XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: a space odyssey

Firaxis has revived the classic XCOM series by showing the world how to pull off a turn-based strategy game. Our review.

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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.

Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

  • reply
    October 9, 2012 6:00 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: a space odyssey.

    Firaxis has revived the classic XCOM series by showing the world how to pull off a turn-based strategy game. Our review.

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      October 9, 2012 6:18 AM

      won't be able to play this for 2 weeks. Sadface. :<

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      October 9, 2012 7:06 AM

      Reviewed on a 360? Seriously. Wow.

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        October 9, 2012 7:07 AM

        Why not ? It seems to play and control well on the consoles.

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          October 9, 2012 8:29 AM

          Oh, no issue with console versions of the game - I'm pleased that they got a console-version working so well, control-wise but if you read my post further down, you'll (hopefully) get where I'm coming from a bit better. Knowing that it plays well on consoles means that I'll probably hope to get this on my PS3 down the road, too. :)

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        October 9, 2012 7:14 AM

        It plays exactly the same. The only difference is slightly longer load times. I would even go so far as saying that it plays better with a controller, since I preferred playing the PC demo that way.

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        October 9, 2012 7:40 AM

        I imagine most reviewers were sent console copies because that's what publisher's market towards.

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        October 9, 2012 7:40 AM

        2K prolly only sent out review copies for the console.

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          October 9, 2012 8:00 AM

          That seems to be the way it goes. Most publishers seem to send out 360 versions for review.

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        October 9, 2012 8:09 AM

        I literally shit my pants after reading that. I cannot believe this bush league carebare shit.

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        October 9, 2012 8:28 AM

        Yeah, I figured that's the review copy they received but having worked in this industry, they could have easily asked for the PC version.

        My annoyance is based on the fact that this is a remake/sequel of a classic game that ONLY existed on the PC, originally. The least measure of respect (in my opinion, of course) would have been to review the PC version with some additional remarks that describe how it works on consoles.

        I have no issues with Shack doing a console review of the game, per se, but I'd have expected the PC version of this game of all games, to be the PC version. It's just sad.

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        October 9, 2012 10:19 AM

        actually works really really well on 360

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        October 9, 2012 10:25 AM

        where is your fucking pride, shacknews. a slap to the face of all true gamers. good lord!!!!11

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          October 9, 2012 3:47 PM

          A true gamer cares not about platforms, but plays games regardless of platform.

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        October 9, 2012 6:09 PM

        It's a turn based game not an fps..

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      October 9, 2012 8:06 AM

      manage to finish the tutorial before going to work this morning... been trying to find a reason to go back home since

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        October 9, 2012 10:18 AM

        Exactly this. In hindsight, I should have taken a staycation day today.

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      October 9, 2012 10:21 AM

      im skipping this. seems to rah rah meat headish. first xcom was creepy, this just looks like its all action

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        October 9, 2012 10:26 AM

        It's awesome and still creepy. It's so great. Played it till 6:30 this morning. Slept. Went to class @ 8am. Working till 7pm. Zero regrets.

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          October 9, 2012 11:17 AM

          I dunno about the creepy part but it is still awesome. Part of the creep was hearing the noises of alien action off screen and the creepy music. The new one doesn't seem to have any of that.

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        October 9, 2012 10:49 AM

        lol.

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        October 9, 2012 11:19 AM

        it's almost as creepy as TftD, which IMHO was much creepier than UFO Defense

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        October 9, 2012 11:33 AM

        My first impressions of the demo kind of the same, but after watching OverloadUT play, I understood the game better, and how it's meant to be play. I'm very much looking forward to playing it now.
        True it's not a 1-to-1 remake of the original games; a lot of stuff has been streamlined, but some of that may be for the better.
        I think it's definitely worth giving it a chance.

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      October 9, 2012 10:41 AM

      Just a quick clarification Steve:

      Strategy is the broader campaign and may not have to do with conflict at all. In Enemy Unknown, the base is the strategy layer.

      Tactics are individual implementations of a strategy for a specific goal. The individual battles are the tactics layer.

      The number of reviewers that got these two terms flipped has made me chuckle.

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      October 9, 2012 10:41 AM

      FU Guys in the USA who can play this now. 3 more days for us in Europe. No idea why a global release isn't possible.

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      October 9, 2012 11:10 AM

      Finished playing a good 6-7 hours so far. A few thoughts thus far. Playing the PC version btw.

      *Michael McCann seems to do a good job with the music setting the tone and atmosphere for the game. His score doesn't try and copy the original game's soundtrack but borrows from it and expands to fit with this game. You get some tracks however that seem "awfully familiar".

      *WTF is up with the Slender Men, they can damn near spit poison as far as a sniper can shoot! It doesn't seem reasonable that they can do this, I mean ... its spitting after all?

      *Annoying thing I've found so far, if you are doing VIP escort missions and you end your turn with placing the VIP at the extraction point, any critically wounded (one bar of health possibly bleeding) soldier you have will die or count as KIA and the game will immediately end the round going back to the skyranger. Pissed me off because I had a guy next to my medic but the game ended my turn prematurely since I moved the VIP first and placed him into the extraction zone.

      *I'm a little disappointed that after finishing research, such as Sectoid Autopsy it does not show you their innards and anatomy like in the first game. You just get this bland wireframe outline of some kind of humanoid figure and a description. I did however like when you do choose to perform an autopsy that it shows a clip of somebody cutting open said alien and goo splatters the camera of course its at a bad angle but still cool none the less.

      *Some of the military characters in this game sound awfully nerdy and sound more like they belong at the chess club more so than in any kind of military unit. Take for example General Van Dorn, his men are about just as bad as he is. When you hear him you will shake your head and go you gotta be shitting me.

      *WTF is up with being able to have only a single item slot? Has XCOM not heard of utility belts or pouches? Seriously, you have the choice to bring one item into battle. That means if you choose to go with a medkit you can't bring a grenade with. Thats a pretty big WTF. I haven't looked too deep but I really hope the officer training school has some sort of upgrade to remedy this.

      *So far I really like the characters such as your Science Officer and Engineering Forman. They take a pretty big interest in what you are doing and provide a lot of insight as to what is going on. It seems when I'm out on missions it's like they are glued to my camera feed waiting for me to come across something they want me to preserve or bring back in one way or another.

      *Air Combat is a lot different in this game. I hope further into the game, I'll get more options during air combat scenes other than to abort combat.

      *Maps seem pretty small, but for this game it makes a lot of sense seeing as every map is jam packed with places to get into cover. Moving a massive 14 person team would be retarded as it would be a cluster fuck and take too long to do things.

      *Graphics are legit as shit. Looks pretty good on my high end PC. No complaints about the art direction or the way things look.

      *Base Management is different this time around, you can't just buy engineers and scientist. You gain them by building laboratories or workshops, you can also get them by completing missions as a reward. So choose wisely as you may not have enough scientist to research certain things or maybe not enough engineers to manufacture specific items. You can't just have 1 engineer minimum assigned to something like you could in the old game.

      *Chrysalids in this game are pretty terrifying but I can't help but think that maybe the original Xenomorphic Crab like Aliens were just a bit more. You see them you better hope you have a researched weapon with you or have lots of guys nearby to help.

      *After the first swath of missions, shit hits the fan pretty quick. Be prepared to work at getting additional satellites launched.

      So far I'm enjoying this game and I like it but I really want to play though it all before my mind is completely made up about it. I'll probably share more about it as I get to it.

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      October 9, 2012 11:18 AM

      does anyone know if this will show up on PSN today?

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      October 9, 2012 11:24 AM

      I am very very very very very very happy with my purchase. Congrats to OverloadUT, not dahanese, virus, and the entire XCOM team.

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        October 9, 2012 11:33 AM

        i am super excited to play tonight. i didn't play the demo because i want to get in and start from scratch and be all HOLY FUCK THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM WHEN I SAW IT IN MAY

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        October 9, 2012 6:10 PM

        Virus works at firaxis/2K now?