There has always been a special place in my heart for strategy games. As an avid board gamer, I’ve been on the hunt for an experience that reasonably captures the feeling of sitting across the table from an opponent. When I first heard that 2K Games was planning on rebooting XCOM, I was ecstatic… until I found out it was going to be a first person shooter. It’s not that the universe can’t support multiple approaches, but an authentic update to the turn-based strategy classic was what fans really wanted. Not only did we end up getting just that, but Enemy Unknown is coming out of one of the best development houses in the genre. Firaxis has been helping players build Civilizations for years. Now, they’ve given us a chance to save one.
While many tactical and strategy games are designed with a firm story arc, I find it best to view XCOM: Enemy Unknown as an alien invasion simulator. Much like the Civilization series, this title is designed for maximum replay. It’s not that there isn’t a story, but it’s set up more like milestones than a traditional narrative.
At the outset, you’ll choose a location for your base. The continent selected will afford you a bonus once you’ve blanketed in with satellite coverage. Missions emerge randomly, as will requests from council nations. Fulfilling as many of these as possible will put you on the path to more funding and greater manpower. Often you’ll be faced with multiple countries under attack and requesting military assistance. Helping one means the terror level increases in the others, which eventually leads to withdrawal from the council. If too many nations withdraw, it’s “game over.”
Yes, you can absolutely lose at XCOM, and it’s a terribly painful experience after you’ve invested hours into a game. It’s the losses, both minor and major that help shape the experience, though. In my first game, I made some tactical mistakes when constructing my base and launching satellites. I went in the next time armed with better strategy and a greater understanding of the alien menace.
One of the greatest compliments I can offer the team behind XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that they’ve managed to strike a perfect balance between accessibility and aggressiveness. Not only is there a well-designed and appropriately paced tutorial, but the core systems the game is built upon are logical and intuitive. I played primarily on the PC for this review, which offers up a more traditional grid view when selecting target locations for movement, but the controller option both on PC and console works quite well. Here, a line is drawn from your soldier to indicate pathing, and the blue and yellow move/sprint boundaries are clearly delineated.
As a strategy veteran, it’s easy to appreciate the move/action system which fosters squad-level thinking rather than simply a unit-by-unit approach. In many genre titles, once you start moving one of your troops, you are committed. You can’t move and then come back later to attack. Firaxis turned that standard on its ear.
In XCOM: EU, being able to move each of your units once and then decide how to complete their turns (with another movement, an attack or by placing them in “overwatch,” which awards a free attack on a moving enemy, for instance) gives you the opportunity to keep allies under cover and out of harm’s way. Playing safely and ensuring that troops are located in smart positions matters, because one false move and that veteran you’ve become attached to could end up bleeding out on the ground or worse. Again, this is where Firaxis has made some intelligent choices.
You can always load a previous save and give a mission another go, erasing the casualties and coming home victorious instead of in body bags. For those seeking a more brutal experience (or the weak-willed that simply don’t want to be tempted to turn back the clock), there is an Ironman mode. You get one save that is auto-updated as you proceed. If your A-team wipes, you’d better hope that you’ve been training understudies. Had this been the only option, it would be extremely difficult to recommend to those new to the genre. Instead, it’s a play style that can be eased into after learning the ins and outs of the invasion forces. The only confounding factor is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to push a rookie toward one of the four classes. In my first playthrough, I only produced one sniper, which made things more challenging than they should be.