XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Game Review]

I’m still kicking around the idea of doing one straight-up game review a week, with some material at the top with content warnings for parents. We’ll call it Fun Fridays and have cupcakes and lemonade! This week, we turn to a remake of the third greatest PC game of all time, a little something called…

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer/Publisher: Firaxis/2K
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PS3
Rated: Mature
Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence
Details (ESRB):  This is a strategy game in which players must save present-day Earth from an alien invasion. As players manage resources, research weapon technology, and monitor alien presence, they can dispatch squads of soldiers to attack human- and insect-like creatures in turn-based combat. From a 3/4-top-down perspective, players use assault rifles, grenades, and other military-grade weapons to kill nearby enemies. Battles are accompanied by intermittent cutscenes that depict close-up (e.g., over-the-shoulder) instances of violence: soldiers getting impaled or beaten to death by alien creatures; realistic explosions that result in larger blood sprays. If an alien “implants” an egg into a dead human, the character will eventually explode amid additional gibbing effects. Some scenes depict dead or dying soldiers whose bodies are burned or mutilated. The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” can be heard in the dialogue.
Parent Verdict: The details sound pretty grim, but the nature of XCOM as a top-down strategy game makes the gore and violence a lot less intense than the same content would be in a first-person game. The battles are more like chess with bursting alien heads. The foul language is scattered and not all that prominent. Different parents will have different perspectives on the appropriateness of the content, but I have no problem with my teenage son playing it.
Version Tested: PC

On any list of the greatest computer games ever made, X-COM: UFO Defense is in the top five. I’d put it right behind Civilization and System Shock. The original is a turn-based sci-fi game with a beautifully integrated tactical/strategic design. You perform research, manage your base, and respond to threats on the strategic level, and then fly all over the planet taking on enemy aliens in turn-based squad-level tactical combat. It’s original, fun, challenging, clever, and memorable.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (couldn’t they afford the en-dash?) is a wonderful streamlining and updating. Fans expecting either retread of the original, or a complete betrayal of what made it special, are in for a surprise, because this is something else. Design has evolved in the past 18 years. Things that worked when the medium was fresh and we were patient just don’t work after a couple decades of gaming experience.

On the other hand, things that made PC gaming special (a more mature sensibility, better design, depth of play and control) are too often forgotten in the hybrid computer/console design world of today. And so Firaxis (the company co-founded by Sid Meier) has reached into the past to bring the special flavor of PC gaming into the present, and give it a fresh sheen.

And, boy howdy, does it work. I have no idea if I’m a good audience for this game or not, since I adored the original series and played it to death. I’d be curious to know what someone with no prior experience would think of it. But as an X-COM veteran, I can tell you that everything good about the series is here and better, and the few things that aren’t here are barely missed.

XCOM stands for “extraterrestrial combat.” Earth is being invaded by flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens, and the multinational XCOM team is given the job of protecting various locations around the globe, intercepting enemy ships, hunting aliens, recovering alien tech and corpses (and living aliens if possible) for research, and fighting off the alien hoards.

It’s a tough job, and your four man squad (which can be expanded to six with experience) has their hands full battling an array of alien types with different powers and weapons. Cryssalids, Sectoids, Thin Men, and more are all on hand to deal damage in a variety of unpleasant ways, and it’s your job to stop them. The tactical game borrows ideas from boardgames, dispensing with the time-based movement of the original by providing two actions per-soldier, per-round. An action can be move and shoot, shoot twice, or any variety of special functions, such as throwing a hand-grenade, firing a rocket launcher, stunning an alien so it can be taken alive, using a medkit, and so on. 

As your soldiers gain experience, they can choose from different skills in one of four different classes: assault, support, heavy, or sniper. The skills work like rules exceptions a la Cosmic Encounter. For example, in basic play. a heavy can only fire his rocket launcher without moving. Add a skill, however, and he can either move and shoot, or choose a “holo” attack that provides a +10 bonus to any allies attacking the same target.

These variations multiply and stack over time, creating an elaborate matrix of skills and abilities that allow you to fine-tune your approach to each map. As you collect alien gear and assign researchers to develop new tech, you begin to fell a storage locker filled with neat toys for soldier’s to use in the field.

Missions are tighter and more focused than in the original. Visually, it’s quite nice, with a good variety of views from elevated tactical down to over-the-shoulder shots of both friends and enemies as they execute their attacks. The environment is completely destructible, so that car your guy hides behind may just get blown up, and take him with it. The interface is a touch finicky at times, with some jittering around the edges for the hand-grenade targeting reticle, but it’s nothing serious.

The story unfolds at the strategic level as shadowy global forces order you all around the map to save people and places from menacing aliens. In this portion of the game, you monitor your research team (developing new tech and learning about the aliens), engineers (building facilities, ships, and objects), global map (expanding into new regions and monitoring alien activity), barracks (managing and training soldiers) and the rest.

You can expand these facilities by adding new labs and workshops, an alien containment center, and more. The trick is to respond to threats around the world in order to keep the regional panic level down. If a region gets too panicky because they feel you’re not paying enough attention, they’ll withdraw their support, which means you lose some of the funds needed to maintain your operation and research new tech.

It all comes together in a near-perfect package that blends the best ideas of the original with more modern approaches. There are some crash/freezing bugs being reported, but I haven’t encountered any real showstoppers. If you’re look for a new/old game that offers both fun and depth, XCOM is it.

Buy it here.


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.