By William Shelton
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Systems: PC(Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360, iPhone/iPad
Developer: Firaxis Games
Metacrtic Score: 89(PC)
When the earth is invaded by an unknown alien foe, you are placed in command of the new XCOM department. On top of sending out and commanding units to combat earths new enemy it is your job to keep the facility funded, staffed and expand it as you see fit. You answer only to the council of countries who fund the program. So long as you keep the panic down in their countries you are free to battle the alien menace however you choose.
That about sums up the “story” for Xcom. While the story’s not exactly “District 9” I was never bothered by this as it helped the more global nature of the game shine through. Not only is the council made up of countries from all over the world, but the soldiers are also equally diverse in race, gender and ethnic background (even if there could have been more diversity in the character models). To me the lack of any real narrative or even major characters helped establish that this is everyone’s fight, which I appreciate. It even makes me wish there were more games that dealt with globalism and geopolitical cooperation, but this was a good start.
The story may not have held much allure, but the game play loop has an almost addictive quality too it. You spend your time split between missions and base building, and each reinforces the other. As you complete missions you gain new bring new alien materials back to the base to research which opens up new weapons and armor to bring into battle. When you add that to a pretty well rounded difficulty curve and base building, it becomes easy to lose hours of your life just going through the loop of “kill aliens, bring back material, upgrade equipment”. Not helping you break away from this cycle is that most research and engineering projects take time to build after you buy them, making it easy to justify playing one more mission to help pass the time before realizing you’ve done nothing constructive with your day. But hey, you needed those satellites, right?
As addictive as the loop is, Xcom still has it’s issues. The biggest being a pretty major lack in verity. While the game is good at introducing new or upgraded alines to fight there are only three types of missions you’ll be doing: abductions (kill all the aliens), terror missions (save as many people as you can and kill and the aliens), or UFO crashes /landings (kill all the aliens but try not to damage the UFO in order to maximize mission rewards) with an occasional VIP rescues sprinkled in. Making matters even worse is how nearly all of the games environments look alike. While you’re missions take place all around the globe, you never get a real senses of the country you’re in. In fact, at one point a downed a UFO only for one to land as my next mission, and both times not only was i fighting in a forest, it was the exact same one. This never stopped the game from being fun, but 16 hours in I’m dying for a change of pace.
It also wouldn’t hurt if the maps were a bit bigger. For the most part the small and mostly linear maps made the game feel more like a turn based cover shooter rather than a strategy game. In fact, with a simple pallet swap this could easily have been souls as a “Gears of War” RTS. If the maps were just a bit more open tactics like flanking, suppressing or flushing would be more viable. As is though, my main battle strategy was get behind cover and either overwatch (shoot an enemy when they come into the characters sight) if nothing was in view yet or shoot at what I could see. That’s not too say no thought when in to my battles, but not as much as I would have hoped for or expected.
Another minor annoyance was aiming explosives. You movie the camera by simply moving the mouse, which is also how you aim grenades and rockets. Because of this. Whenever I went to use one of there tools I had to fight with the camera as the game thought I was trying to look at something the distance in stead of thinking I’m trying to shoot the asshole a few yards in front of me. I understand with the games verticality that the developers couldn’t have just used an overhead vew for this, but it’s hard to believe they found this mess to be the best solution and I really hope this gets fixed in the next game.
The sound design was pretty spot on through out the game however. The three types of guns i’ve unlocked so far (Normal, Laser and Plasma) all sound unique enough as to be distinguishable from sound alone and the explosions sounded like they really could send foes as high into the air as they often did. The voice stabs your party says get old, but they sound fine. Hearing a muton enter the battle horrifies me each time as they keep getting harder to kill so I can never hear them and be comfortable until I know for sure that it’s dead or one of the originals and not the upgraded monstrosities.
I wasn’t expecting this. I only picked this up because it was in a humble bundle and XCOM 2 comes out next month. I have little experience with strategy games and was never really itching to get into the genre so I was more than happy to ignore the XCOM franchise. But I have to say, to my great surprise Enemy Unknown has been occupying my thoughts more than any game since the original Dark Souls. It’s fun, challenging, rewarding and has one hell of an addictive game play loop. So far i’ve played for 16 hours, and most of that has been spent putting off the end mission in order to keep playing. I really like this game, flaws and all. So much so that if it wasn’t for the fact that I know my computer wont run it, I’d seriously consider buying XCOM 2 day one.