Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
By Jeffrey Demelo on October 12th, 2012 (9 comments)
I'll admit, I feared for the XCOM series when news struck that Firaxis was leading the charge to reboot the cult-classic, turn-based strategy game. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy nearly everything this team has done with Sid Meier at the helm but...Sid Meier isn't on this one. That's a problem, I thought, while mentally collecting the remaining handful of problems I predicted this reboot to have. As it turns out, my predictions were spot on. Predictions which, surprisingly, became welcome additions to what we formally knew as UFO Defense. As much as I enjoyed the original XCOM, its lack of user-ease made its systems a chore to use. Firaxis has done for this series what it had with Civilization: Revolution, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's simplified, concise, and the greatest attempt at drawing attention to one of gaming's most niche of genres.
Title: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: October 9, 2012 (PC, 360, PS3)
A global alien invasion is upon Earth and you're the commander in charge of defending the nations of this great planet. As the front-man of XCOM -a scientific and military organization- you're tasked to manage its every decision, be it financially and militarily, while attempting to eradicate the extraterrestrial presence causing grief about the globe. One should not expect a narratively-driven experience here, although much of the text and dialogue written for Enemy Unknown is excellent While there are scripted events that drive the game forward once the player completes a company milestones -like capturing an alien alive, or researching a rare alien artifact- much of XCOM's "narrative" stems from player experiences and the events that unfurl. There's an unexplainable "magic" with games that evoke unique individual experiences, the kind that surpass the satisfaction of narrative without ever spelling a story out for the player.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily identifiable as a Firaxis game, in both art and UI design. Character models traded grit for charm, yet explode into a mist of blood and entrails when hit with lasers. Everything on screen is simply understood, easily identifiable, and never clutters up the view in both battle-scenarios and management systems. Most importantly, the user-interface grows comfortable in no time, even as late-game systems begin flowing in. I'll admit my concern for these Firaxis-isms softening the atmosphere of XCOM's typically dark tone were present during my initial launch of the game, yet quickly faded once its new approach proved itself to be conducive to this new experience.
Enemy Uknown is split up into two phases of gameplay; headquarter management and combat management. While at HQ, players are expected to manage XCOM credit funds, weapons/tech R&D, facility expansion & upgrades, international affairs, squad recruitment, and so much more. A daunting task for anyone easily shaken by to-do lists, yet half of the reason Enemy Unknown is so much fun. To ease these burdens, Firaxis made sure all of HQ is beautifully rendered, animated, and viewable while players manage earth's only hope. Squad customization -which included naming your squaddies, altering load-outs, and deciding rank bonuses- leads to ground deployment, as far as combat scenarios go, and from there the player is controlling his/her squad-mates in familiar turn-based fashion.
Firaxis has managed to simplify turn-based combat for the best, removing traditional grid-lines and movement-square counting found everywhere else in the genre. This simplification makes squad placement easier than ever to digest, leaving players free to place units throughout the distance-radius of each unit. When attempting to place units in cover, a lock-in mechanic helps keep the motion free of the frustrations one would expect unrestricted unit placement to have. All of XCOM's control simplification lends itself to be played with either mouse or dual-stick controller, never falling short of flawless either way it's decided to be played.
Enemy Unknown births tension in every minute of gameplay . And the randomness found in each system composing the game lends to that tension, greatly. All the decisions the player is asked to make embody weight in both phases of gameplay, and more so if you've decided to play the game in Ironman mode; an optional mode forcing players to live with every decision made by disabling reloads. When the stakes are high the entertainment value is higher, so playing XCOM without Ironman mode enabled is a disservice to the potential the game has to produce tense gameplay moments.
Minor complaints stemming from rare frame-rate drops, occasionally janky pathing issues, and my desire for more squad aesthetic customization are barely worth noting here. Firaxis evaded a potential let down while never straying from what they do best when simplifying design. XCOM's approachability lends itself to those who've never played a turn-based tactics game, and never feels hollow to those who frequent the genre. If their sights were set on reviving a classic with more market-potential than the genre has ever seen...they've succeeded.
XCOM is a hefty game, with infinite replayability both online and off. Online combat consist of Player vs. Player squad combat on multiple map designs with customizable gameplay options. Both humans and alien races can be played in multiplayer, and outfitting your squad properly replaces the HQ micro. Each player starts with a "pool" of credits to spend in outfitting your PvP squad, giving multiplayer matches a tactical and strategic depth that nearly matches that of single-player. For review, I played XCOM on a PS3 and saw little to no issues in multiplayer scenarios. The lack of co-op missions, while a potential negative point to some consumers, is proof of Firaxis' focus on Enemy Unknown's single-player systems. And though it is excluded, it never feels like it would have been a necessity.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is nothing short of a superb tactics/strategy game. It's a simplified reboot of the classic game that remains unforgiving in the most entertaining of ways. Quite frankly, there isn't enough space in a single, concise review to discuss the cogs that make XCOM tick. It's a humbling experience that defines tension, balance, decisions, and more importantly...fun.
(Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.)
Jeff is the raspy-voiced, Boston-accented staff member that loves everything Japan. Since 1989, video games have been a prominent passtime for this lovable guy…and that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon. When he's not playing games, he's writing, questioning his favorite games of all-time, or producing & composing music at various studios on the east-coast.
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