XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: a space odyssey

By Steve Watts, Oct 09, 2012 6:00am PDT

XCOM: Enemy Unknown fostered an incredible amount of goodwill by sheer purity of concept. After classic fans felt put out by a shooter reboot, the announcement of a proper turn-based strategy game sated the community. Firaxis probably could have gotten away with a simple, no-frills update to please a hungry fan-base. Instead, it has lovingly crafted a sequel that feels both perfectly at-home in the modern game era and simultaneously reverent to its roots.

The core of the story centers around a well-funded, multinational organization in charge of monitoring and combating alien threats around the globe. Realistically, such a large-scale operation would require massive infrastructure and multiple moving parts. XCOM doesn't shy away from this, making for a wonderfully complex game. You're tasked with not just battle strategy, but broad tactical decisions. You'll find yourself overseeing the management of soldier recruitment, research, engineering, satellite coverage, fleets protecting those satellites, pacifying council member countries, and even placement of rooms in the XCOM base. The game has systems stacked atop systems and nestled snugly between other systems, and that's without even entering the battlefield.

All of these elements could have been overwhelming, but the game does a remarkable job of introducing them concisely. It hits the perfect pitch of explaining without over-explaining, and leaving the player free explore its disparate parts. Once I understood each the systems themselves, I began to see how each one impacts several of the others. Every decision carries weight across the entire experience.

These interconnected mechanics also made it very easy to lose hours of time. I was constantly just a day or two away from my next research breakthrough, or a mission away from the funds or engineers for a new piece of armor. I lost hours of sleep to the tantalizing promise of the next advancement if I just committed to one more quick battle. Then another. Then another.

Thanks to the randomized maps with modular parts, no two missions were alike. Each battle had to be approached with careful tactics to avoid losing my precious team members. I had carefully selected each upgrade, each piece of equipment, and even each nickname to my personal liking. On rare occasion that I let a soldier fall, the loss felt personal. The story in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fairly generic alien invasion tale, but the creation, history, and loss of my own fighting force made my own story more powerful. The plot even smartly capitalized on my personal connection to soldiers who, in any other strategy game, would be faceless puppets to throw in the enemy's direction.

The battles that cost my men and women their lives felt very modern. Turn-based strategy has fallen out of fashion, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown shows just how relevant the genre can be. Small flourishes like the cinematic camera help accent the cover-based squad mechanics, making it feel right at home on the current generation.

The difficulty of the battles ramped up nicely. I found the enemies always just barely a step ahead of me on Normal difficulty. I wasn't often overwhelmed, but on the other end of the spectrum, the game didn't allow me to bask in the glow of being overpowered for long. Each time I started to act overconfident and reckless, the game would promptly gut-check me with a new enemy or wrinkle. I learned to always be careful, and take nothing for granted.

Perhaps the most refreshing part about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is how familiar this praise must sound to fans of the original. Firaxis wisely took a game nearly two decades old and used it as the blueprint for this one, tweaking and modernizing some systems as needed. In doing so, the studio has made an example of XCOM, showing not only its own notable development chops, but how well classic mechanics can stand up if we just give them a chance.


This XCOM: Enemy Unknown review was based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 3 and PC.

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