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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Justin Clouse | 8 Oct 2012 12:00
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It's been almost 20 years since the first game in the X-COM series was released, but the developers at Firaxis have managed to pull off a splendid modern remake. XCOM: Enemy Unknown strikes a nearly perfect balance between being faithful to the original and improving on the older title. Where the game really shines is in its ability to create moments of tension and indecision, be it deciding where to move your soldiers in combat or how to expend your limited resources.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown tells a pretty simple story: Aliens are invading, and the newly-commissioned XCOM Project is responsible for fighting this new extraterrestrial threat. XCOM is a collection of Earth's best and brightest soldiers and scientists, and is overseen and funded by a shadowy council of nations. The interplay between the council and the XCOM Project becomes an important gameplay point as you can only respond to so many threats worldwide; sacrifices will need to be made, but if too many nations pull XCOM's funding because you've let their country be overrun by the aliens, you'll lose.

The player assumes the role of the ambiguously defined Commander of XCOM, but the game manages to bring a satisfying amount of characterization to some of the supporting cast. The designers put a face and personality on XCOM's various departments, and the extra effort helps to stave off a feeling of just interacting with menus. As you progress through your missions, capture aliens and bring back their artifacts, you'll slowly uncover greater details about the larger story and setting, but ultimately the narrative serves as structure to build your own experiences on. The stories you're going to share are not going to be plot-related, but you will instead be talking about the events of the missions themselves, like that time your assault gunner panicked and shot the VIP you were escorting in the face with his shotgun.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is roughly split into two parts; you'll divide your time between being out in the field and back at base managing the war. From the XCOM base you'll be free to micro-manage your research team, what upgrades and facilities are being built by engineering, how your soldiers are progressing in their training and what missions you'll send them to. You'll start out with pretty humble beginnings, a couple of recruits with just standard firearms, but over time your scientists will develop new equipment based on captured alien technology and your soldiers will advance once they have a few missions under their belt, assuming they survive. What's most important, though, is trying balance your limited resources. XCOM is the underdog here, and only has so much to go around.

The second half of XCOM is the isometric tactical game of ordering your soldiers around the battlefield and dealing with the alien threat directly. The combat is a numbers game of working the percentages in your favor` For instance, hiding behind cover makes you harder to hit, while flanking an opponent increases your chances to score a critical hit. Those mechanics are further complicated by special abilities, how weapons differ from each other and trying to predict ambushes by going on "overwatch," which lets you automatically fire on the next target that moves. Each unit can perform two actions per turn, generally expending one to move from cover to cover and one to shoot. It's a simple system that still gives you a lot of flexibly to formulate quick plans, like having your assault specialist double move in close to setup a flank next turn while your sniper goes on overwatch to prevent the enemy from leaving their cover. Upgrading to better weapons and armor will allow you to deal and take more damage, while experienced soldiers will unlock further special abilities. The tactically rich nature of the gameplay will have you excited when working through a tricky encounter, but also cursing when the random number generator turns into an alien sympathizer.

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