XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
XCOM has returned in Firaxis/2K's 2012 remake and it is an amazing game, read our review to find out why!
UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-Com
Julian Gollop is a man whom we admire, mostly because he created some of our favourite games like Rebel Star Raiders, Laser Squad and UFO: Enemy Unknown. UFO: Enemy Unknown was renamed X-COM UFO Defence for the American release. X-Com was a turn based tactical strategy and resource management game that gained a massive cult following, and in turn has spawned numerous clones and attempted remakes.
2012 is the year of XCOM's return to glory and if you don't own XCOM: Enemy Unknown in any way/shape/format you're missing out on one of this year's best games and a truly worthy remake. This is also the best turn-based combat you're going to find on a console.
We're looking at the Xbox 360 version for the review, the PC has its own GUI and tweaks that make it a platform specific title.
Aliens have invaded the Earth and due to losses across the board from conventional military/paramilitary organisations, the shadowy Council has activated the experimental Last Stand project known as XCOM. You are the Commander of XCOM and charged with battling the invaders across numerous theatres of war, the survival of the planet and the human race rests on your broad shoulders. The story is highly cinematic and the game presents it in larger than life cut-scenes with a good deal of gung-ho action and drama. This is something that the original lacked due to the gameplay ideas/mechanics of the time.
So what is XCOM?
Is it real time or is it turn-based?
XCOM is at its heart a turn-based tactical combat married with real time resource management and HQ building. Where you need to have a sound tactical mind, a good long term strategy combined with an eye for balancing your short/long term rewards. The remake loses some of the old X-Com features but gains a lot in the process. The good news for X-Com fans is that Classic Difficulty in the game is just that, very much like X-Com/Terror from the Deep (the sequel) and totally unrelenting and whilst you might be able to save anywhere, if that doesn't float your boat, you can always activate Ironman mode and take one save, which auto-updates and that's it.
You make one wrong move, you're going to pay for it down the line if not immediately - welcome to XCOM, Commander.
Ant Farm Base View
Ant Farm: The nickname given to the front-on view of the base, which is different compared to the traditional X-Com isometric base view and top down design. The Ant Farm is very impressive however and provides a great visual treat for XCOM Commanders. It can be zoomed and panned effectively. Unlike X-Com you only have one base and it won't ever get attacked since base defence isn't part of the new XCOM game.
Research: Here in the XCOM HQ you can manage your scientific research projects, such as new armour for the squad, new weapons, alien based technology and more.
Engineering: Have you come up with something interesting from the research, well, you can get it manufactured here. You can also construct new base facilities to expand the XCOM HQ and later on you unlock the Foundry where you can upgrade your equipment and gain new powerful toys.
Barracks: Here you can hire new soldiers, customise the squad you have, changing their skin tone, voice and so on. You can alter their loadout (changing equipped weapons) and promote them (if they've earned it) to unlock new abilities. You can also buy upgrades through the Officer Training School once a squad member has reached the required rank.
Hangar: This important part of the base houses your interceptor strike craft, for shooting down UFOs before they can accomplish their missions. Craft can be bought here for various countries and stationed to provide fast action response against alien incursions. You can also change the interceptor loadouts here based on any required tech you may have unlocked.
Situation Room: With the satellite monitor/launch facility, Grey Market (sell unwanted alien stuff) and Doom Tracker, this room keeps you abreast of important changes in the Earth's countries attitudes towards XCOM. XCOM finances are also shown here and you can see the organisations outgoings and so on.
Mission Control: This is where you do your scanning for alien activity, track incursions and respond to mission updates. The Geoscape keeps you informed of the status of the war against the aliens and any important mission sites and threats appear here. Scanning advances time and the event list gives you a good idea of what's coming up next, important research, council funding reports and so on.
HQ gameplay is an important part of the whole package and it's easy to navigate and select important places in the HQ. You can quickly get to Mission Control with a press of the Y button and respond to alien threats in an instant. It's a balancing act most of the time, month by month you'll weigh the pros and cons of your various decisions, using the time most effectively to grow your HQ, adapt alien tech and respond to various missions, some of them set by the Council themselves (highly rewarding but usually pretty hard).
You'll spend a lot of time in your HQ between missions so it's wise to plan a good design for the base, since you'll want lots of satellite coverage (more sats = more funding coming in per month and less panic overall), you can also intercept and shoot down more UFOs before they can strike against the populace.
You may have to shoot down a UFO with an interceptor, which can be pretty hard to begin with since UFOs outperform Earth tech by a long shot. Fortunately there are a few modules you can equip to help out, but they all require resources. Your first ever UFO battle can go a few ways but usually comes with success, your interceptor can either sustain no, light, or severe damage in the encounter - based on how it performs.
Once you get an alert you can respond to or a UFO that's crashed, its time to gear up (you can customise the squad and soldiers on the mission prep screen) and fly out aboard the Skyranger dropship.
At the heart of the XCOM experience there's a deep tactical layer which has lost none of the knuckle-biting edge of the original. It's played out in turn based combat with your squad making the first move until they encounter an alien force, which then appears in a nifty cut-scene to show the enemy off before they move into position.
You won't be managing the squad's inventory (a change we're happy with) in the tactical side of the game, nor will you be hoarding Time Units etc. In this XCOM you have two actions which your soldier can perform. This does simplify things a lot but offers a new player much more freedom and less of a glacier-steep learning curve. Play continues turn by turn until you encounter the alien forces, often shown with a quick little cinematic scene to introduce them via the action camera.
When you have an alien in line of sight and combat is possible, you can press the right trigger to activate the Tactical GUI which gives you a list of options, you can trigger an ability (if you have one unlocked), fire off a shot (hit chance is based on numerous factors, including elevation and equipment) or move again for a better position. You can also trigger Overwatch, which allows your soldier to take a reaction shot against any alien that moves into their line of sight.
The shot is at a penalty, but it's better than nothing and can guard against ambushes.
You can see easily where your soldier can move to, what cover is available based on the shield icon and what objects are useable, such as ladders, which your soldier will automatically climb if they have enough movement tiles with which to do so. The 360 GUI (console GUI in general) is excellent and really intuitive to use. If you want to cover more ground you can move further than a single move, this is dashing, but it will consume both your action slots and leave you unable to do anything else except hide in cover.
The more aliens you kill using conventional (non explosive) weapons, the better, since you'll recover artefacts from their bodies and weapon fragments etc. You can use grenades/rocket launchers, but they will decimate any important components and leave you with just corpses.
Tactical Map Battle
Sometimes there's no choice if you want to save the squad, because once the soldier is dead, they're gone. If they're wounded they have to recover before they can return to active duty. This makes for intense and nail-biting battles as well as some amazing story moments (personal soldier stories) as the squaddie manages to fire off her rifle, with only a 5% chance to hit, scores a critical and decimates the Sectoid before it can open fire next turn.
XCOM is wonderful for this, for telling your own soldier's story without the need for cut-scenes and so on. It comes down to those moments of heroism where the soldier took a shot and killed the bad guy, or managed to save a critically wounded ally in the heat of heavy resistance. Perhaps you didn't know the Thin Man had Overwatch this turn, you ran to save your buddy, but the Thin Man gets a reaction shot off and even though it should have hit, it missed. You slam into cover and on your turn manage to heal your friend, open fire and finish off the Thin Man.
It might be third person isometric turn-based tactical play, but your heart is still pumping just like you're playing a first person shooter. We love it!
So that's XCOM's tactical scape in a nutshell, there are more nuances and so on, but we've covered the most important and we'll leave you to figure out the rest. Remember though, Overwatch is your friend!
Yes some things have changed; you have a simplified game in many ways but in others it's just as complex and the changes are for the better. XCOM's remake is brilliant and designed for new fans and gamers to enjoy as well as the hardcore X-Commers.
XCOM is brash, bold and colourful it runs on the Unreal Engine. So you do get some texture-pop in on some of the cut-scenes. They're quick though and smooth out pretty fast. We love the art style for it and it reminds us of GI Joe/Action Man. In fact the HQ is pretty much the Action Man HQ we always wanted to see as kids. The gung-ho aesthetic is married to a superb visual design which comes through on all levels of the game, especially in the cinematic style and vignettes which bring to mind the early Wing Commander games.
We get a feeling of nostalgia and a deep sense of gamer joy when the Skyranger rockets into the air and leaves the base, with the trails of vapour pouring out of the engines. Or when it comes down to land at a mission site and the squad disembark. These little graphical touches are something special and it makes XCOM glorious because of it.
The same can be said for the action camera in combat, which highlights awesome shots, cinematic action and makes the turn-based gameplay even more visually appealing.
All in all XCOM has a great aesthetic and visual design, it really does look grand and the special effects are spot on. Each mission area is hand designed, the aliens are often ported in randomly at the start however, so no two missions ever play alike even if the same area is used again.
There's a lot of heart and soul in XCOM from an animation standpoint. There's a ton of great animations across the board, from the HQ to the individual character/alien animations, weapon reloads and action-camera shots. It all comes together perfectly and looks just fantastic in motion. There's just so much to see in terms of movement/facial animation in the cut-scenes and great gung-ho action animations.
There's a solid level of physics underlying the whole thing, though it's more controlled simulation than anything with grenades bouncing along their trajectories and explosions causing area affect damage. Then you have the destruction applied to the environments which is another physics layer the game excels at, allowing virtually anything to be destroyed/blown away. Cover doesn't last long most of the time.
Enemy AI is a wonderful thing to see in action because it uses tactics, it knows the game's mechanics and will flank you, use abilities intelligently and provide a heck of a challenge even on Easy. If you play on Classic then X-Com fans prepare for a feeling akin to that from Terror From the Deep, keep your wits about you since the AI is even better and uses advanced tatics/tricks far more.
There are no real issues with the AI and it all comes together perfectly.
The sound design for XCOM is brilliant with a great layer of atmospheric audio, especially when assaulting Alien Bases or moving through the undergrowth towards a crashed UFO.
We're reminded of Mass Effect 2 and 3 with the score for XCOM. It's bold, it's just like game's graphics and it's stirring. When the squad are being outfitted - then the Skyranger takes to the air, the music pumps to a fantastic military theme. We would love a stand-alone soundtrack to the game to be honest.
There are some great performances and voice work in the game; we can't find a single thing to nitpick here. We love the XCOM Central Officer Bradford and a few of the other characters, especially the Shadowy Council guy.
We often feel like we're in an episode of Stargate or Project: UFO (there is a homage to SHADO in the game - listen out for a comment about Straker from Bradford in the Situation Room), so the dialogue here does a good job of evoking mankind's response to an alien invasion of Planet Earth. Top marks again!
Oddly enough XCOM multiplayer works, it works because its turn based and squad based. We aren't massive fans of it and we'd happily say that given a choice between more single player content and so on, we'd go that route every time. You can set up the game and squad of your choice, alien or XCOM and battle it out against other players - we dived in some to the mp of the game but we really did spend a lot of our time playing the single player and experimenting with new research/tactics against the alien invaders.
Due to the turn-based nature of the combat, lag really isn't much of an issue.
Yes it's back, its back and it's a really solid remake. Whilst it probably won't be everyone's cup of tea due to some feature loss from the previous games, it's a fantastic game and a suitable return for the much beloved classic series. It's about time we say and we can't wait to see what Firaxis and 2K cook up for a sequel - perhaps a remake of Terror from the Deep is in order?
XCOM is also a massive game, you'll spend hours on the various missions, you'll spend hours researching and outfitting your squad. You may lose soldiers and countries in the processes but each loss may well galvanise you further to victory. Victory comes at a great cost Commander and XCOM is perfect at illustrating just how far you have to go to achieve it against a relentless alien force.
The best remake yet - XCOM is a game that deserves to be in your collection.