XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
publisher: 2K Games
developer: Firaxis Games
|ESRB rating: M
release date: Oct 12, 12
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XCOM Times change and so do video games. XCOM was a brilliant slice of turn-based gaming goodness back in 90s. We'd like to think that in all that time the genre itself has evolved, but unfortunately, that's not the case. Strategy games are rare these days and those that make it to stores are often just a rehash of familiar gameplay mechanics. Firaxis Games, mostly known for the Sid Meier licensed games, have now brought us back to the alien-infested strategy series, giving it a new-fangled look, enhanced modern-day visuals and revamped gameplay.
It's always the little guy who gets it...
If I crouch here, maybe he won't notice me.
There isn't much to explain when it comes to the storyline in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You are part of a special operation called XCOM, formed by the greatest forces on Earth to battle an alien invader whose weapons and technology are unlike anything known to man. As part of the XCOM project, you were given a team of engineers and scientists to examine the alien technology, and hopefully put it to good use. In addition, as acting commander, you'll be going into combat with a squad of soldiers that are always at your disposal. That denotes leading troops to battle, as well as planning out and coordinating the war effort against the extraterrestrial invader.
As far as the story is concerned, you won't find much to relate to. Most of the characters appearing in the cut-scenes are straight out of the cheap sci-fi movie catalogue. You need not be discouraged by this particular facet of the game. After all, the entire premise is as tacky as it gets, and it was meant to be that way. Although you won't find much to get into in terms of characterization or humor, the game does a good job of setting things up for what's really important - the gameplay.
As soon as you head out on your first 'proper' mission (after you've finished the tutorial, that is), you'll be presented to a very straightforward system of ordering your squad around the battlefield. With each move you can dish out specific orders to units. Soldiers develop his/her abilities from scratch as they progress and survive the missions, after which they are promoted and given a specific class: heavy, support, assault or sniper. Each class has its uses and a unique set of skills that can prove effective against alien tactics. It's wise to bring along at least one of each class to ensure your squad has the means to deal with a variety of problems. The support class is probably the most useful when things heat up. They can provide suppressing fire to assist in battle and at the same time utilize med kits to revive or heal squad-mates. They can also be pretty accurate in mid-ranged combat. Heavy soldiers are there to provide the real firepower, bringing toys like rocket-launchers and heavy machine guns into the fray (can cause massive damage to multiple targets). The sniper, of course, deals the most damage from a distance and from high ground. Assault soldiers are excellent with rifles and can be versatile in combat, providing cover for and flushing out opponents (i.e. forcing them to reposition, thus becoming more exposed). They also may adapt to cause additional damage in close combat, making the most out of deadly, short-ranged weapons like shotguns.
In practice, the turn-based mechanics of XCOM: Enemy Unknown work brilliantly. Aliens use tactics and will send a variety of units against you, each requiring you to improvise and adjust your strategy in mid-combat.
Completing missions brings plenty of resources your way and that means you can use those to research alien technology to improve your weapons, and construct additional facilities within the XCOM HQ. Once the science team discovers new items or weapons, your engineers can be instructed to build them. After that, things become even more exciting and challenging, because now you can utilize alien tech in the field, which can give you considerable leverage if you're smart enough. The real fun begins when you start countering the extraterrestrial foes on their own territory. That could involve boarding their ships or investigating those that have crash-landed.
The AI puts up a decent fight. As you progress, you'll encounter more advanced alien units and their battle tactics will be more aggressive the deeper you go into the single-player campaign. Alien squads seldom falter in combat, so it's important that you think each action through before you end the turn, especially if you're leading a larger squad.
The single-player campaign progresses gradually and steadily, giving you enough time to improve your squad, improve your tech and HQ. The problem arrives when you realize that the game attempts to steer you away from the main story with side-missions that are repetitive. The game automatically randomizes the appearance of each map. After a while, you'll get a bit bored going through similar maps and going through a mission pattern that repeats itself to a certain degree. If you're not on a story-related mission, you'll be rescuing civilians or investigating alien activity. Despite of what your objectives are, the focus of practically every mission is to get rid of all the aliens on the map - simple as that.
8.7 Very Good
Single-player keeps you engaged for a long time, fun upgrade and class system, the devs set up a terrific ambiance with awesome art and overall top-notch visuals and audio;
Missions lack variety, as do the maps on offer in the single-player campaign, not that it's a big concern for a strategy, but the story and characters do need a bit more work.