Sid Meier is one of the most ambitious and brilliant game developers to ever live. Upon his entrance into the video game industry he created now one of the most highly regarded development teams in the industry, Firaxis Games. Since then, Firaxis has arguably mastered the art of the strategy game and no matter what it is they release, it never ceases to give us hours upon hours of brilliant gameplay that creeps into a part of our brain and just forces us to not stop playing until the sun has rose for another day. Firaxis’ newest adventure, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, does not break that mold as it brings together global struggles and foreign invaders into one nice little package.
As most know, XCOM Enemy Unknown is the reboot of a franchise from the 90’s-Early 2000’s. The story mechanics have mostly stayed the same between the two as it all revolves around an unknown alien invasion. It’s a derivative starting point but from there interest begins to rise as you become more and more curious as to why the aliens are invading and what exactly is leading them. The downside to this interest is in the inevitable disappointment as the game never tops the initial intrigue that pushes you forward through story missions. It’s a bland subject that very clearly takes a back seat the vast amount of other content within XCOM.
It all begins with the base building aspects that dominate a chunk of your time in XCOM. If you didn’t know, the XCOM project is a security measure that must ensure the Earth’s safety from the incoming attackers. Because of that, you must keep countries happy, which means establishing satellites over their country, killing UFOs near them, attacking invaders when they land on their soil, etc. If you fail to succeed in these tasks the country will eventually fall into panic. If nothing is done about their panic, they will then withdraw from the XCOM project fully and not only will you lose their financial backing, if you lose too many countries, the game will be over.
Other things to do in your base can range from building facilities to help improve work speed around the base, researching new technology (weapons, armor, etc.), to eventually purchasing that new technology and assigning it to your soldiers. Your soldiers are the heart of the entire operation. You begin the game with Rookie soldiers but as they complete more missions, get experience, and make a few kills, they will earn upgrades in rank that will ultimately grant them a new skill which is chosen by you from two set choices on an upgrade ladder. The upgrades are all fairly helpful and make you constantly want to rethink your attack plans. Apart from that, the idea of letting your men carry over from battle to battle and even giving them nicknames (RIP Papa Bear) is a great one that allows you to establish some kind of relationship with almost every troop that heads out onto a mission with you.
Once you’re launched onto a mission, you must then order your squad around until an enemy or objective is found. The turn based formula has been a staple of Firaxis’ games but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of nagging issues. Most notably, the game just feels like it is moving a lot slower than necessary. Also prominent is the issue of sometimes moving your character one space over from where you intended to move him, leaving him exposed to enemy fire. From there, the entire battle could turn as the enemy would then unload on you and eliminate one of your soldiers. That being said, I was playing Enemy Unknown on a Xbox 360, I’m almost certain this issue would be fixed on the PC version.
Those issues would typically be unforgivable but thanks in part to some clever design decisions that enhance the experience of the player; your frustration never builds too high. It also doesn’t hurt that setting up a solid kill by using skills and other soldiers’ positioning is just plain fun. It begins to feel like one giant puzzle that you’re just trying to solve without any errors. The skills your units acquire through leveling up add a much needed depth that keeps you hooked for hours. You combine that desire for leveling up with the innovative sections within your base and you could find yourself playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown for hours on end.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown bears a familiar dark sci-fi look that has been featured in many games before its time. The character models don’t vary as much as you’d like and most of the enemy design is pretty basic. The most disappointing thing is the lack of variety in the map design. It seems as if there are only six different maps that Enemy Unknown uses every time you’re launched into a mission. But in the grand scheme of things, these issues are never too harmful to the experience as most of the environments look fine and the clever use of lighting the game shows off is a nice touch.
The turn based strategy game has never been one that I enjoy taking online. I’ve always found the slow paced gameplay to quickly become a bore and put a damper on whatever excitement was going on onscreen. Firaxis doesn’t attempt to fix that issue as each turn lasts around one and a half minutes, which is spent mostly looking at your idle soldiers. A simple fix would be to allow people to queue up moves, which would then force the turns to progress much quicker. Perhaps there’s an issue with that fix that I’m not seeing.
While Firaxis doesn’t directly fix that issue, they do manage to install a fairly nifty point based purchase system that allows you to select your soldiers before going into a battle. Obviously, the better the unit, the more expensive it’ll be. Which then leads you to choosing between having a large less skilled army or instead having a smaller and stronger army. You then take your army online and fight someone else’s group of men. From there, the gameplay is exactly similar to the story and features the same pros and cons. Though once you finish a fight in multiplayer, you don’t get the chance to exit out into an addicting home world.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a clear reboot of the franchise and it does it justice by providing hours upon hours of excellent gameplay that only the great minds at Firaxis know how to deliver. Firaxis didn’t reinvent the genre, but they didn’t have to in order to release a fine product. It comes with its share of problems but those problems are moot in the grand scheme of things as you begin to dive deeper and deeper into the heart of XCOM, realizing along the way that you just don’t want to stop.
How do these ratings work? Click here for descriptions!