XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
I can't really explain why, but way back in the mid-90s, I wound up playing a lot more of the original XCOM's sequel, Terror from the Deep, than the original. I'm not sure why that happened, because even I could see that the original was the better game. Either way, it's been at least a decade since I have even seen the original two games in action - a shame, really, considering the original's perfectly playable over on Steam in all of its 1994 glory. But once 2K backed off and decided to spend a while reworking that XCOM first person shooter remake and announced that they had Firaxis making a turn-based tactical remake that'd be coming out first, I just decided to wait for that.
Well, that time is now here, and I'm happy to say that Firaxis' complete remake of the original XCOM somehow manages to bring back a vast majority of the charm and gameplay of the original, and then they modernized it all for the current era - on both PC and consoles - without compromising hardly anything. That's a razor-thin tightrope that must be walked, and I didn't think it'd be very likely for any current developer to actually achieve this, but they have. I'm sure that some rabid fans of the originals will have a range of complaints - after all, this does include new features and a fundamental change in the system of using action points to move around and shoot at the enemy invaders - but I've found that the replacement turn system is just as good as action points were back in the day, and so many of the high-level management and low-level tactical gameplay options are still intact. There are some that will gripe at any change at all, and that's fine, but I think that 2K and Firaxis have accomplished something huge here: they've brought back a two-decade-old classic without dumbing it down and used the power of great tutorials and interface to keep today's new breed of gamer both interested and informed.
At the heart of XCOM is a management interface where you'll hire and equip teams of troops to deal with alien forces landing all around the planet. As you research new technologies and incorporate alien equipment that is recovered throughout the game, your soldiers become veterans and go into battle with improved equipment - assuming, of course, that they survived the last mission, and if not, you'll have to bring rookies in. Each mission is set up in a turn-based, tactical combat system where you've got to use your soldiers' distinct advantages to flank the enemy, deal with their impressive technology, and rain down hell - often using fewer resources than they do. Over time, the alien assault gets more intense and your choices both at the soldier level and at the management level will determine whether the human race either defeats the alien invaders, or winds up surrendering to them.
While you play, you'll need to cover the planet with satellites in order to detect alien incursions and attacks, and you may be forced to leave some countries or sub-continents on their own to fend for themselves, as it's not incredibly likely that you can spread your resources so thin so early. Add coverage, though, and those countries you're now protecting will fund the XCOM project, giving you the cash you need to expand your base through underground excavation, and then you can put in new facilities to deal with your expanded role. You'll upgrade troops, hire new ones if they get killed in the field, and build up a force of experimental aircraft so that they'll shoot down alien ships before they even touch down on the planet. Then you'll take on missions to recover alien artifacts from those downed craft, sometimes in large, urban areas, and other times it'll be out in the sticks.
These missions are all about tactics and movement; by default, your soldiers can move either a small distance and then shoot, or move much further and use up their turn entirely. Some special weapons need a whole turn to fire, while some troop abilities allow you to fire after dashing far. Setting up a defensive situation can be difficult because most of the cover on a map is only half-cover that still leaves you open to fire when the aliens take their turn, so you'll be looking very carefully for full cover or deciding when to "hunker down" an injured trooper in order to make sure he or she gets out alive. Throughout all of this, you'll be coming into missions with new gear and abilities, and while XCOM is very much a kind of slow-burn game - rushing through the management interface or even the tactical missions can mean bad choices and eventual failure - it most certainly is rewarding. But just a word of warning: if you've never played a turn-based or tactical game, this game might not be up your alley. Still, if you dig sci-fi and want something a little more cerebral, well, XCOM is probably a great place to try and get started, though.
Even with that in mind, I feel like XCOM has a few flaws. The game will often surprise you with sudden alien appearances, and if one of those happens to expose one of your soldiers, and that alien gets a critical shot on your soldier, then you might be looking at a soldier going from behind cover and protected to dead on the floor without even a chance to do anything about it. Firaxis seemed to realize this would be an issue, but I feel like their solution to it was misguided: you'll get a very short cutscene when you discover new aliens on the battlefield, but then it becomes really obvious where they are. So there are times when there is no surprise at all, and other times when the randomness of each mission can screw you over without a chance to defend yourself. The game's got multiple difficulties along with a separately-toggled Ironman mode that severely limits the amount of saving and loading you can do, and as you crank up the difficulty, this effect can get more frustrating. Yes, it's kind of a side effect of random generation of missions, and this is excusable in a game where one "run" through it takes only an hour or two (like, say, Faster than Light), but one playthrough of XCOM can take twenty or more hours.
Beyond that, I have few complaints. The game's got some long and sometimes goofy cutscenes, but the presentation is generally pretty consistent, and the special effects and range of tactical options make you feel like you're (at least usually) in control of the battlefield. Taking out an alien, even if you're using what almost looks like a Fallout 3-style VATS interface to pick the target, is still really satisfying as you get a cinematic look at the killing shot, and it's also terrifying to make a critical mistake that has left one of your soldiers exposed and now you're getting a very cinematic look at the shot that's about to take him out. Oh, and in case you get sick of the game's campaign - which does bear repeated playthroughs at higher difficulties - there is a 1-on-1 online multiplayer mode where you can pit your soldiers against a friend's. I don't think that this mode was really a necessary addition, but it doesn't seem to have compromised anything in the single player mode, so I'm fine with seeing something like this in an otherwise solo game.
Does Firaxis' re-imagined XCOM perfectly bring back the tactics and excitement of the MicroProse original? Not exactly, but they've still made an excellent tactical game that works just as well on all three platforms. FPS players and fans of instant gratification aren't going to be too pleased with the pace that is set in this game, but for those looking for something with a little more strategy, they'll certainly find it here. XCOM won't make everyone happy, but it's a rare thing to see a turn-based game straddle the line between accessibility and depth so well. If you've had enough high-speed, frantic action, then XCOM is a great change of pace.
Disclaimer: This review is based primarily off of a PC copy provided by Valve on Steam, with additional playtime on PS3.