Repel the invasion!
Back in the early 90s, a strategy game called XCOM (UFO: Enemy Unknown outside of North America) entered the scene and made enough bluster to call for several sequels and even a couple of books. Well, according to Wikipedia at least. I knew nothing about the series before buying XCOM: Enemy Unknown except that it was developed by Firaxis and, since they were kind enough to steal 400+ hours of my life away with Civilization V alone, I figured it’d be worth a shot. After playing it on the 360, I now know that XCOM is probably the slickest console strategy game to hit the market!
XCOM features an extremely solid combat system. Due to the greater time and control it allows, the turn-based system makes XCOM work quite well with a controller. The player starts each mission with a squad of four to six soldiers (depending on your progress) chosen beforehand, and must seek out and destroy pockets of alien foes. To do this, the player has to take advantage of cover and the different abilities and specialties of the soldiers.
The soldiers themselves come in four different flavors, each customizable for different strengths. The Heavy carries a machine gun good for suppression and overwatch and a rocket launcher good for exploding things. The Sniper ranges from efficient kill hog to useless run-about. The Assault class can fire after sprinting, ideal for flanking and killing foes, and the Support class can carry smoke grenades and multiple medkits, making them ideal for covering and subsequently reviving the Assault class. The enemy varies as well, ranging from pathetically weak to burly behemoths bent on costing you lots of troops and money.
Resource management also features a tight but entertaining system. Instead of gathering minerals or other resources as you do in most strategy titles, the player must rely on funding from contributing nations and salvaged equipment dropped by aliens. This means the player must pay very close attention to the panic levels in nations across the globe and ensure they get equal coverage and support, lest they back out and cease payments. Money can be spent on a number of things, all of which feel like priorities: troop procurement, satellite and aircraft coverage, research and development, armaments, etc. Fragments of alien technology can be used for research or the production of specific items or they can be sold on the Grey Market (hurr) for cash.
Since resources are so stingy and everything seems so vital, XCOM gives the player something that is oftentimes neglected in gaming: a challenge. Projects aren’t completed immediately, the squad almost always feels outnumbered and outgunned, and players constantly feel as though they’re playing on the verge of disaster. I played through on Normal and found it difficult. Later, I played on Classic (just above Normal) and, by now, I’ve restarted the game several times over!
One of the keys to surviving this game lies in the autosave function, though it’s off by default so be sure to turn it on! Very frequently, I found myself going back to a save point two or three times, shooting for better results. Fortunately for replay value, the missions are randomized so that, even if the player reverts to a previous save, the missions will always differ from each other. Solid gameplay, tight resource management, and crushing difficulty all make XCOM a masterpiece every time you play it.
However, the tone of the game simply does not measure up to the rest of it. The visuals, while never breathtaking, are passable and the environmental detailing certainly helps define the experience. The character modeling tends to be cartoonish and clichéd, which might’ve still worked as it did for Team Fortress 2, but the game does not take advantage of its styling for humor or character. Each squad member has a flag indicating his or her nationality emblazoned on their backs but they all speak American English. Hell, the only person in the game with any sort of international accent is the German doctor.
Ultimately, the game lacks soul, a sense of drive or connection. While many strategy games are deficient in this category as well, XCOM feels more like a missed opportunity than a purposeful omission.
Fortunately, the lack of personality really doesn’t hold the game back. All the cutscenes are skippable, making replays much more enjoyable and taking away the hassle of pretending to care about what everyone’s saying. This frees up time to focus on what’s really important in this game: spending hours trying to perfect each mission!
Despite the soul-crushing difficulty that drove me into fits of rage and tears, I enjoyed my time playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Even though the plot and characters are laughably pointless, I still kept coming back for more. The great combat layout, resource management, and aggressive difficulty will surely keep me played for days to come. So thanks, Firaxis, I really needed to give you guys another 400 hours!
Tested on 360