So here we are, 18 years after the original UFO: Enemy Unknown was released, 15 years since the last proper strategy game in the series and 11 years since the last game in the series came out, but at long last, X-COM is back with gamers.
Or rather XCOM, mind you, but the difference in the title is pretty easy to ignore.
As you probably know from one of my first articles on the site, I’m something of an X-COM fan, I actually consider the original game to be the best videogame ever created, so the reboot has a tall order in this regard.
However, I’m going to try and be objective as much as I can, though I will write a separate article comparing both the classic UFO: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Unknown side to side. Brief version to veterans of the series, the reboot is nowhere as good as the original, but it’s a solid and well crafted turn-based strategy game that follows the spirit of the original, so while not perfect, it does scratch that itch.
Coming back a bit for those of you not in the know, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn based strategy game by Firaxis, the same people that brought you the latest’s installments in the Civilization series.
In XCOM, you take command of the aforementioned XCOM Project, an eXtraterrestrial COMbat unit tasked with defending humankind from an insidious alien invasion. The XCOM Project however has very limited resources, though they do get access to the best technology humankind has to offer. The Skyranger dropship can leave troopers anywhere on Earth on just single digit hours, their Raptor Interceptors can beat anything any army can and may deploy and their labs are populated with the smartest and most creative people on the planet.
Except for the soldiers that is… as you only get a handful of rookies and can only drop them in squads of 4-6 to fight the alien menace…
XCOM mixes tactical combat with base and resource management, though the latter is very simple and will take little of your time in the game.
Most of your time will be spent on ground missions, in which your squad of 4-6 soldiers will confront the aliens with different objectives depending on the mission, though most are solved by eliminating all alien presence in the area.
The game works in a way like a game of chess, both sides take turns, during your turn, you can move your troops around, take positions along the map and take shots at spotted enemies. Gone are the time units of the original, now soldiers get 2 actions per turn, either 2 moves, one move and an standard action (firing, reloading, throwing a grenade, etc…) or just one action (if you do one of the aforementioned standard action without moving your turn ends) unless you have special abilities that change this.
Taking cover and different positions is imperative, as cover is one of the few safe bets to keep your soldiers safe. Environments are destructible (though normal shots cannot be free-aimed so they will only destroy cover if aiming at a target in cover or with area of effect attacks), however, so sometimes you’ll have to keep your soldiers on the move if their cover gets compromised.
Every time you target an alien with a weapon or ability, you’ll get a view that gives you your chances to hit, and once you make the choice the game will “roll” the dice to see if you succeed or not. Cover, distance, weapon used, etc…
As you complete missions your troopers will level up and gain special “classes” instead of getting specific upgrades based on what they did like in the original. The soldier’s class is chosen randomly, which can be a bit jarring when your best rookie goes Rambo and massacres the aliens just to be handed a medkit and assigned support class, but in general the system works well. Each class unlocks a series of special abilities that allow you to use your troopers in different interesting ways, also, each class can use different weapons, changing the way you need to position and use them in battle.
To add another layer on top of this, late game you’ll unlock psionic abilities, which work independently of class and again force you to completely change tactics. I will not dwell into them though because of you know, spoilers.
The alien opposition is intelligent as it’s varied, all the classic aliens from the original X-COM make a return (with the Snakemen turned into the creepy Thin Men) having had a very through makeover and looking way more threatening than in the original. Chrysalids are once again the stuff of nightmares.
The AI is very competent, taking cover and trying to flank your troopers at every opportunity, and making good use of their deadly superior firepower.
Special focus has been given in the game to capture aliens alive, as alien equipment self-destructs whenever you kill the alien carrying it, so you need to be extra careful, weakening aliens which capture is desirable and approaching them at close range to stun them.
In between missions, you’ll be introduced to an “ant-hill” point of view of your base, from which you can conduct research, manufacture equipment, and in general commit to the different preparations that your forces require.
Through your missions you’ll recover a variety of artifacts, corpses and alien captives, that you’ll need to research in your labs. Alien captives are necessary to advance the plot, and their capture also gives you “research credits” that make researching some tech and manufacturing it way faster/cheaper. However, many of this “credits” you only get way past their useful time, so their usefulness is limited.
All the base-management side of the game feels a bit lackluster and not very deep. This is not to say there are not big decisions to be made, but in general, there is not a lot of depth here. Installations should be built adjacent to installations of the same type for bonuses, and in higher difficulty levels where and how to distribute your interceptors can make a difference.
Is in this section of the game where you also detect UFOs and try to intercept them. Unfortunately, there is very little depth here too, the UFO and your interceptor just exchange shots till one of them goes down, certain weapons expose you more or less to the UFOs and you can build some expendable power ups to use during the battle.
After each month of in-game time, you’ll get evaluated on your progress, and paid by those nations that you have given satellite coverage (which makes very important to wait till the last possible day to launch those satellites, as they also bring panic levels down). You also get some extra scientists and engineers to help in your fight.
The game, taking a note from its forbearer, is really difficult, making careful movements and tactical decisions critical. It has 4 difficulty levels, Easy, Normal, Classic and Impossible. Classic is closer to the middle-high difficulty levels of the original game and Impossible is almost what its name implies. You also get an Ironman Mode that makes saving impossible aside from a turn-by-turn autosave, making every decision (and mistake) final.
Visual aesthetics wise, the game is detailed enough since you look at the action from an isometric view, but when the cinematic camera kicks in you notice how somewhat plastic-y the characters look. It works well on the aliens though.
Maps on the other hand are really detailed and quite nice to look out, with plenty of minutiae imagery to check (and take cover behind). Unfortunately they are not random like in the original, and hence you will see some repetition after a while. Furthermore, everything looks like the US, independently of where your Skyranger lands, though this is a fault the original had too.
Sound wise, sound effects are well detailed and carry the action well, but except for some blood-chilling screams, are pretty run of the mill. Voices are a nice addition to your soldiers, but everyone sounds American, independently of their nationality.
Music is pretty generic, though it borrows some vibes from the original.
Finally, Firaxis has added a much asked feature for the original, multiplayer. Now, the multiplayer mode is very simple, you basically buy up soldiers or aliens after deciding on a point cost for the battle, a-la Warhammer or other table-top strategy games. Once you and your opponent have assembled your teams you choose from a limited selection of maps and duke it out. Interesting, but not really fleshed out. It’s still pretty cool to finally be able to play the aliens, though.
Review Round Up
Graphics: 4/5 – As mentioned, when in isometric view the graphics look really nice and detailed, but when the camera zooms in things can look much worse. Good, but not great.
Sound: 3/5 – Fairly generic SFX and Music that accompany the action well, but nothing more.
Gameplay: 4/5 – It’s a well designed and intense turn-based strategy game, and it shows. It’s not without problems and has been watered down from the original, but it’s still pretty good!
Longevity: 4/5 – The main game is not that long, but the possibility of trying new strategies and also of trying the game in the successively more challenging difficulty levels will keep you entertained for a while. It also has a simple multiplayer mode.
Overall: 4 UFOs out of 5
As mentioned, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is nowhere as good as the original, but then again, beating the original is a very tall order. The game still manages to be a very good and intense turn-based strategy game and it’s a safe recommendation for both newbies and veterans of the genre. Pick up your rifles and jump to the Skyranger people, we have a planet to save!
- Jose Luis Perez Zapata