It’s been a long time since the XCOM forces had to defend Earth from the forces of alien invaders. Many brave souls stepped up to the challenge of saving the world and took arms against unknown forces, and despite winning the battle, not all survived the encounter. It was a frightening and realistic take on warfare during its time, and due to its addictive gameplay and original concept, the first XCOM captured the hearts and imaginations of many fans. Now Firaxis Games, in conjunction with publisher 2K Games, has brought the next generation of the much loved series to a new generation of gamers with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Will Earth’s forces once again reunite and save the world from impending doom? Or will humanity ignore the threat altogether and kneel down to the alien invaders?
The plot is simple. The UN has received reports of strange paranormal activity, and the newly formed XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) – a last line of defense formed by soldiers from different nations – is sent in to investigate the troublesome scenario. Upon the revelation that the ones responsible are aliens, a firefight ensues between the two parties, wiping out all of the human soldiers except one. The player, who is XCOM’s newest commander, must now deal with the impending alien threat that has arrived on Earth, hopefully before it’s too late.
The story, while not particularly deep or substantial, is effectively done. After each story mission a cutscene plays out to fill players in on what’s going on, and dialog between characters fleshes most of the plot out. The story also does a great job at making the player feel responsible for the fate of the world, since you know, you’re the commander. It’s pretty great.
When it comes to sound and visuals, XCOM: EU is a mixture of modern sensibilities with B-movie elements. While cutscenes can occasionally look a bit bland and simple, in-game the visuals are an absolute blast to behold. Character models are big, tough and menacing (women are smaller, but still look just as tough), weapons look huge and powerful, and aliens look like creatures straight out of the finest Sci-Fi around. Environments are also gorgeous and varied, ranging from war-torn streets and squares, slimy docks, to secluded forests ravaged by fallen UFOS and the inside of said aircraft. The game really does have some impress stuff to look at.
The sound in the game is appropriately sci-fi. There’s creepy voices, a multitude of alien cries and snarls, gunshots and plasma blasts, explosions, etc. I can keep listing all the awesome sounds you’ll be hearing in the game. The same applies to the voice-acting. It’s a perfect mixture of great recordings mixed with corny ones, giving the whole thing a B-movie vibe. I can’t praise it enough.
But the best and greatest part of the game is of course the gameplay. Let’s just say that Firaxis Games did an extraordinary job of bringing the classic and legendary game to the present.
The fate of the world is in your hands, and as such, players must both control soldiers on the battlefield and micromanage the defense of the entire world from the command center. It’s no small task, but the developers have done a great job at keeping things as manageable as possible.
On the battlefield (also known as Battlescape), XCOM soldiers must combat alien forces in a isometric third-person view, similar to the original title. It also happens to be turn-based combat as well, so characters on both the human and alien teams will move around the enclosed arena, taking turns firing shots.
Combat is straightforward, but very complex. Each team takes a turn, and each character on a team can take two actions: they can either move twice, move once and fire, stay in place and provide cover, and more. Once an enemy has been found (provided that the fog of war has been cleared by exploration and an enemy has been spotted), XCOM forces must then be strategically placed so that they can flank the enemy in order to get the most accurate shots, while at the same time protecting themselves from return fire by using cover. It’s this mixture of taking shots while effectively protecting the troops that makes XCOM’s combat intensely rewarding, satisfying, and not to mention terrifying.
You see, XCOM troops gain experience after each battle, allowing them to develop better stats, like increased health and speed, while at the same time gaining new abilities that will add an edge to combat. But these individuals can also be killed on the battlefield. And to top things off, it’s a permanent death, meaning all your hard work is lost. This potential setback adds some crazy tension to the game, as not only are you trying to defeat the aliens, but you’re also struggling to keep your team alive.
Enemy A.I. doesn’t help either, as it is dangerous, ruthless and incredibly tactical. Don’t expect enemies to rush the XCOM forces waiting to be shot at. They’ll surround you, flank you, and will certainly kill many of your soldiers. Each kill in XCOM: EU is not a freebie, and must be earned with the blood and sweat of your loyal troops.
On the other side of the war, known as the Geoscape, the micro-management aspect of XCOM: EU is equally as tense and exciting. It’s a race against the clock so to speak, as you are rushing to build facilities, satellites, and tools, while protecting nations before it’s too late.
XCOM headquarters starts off as bare-bones as it can be. Players initially have access to a research lab, where they can investigate new tech, examine the remains of aliens in order to acquire information and blueprints, and more. There’s a engineering room that allows the building of blueprints, which can be in the form of armor, gadgets and new weapons for the soldiers. Barracks hold all of the recruits, and there’s also a hanger, which houses aircraft to combat UFO’s. New facilities can also be built underground, allowing more resources to come in.
But to do all of this, players need money, and that comes from the 16 nations who are members of the XCOM council. They add funds to the XCOM bank, provided you can keep them protected. It won’t be so easy however, as aliens will be constantly attacking them as time goes by and panic will quickly rise through the nations. If a nation on the council reaches a panic level of 5, and isn’t reduced in time for the next council report, the nation will withdraw, taking with it the funding and additional resources it provided.
This can quickly lead to difficult situations if the player doesn’t take care of maintaining good relations with their neighbors. Players will soon face off against advanced enemies that will make XCOM’s weaponry look historic, so if the nations aren’t properly taken care of and/or too many are lost, they’ll be in for a hard time. It can be a bit hectic at times, but it’s up to players to make the best with what they got. And when it all goes well, it feels immensely rewarding.
For those looking for more challenge (in addition to different difficulty levels for the main campaign), XCOM: EU also features online multiplayer, where players will be able to face off against other XCOM teams around the world, and the awesome part is that you can use the aliens. Each player can make a team composed of both XCOM forces and extraterrestrials, and once done, head into small skirmishes to test who’s the better commander. From what I’ve played, the multiplayer is fast, challenging and fun.
My only complaint would be that the game occasionally features some weird animations and the Overwatch mechanic is somewhat wonky. In some battles, I stumbled upon my soldiers firing upon the enemy while facing away from them. Enemies would be right in front of them, and yet they would turn around and fire into the air, only to kill the foe. While it doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, it’s still kind of weird.
The problems with the overwatch mechanic, however, shouldn’t be excused. Overwatch allows a soldier to sit in place, and should an enemy enter his/her line of sight, the soldier then fires upon it. While this mechanic is usually sound, sometimes it activates inappropriately An example of this would be that my soldier would fire upon an alien running inside a building, but he was outside that building with no sight of the enemy. This would lead to my soldier firing point-blank into the wall, losing his ability and wasting bullets. While it doesn’t happen frequently, it is annoying when it does happen.
At the end of the day, XCOM: EU is a fantastic turn-based strategy game that is both rich in gameplay and replay value. No two missions are ever the same, and with a high difficulty level and tense conflicts, you’ll be going back to this game over and over again. Firaxis Games foray is a brilliant re-imaging and revival of the series, and it shouldn’t be missed.