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.

The glue that holds this all together is this great design behind having you constantly balancing your short and long term goals. In the end you need to fight off the alien invasion, but you’re not going to be able to save everyone. If you spend all your funding on upgrading your soldiers, you can certainly do better in missions, but if you ignore your satellite coverage, panic will quickly rise to unmanageable levels and nations will start to leave. You’ll need to make some tough decisions, especially on the harder difficulty settings. Do you abandon one nation to focus your efforts on a smaller area or how expendable are your veteran soldiers? There are even extra incentives and decisions to consider during play, like selling off valuable alien technology. The quick influx of cash might be beneficial right now, but you could be kicking yourself down the line when you end up needing them again.

And you’ll desperately want that easy money in order to pay for any number of upgrades to try and give your soldiers an edge, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is wonderfully challenging, if you want it to be. Fans of the originals will certainly want to start out in Classic difficulty, but even the Normal setting is not a pushover. The enemy AI will not absentmindedly rush into your ambushes, and is more than happy to sit back on overwatch if a better opportunity isn’t present. There’s also an Ironman option, which creates a single auto-saving file. This means all your decisions and actions become permanent, there’s no quick loading out of losing your best soldiers. It may not be for the faint of heart, but everyone should try it at least once.

For as much fun as the game is, there are a few areas that could have been better. The multiplayer can be a fun diversion, but it feels tacked on and not very well balanced. The set-up is simple enough; each player assembles a squad that worth a specific point value based on the units and equipment, which gives you a lot of freedom to experiment. One player might prefer six relatively cheap units while another fields only two very powerful ones. The balancing issues come in from these point values. The human’s advantage is supposed to be more customization, but the aliens are much cheaper for getting units with roughly equivalent capabilities. Also, a few of the powers like mind control can essentially instantly end a match. A cooperative-based multiplayer feels like it could have been a better fit.

Another concern is the potential for the game to feel stagnant over extended play sessions or repeated playthroughs. The occasional terror or council missions, which ask you to rescue VIPs or civilians, can help to break up the monotony but, ultimately, most of the missions are to search out and kill all the aliens. And you’ll do them again and again. You might find yourself hoping no missions pop up just so you can get on with your next research goal or funding influx and continue on with your plans. This is further aggravated by how often you’ll see the same or similar maps. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, mission locations and enemy placement are randomized, but the map layouts are not, so you can find yourself feeling like you’re running the exact same assault plan on the exact same downed UFO.

Ultimately, these issues might dampen the experience, but on the whole the game is a fantastic. While many games stop at the decision of what weapon to equip, XCOM: Enemy Unknown forces you to make some hard choices both on a global scale and while combating the aliens.

Bottom line: XCOM: Enemy Unknown will have you swapping horror stories at the watercooler, and loving almost every minute of it.

Recommendation: Grab XCOM: Enemy Unknown if you’re a fan of the original series, it lives up well to the XCOM name. New fans will be drawn in by the tactical gameplay and the enjoyment of overcoming a challenging game.

[rating=4.5]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US)Play.com(UK)

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