managing all of these facets is one of the most challenging tasks in the current strategy genre. Let panic rise too high in one nation and they’ll pull all support from your organization, but lose your troops and you won’t be able to tackle the more difficult missions in the game.

For the most part, each campaign is unique as the missions and locations are randomly generated on the spot. There are a couple of main quest missions that always appear around the same time, but other than that the game remains rather unpredictable. Because of this, you’ll come to dread fast-forwarding the clock, knowing very well that multiple alien abductions could bring about your organization’s demise.

Your first playthrough is best defined as a learning experience. Between the two-hour-long tutorial and blind attempts at keeping things going, you’re going to have a rough bout your first time around. I was doing relatively well five hours into my first campaign until everything went wrong as I tried to keep the support of a country. Instead, I lost all of the troops I deployed to that mission, not only losing the country, but also raising panic in the other countries that I denied. I continued to play for a couple hours after that without much success. You really need to know how to balance and protect your troops. Focusing too much on a single group of soldiers, like I did, will result in a glass cannon – a very formidable force, that when destroyed ends up costing you everything.

Something as simple as movement can be as big as a decision as one made in the strategy room. Have a soldier sprint, consuming both of his moves in one fell swoop, could leave him open to enemy attack. Upon stumbling into view of an enemy, they get to instantly move to whatever cover they wish. At the end of your turn, they’ll then proceed to move again, which frequently results in flanking moves for massive damage. It’s often best to take it slow, but even that can bite you sometimes because the aliens could possibly get reinforcements in some missions.

I quickly learned that splitting up your troops to get a tactical advantage often ends badly. But once I had learned this, during the next mission I kept everyone together only to encounter an enemy that used grenades and killed multiple soldiers in one fell swoop. Permanent death causes you to grow attached to the soldiers that keep surviving. Want to make it even worse? Name them after your family.

Unfortunately, the game is riddled with a good amount of bugs. Oftentimes, you will see the enemies spawn, but upon regaining control of your troops, they will become invisible. At times like this there isn’t much to do. I was forced to make a movement and take the loss of a soldier due to Overlook – an ability that gives the soldier/alien a chance to take a shot at an enemy moving.

This is almost nothing compared to the two toughest parts of combat: actually hitting the enemy and the panic feature. Despite the hit percentage which is displayed every time you go to attack, you’ll oftentimes find yourself missing the enemy. These can really throw your entire plan down the drain. Go a turn without anyone landing a crucial takedown and you’ll find yourself just fighting to get out alive. The aliens can also cause your soldiers to panic, making them lose control and take an action that you don’t advise. They could simply open fire on the enemy or they could run into the open and get themselves killed. It’s a pain to manage, seemingly random, and not explained at all by the game; it just happens.

The amount of destruction scales rapidly as your foes become more and more formidable and your technology becomes more advanced. At one point in the game I encountered the Cryssalid which sported a massive amount of health and movement speed. To make matters worse, it did a huge amount of melee damage and turned your own men into zombies. Did I mention that two turns later those men themselves turned into another Cryssalid? It was one of the more frustrating moments in the game. Loss after loss will seem to stack up and rid you of all determination to overcome the invasion.

At times, XCOM feels downright masochistic, but just like Trials and many other games, you’ll come back begging for more. I’m glad that Firaxis expanded their horizons a bit and brought us another great installment in the real time strategy genre. There’s an amazing amount of depth in Enemy Unknown but getting to experience all of that is a completely different issue. Reminiscent of the older installments in the franchise, XCOM doesn’t go easy on new players, which normally wouldn’t bug me. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much to lose. Suffering defeat and having to restart a campaign has never been more painful.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games. An Xbox 360 copy was provided by the publisher for purposes of review.

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