XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game made by Firaxis Games in 2012, it is both a shining example of the genre and a lovechild of 90s games XCOM (MicroProse) and UFO: Enemy Unknown (Mythos Games). I have fallen in love with this game, despite being pretty unfamiliar with turn-based strategy games (I have only played Pokémon and Advance Wars if memory serves).
The story of Enemy Unknown is your run-of-the-mill alien invasion scenario, with strange goings on and bug-eyed extraterrestrial crawling in the shadows. Humans of Earth, rather quickly, form the XCOM project; a secret cabal of scientists, engineers and elite soldiers with the sole purpose of understanding the enemy threat and driving them back. The story links effectively with gameplay; when on base you meet with Dr Vahlen, the head scientist who leads research and autopsies to uncover alien secrets and provide your soldiers with their advanced weapons and armour. Almost all of the available research impacts gameplay, providing new equipment, buffs or furthering the main story; creating a real sense of growing as an elite task force and providing joy each time research is completed.
Dr Shen is the lead engineer, tasked with building any equipment needed and constructing the base itself. Each extra facility provides new options, such as more satellites to watch over countries part of the XCOM project, a foundry to upgrade weapons and several unique facilities to advance the story. Interceptors also fall into the engineers remit, shooting down enemy UFOs and sending a strike team to inspect the wreckage is tremendous fun and yields numerous materials to further weapon production. Although there is a problem with the randomness of the enemy attacks, there are times when you need alien resources in order to help out panicking nations, but you have to wait until an alien assault. By which time the nation may leave the project, taking their money with them. A small problem, but annoying given there is no way to predict attacks.
Enemy Unknown is a fantastic example of a beautiful marriage between gameplay and story, you feel invested in finding out the alien’s purpose on Earth, and learning the secrets behind their technology as it allows you to upgrade your soldiers’ capabilities on the battlefield. A necessary goal as the enemy force continually evolves and improves throughout the game, unveiling a wide and interesting range (around 15 types) of alien combatants to defeat. The combat stays fresh throughout the game, especially when a new alien variant appears, forcing you to predict their attack patterns. The first time I discovered a Cyberdisc for example, I killed it from afar before it had chance to attack. ‘Easy’ I thought, the next time I got cocky, allowing it to get close where it unfurled into a heavy weapons platform; decimating half of my squad before I could down it.
You are given as many chances to evolve, with each class (Sniper, Support, Heavy and Assault) getting their own specific weapons (Sniper Rifle, Assault Rifle, Machine Gun and Shotgun respectively) and abilities to match. All of these weapons can be replaced by alien tech: laser and plasma variations make short work of the enemy, with the assault class getting the powerful Alloy Cannon. This does bring about a slight problem in the difficulty; I found the later stages of the game were easier due to these improvements in weapons and armour, despite the much more powerful enemies. It should be noted that I played on the easier difficulties as I have the tactical abilities of a Scooby-Doo villain, this may not be the case on the harder difficulties. Either way, it is a small problem that shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the game.
The later stages of the game also bring about bigger UFOs to intercept, requiring better aircraft weapons (until you build your own UFOs) and a better team of soldiers; but this means that more time is spent searching the craft for aliens, which can be a laborious task. Each soldier is allowed limited number of actions, depending on the action. For example: you could move twice in one turn, or once if you move further (Dashing), reloading, firing and throwing grenades ends their turn, but the most important is Overwatch; you are able to move once and then wait and fire upon an enemy should they move. This allows you to defend your team on the enemy turn, vital during the later stages of the game. Overwatch is often used as to not leave your men exposed, but it means less movement per turn, slowing down your squad and taking longer (often too long) to search a larger ship. This is slightly remedied by the enemies making sound, with a visual prompt, to help you pinpoint their location.
Other than this small gripe however, the level design is excellent. Providing plenty of full and half cover (indicated by a full and half shield respectively), destructible environments and differing heights; providing the advantages and disadvantages you would expect. All of which is broken up into a grid, clearly displaying where each troop can move to and what their situation would be (even showing flanking positions for both you and the aliens). These clear definitions quickly alter your way of thinking; you will become accustomed to moving your troops around from cover to cover, and knowing which action will benefit you the most in any given situation. I believe this to be fantastic level design, especially in the smaller civilian areas where cover is more plentiful.
Speaking of civilians, there are different types of missions that can involve them: ‘terror’ missions order you to rescue as many civilians as possible while combatting alien forces (this is where you first come across the horrific Chryssalids), UFO crashes and landings have you searching enemy ships and killing the survivors. VIP rescue missions that are just that (the first encounter with Thin Man aliens), and abduction missions have you killing aliens the old-fashioned way: without civilian intervention. These are all variations of search and destroy style gameplay, but given how addictive the combat is I doubt you’ll really care. There is a multiplayer option, which I never used due to the depth and expanse of the single player campaign keeping me occupied (and my child-like grasp of squad management). At first glance the multiplayer is standard single battle matches tacked on to appease the publishers, but I know plenty of people will still enjoy it.
Controls are quite user-friendly, commands are mostly done through small menu mouse prompts but can also be hotkeyed, which isn’t really necessary as time isn’t a factor. Controller support is available (it is out for PS3 and Xbox 360 after all) although not my preferred method of control. Managing the base can be difficult at first, there is a lot to keep track of, but with a little practice it becomes quite easy. Graphics are of a cartoon style, typical Unreal engine bulky soldiers with many interesting looking aliens and technology to leer at when spilling trans-galaxy guts.
In conclusion: a wonderful game regardless of your opinion on turn-based strategy. Massively replayable with random chance battles, different base nations and new game options like random stats for soldiers and wider ranges of weapon damage to keep it fresh. A fantastic relationship between story, base management and battles, giving you ample opportunity to earn materials and spend them on new tech. The game is slightly marred by some graphical flaws (shooting through walls mostly) and occasional daft misses thanks to the shooting being done by probability. Losing seasoned veterans at a later stage can skew the difficulty massively requiring loading of a previous save; but these are truly forgivable minor points in an otherwise brilliant game.
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