Sitting at a healthy 95% rating out of 25,520 reviews on Steam, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is undoubtedly one of the best tactical turn-based strategy games of the past five years you probably haven’t played. On the surface it may seem like your average niche title, meant for the small population of gamers willing to persist through elongated strategic campaigns and painfully slow progression, but in truth it’s anything of the sort.
In a day-and-age where gamers are punished for playing on laptops with pixelated poor graphics that make many rethink playing popular titles if they can’t at least see a decent framerate on medium, XCOM sets a shining example of low quality graphics done right. The difference between low and ultra is so minute you’d be hard pressed to see notable differences even during a side-by-side comparison. Considering the game’s fondness for character and enemy close ups, this could’ve easily alienated gamers and turned many people off of XCOM within the first few minutes. As anyone who’s played the game long enough to rocket through the abnormally sized skull of a Roswell-inspired alien foe can attest, the consistent graphical fidelity is only the first of small attentions to detail that sets X-COM: Enemy Unknown apart from similar titles.
At its core, the game is incredibly simplistic. You’re thrust into the commander seat of a multinational organization dedicated to saving the human race from total annihilation after it encounters a hostile alien force dedicated to taking over Earth. You manage a base of operations and an army of troops as you take on missions with a strike force of four to six hand-selected recruits.
As you play through missions and amass extraterrestrial kills your recruits gain experience and receive promotions, unlocking new active and passive abilities along with stat increases that make them more efficient in combat. At each promotion you’re faced with a choice. Do you give your support class soldier the ability to lay down suppressive rifle fire or heal more times during a mission? Do you give your rocket carrier more missiles to launch or increase the effectiveness of the missiles he/she already has?
On the surface it sounds tedious, but more often than not squad members get promoted after every mission and quickly wind up maxed out at the rank of colonel. While it is possible to only utilize your first four soldiers from start to finish, it isn’t likely. Soldiers hit during a mission are often injured and take days to recover, forcing you to use new recruits and keep a stockpile of decently trained alternates. Soldiers whose health hits zero die and become a permanent part of your base’s memorial wall, leaving you scrambling to level-up a new recruit against tougher enemies than the ones you originally played against in order to refill the space your colonel left – or at least reloading to a previous save point and trying again.
The game’s overall progression is laid out through a string of primary objectives. Someone playing from one objective to another could easily beat the game without ever realizing they had strict control over how fast new and harder enemies were thrown at them. There’s no countdown timer to doomsday, but the desperation of the main characters provides a sense of urgency that does a good job pressuring the player forward.
This implicit pressure and subsequent steady progression keeps the game fresh from beginning to end, constantly providing the player with new, tougher enemies while giving old enemies better equipment to work with. This sustains the game’s overall difficulty, which is only marred once a player realizes he/she can take their time and farm resources before moving forward.
The difficulty rides on the back of human frailty. Your squad members can only survive a couple hits before winding up six feet deep, turning combat into a tug-of-war battle of hide-and-seek. Discovering the enemy at the end of your turn usually results in disastrous consequences, but most refuse to come to you. You have to wade your squad through the map fog tactfully so as not to over extend and wind up losing a valuable member of your core team in the blink of an eye.
The game shines once you start utilizing your squad’s ability to hear the enemy during their turn, giving you valuable positioning information and allowing you to set up for a quick strike. Spending a few turns preparing for a breach feels amazing, especially after you enter and vaporize the enemy combatants before they get a turn to respond.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is weakest when the player realizes its exploitive nature. As you progress through the game you’re offered research options that provide your team with purchasable weapon and armor upgrades meant to even the playing field between them and their would-be conquerors.
Working through objective after objective as quickly as possible as the game suggests, there’s no one moment when your team is fully equipped with upgrades. The player is left constantly having to choose who gets the upgrades and who doesn’t due to an ever restricting pool of resources. However, it’s entirely possible for players to delay the game and fully upgrade their team, changing a challenging tactical experience into an easy alien stomp fest – an issue compounded upon once you have a squad full of optimized colonels.
The game is fully voiced-over and hosts a surprising amount of cut scenes, but there’s no real story to warrant their existence. Characters mostly state the obvious and the only bit of real exposition comes during the final mission when the aliens make a feeble attempt to explain their actions and role in the creation of the various abominations you’ve spent the last fifteen to twenty hours slaughtering. It’s too late for anyone to care, and the ending is so poor that even the XCOM 2 developers have chosen to ignore it and simply say the player failed to drive back the alien menace.
The zoomed-in animations are nice but ultimately become a detriment, making it obvious the player’s attack missed but leaving you to wait ten seconds for the animation to play out before you can make your next move. This is particularly aggravating when it happens on an attack with a 95% success rate, giving you just enough time to dwell on the irritating nature of the result’s statistical unlikelihood.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s fast-paced progression coupled with its beautiful graphical showmanship serves to enhance its overall experience. Its zipped up with a combat system that offers simplified complexity, giving old school turn-based fans plenty of hours of enjoyment while lending itself to a wide audience.
It’s surprising we’ve had to wait three years for a true sequel, but come February 5th of next year players will get to experience the next chapter of one of the best tactical turn-based games of the last decade. Now is the perfect time to discover where it all started, and with the game available on Windows, Mac and Linux there’s no reason for gamers of all computerized platforms not to enjoy all that XCOM has to offer.
In the end, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an immensely enjoyable title even if you’re not a fan of tactical turn-based strategy games. It’s currently available for purchase on Steam and sure to be on sale sometime soon during the holiday season. Gamers can also find it on PS3, Xbox 360, Android and iOS.
(See! I can write Game Informer-esque reviews without utilizing first-person too! Can I get a job now?)