Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I have to admit, I didn't think I'd get into this game. I like my action games actiony, and my strategy games real-time. A turn-based action game? What kind of unholy chimera is that?

I never played the original X-COM (the 1994 version had a hyphen, and an incredible following), so the excitement surrounding this remake was lost on me.

Once I tried it, though. . . wow is it easy to get sucked in.

Before I start getting into the awesome complexity of this game, let me explain how a typical mission goes.

Your team, including up to 6 soldiers, is deposited in some location. This could be a city, in the country, or sometimes within an alien ship. Each soldier has a customizable specialty (sniper, support, etc). The game is turn based, and each solider is only allowed two moves per turn.

So you advance your team, like chess pieces, keeping them looking out for each other, while hiding behind whatever cover you can find. In between your turns, the enemy's forces have their turn, moving around, advancing, retreating, attacking, or whatever.

What this does is create a sense of suspense, as the action plays out in a hands-off fashion. You're forced to watch helplessly as the enemy slices through your team, or you watch with exuberance as your carefully laid out plans wipe out multiple alien soldiers.

Tactics, that's what XCOM teaches you with great rapidity. Run into a room guns blazing? You're not going to last long. Careful planning is rewarded, impulsive actions are not.

This, however, is only part of the game. Between missions there is a whole strategy element involving base building, research trees, and more. This is where the depth comes in. Like most strategy games, you have to balance your income against your expenditures. Upgrading your weapons and armor is vital, as you'll quickly encounter bigger and stronger enemies. But if you do too much research too fast, you won't have any money left over to actually equip your soldiers with these new fancy weapons.

Then there's keeping every country in the world happy (or close to it). You're the leader of Earth's only anti-alien force. Regularly, multiple countries will get attacked at once, and you'll only have the resources to help one of them. So the other two will get pissed off. Eventually, if you neglect them enough, they might stop sending you resources, making your job even harder.

You also get attached to your solders. As you play, your team gains rank and new skills. With multiple hours invested in their "training," you certainly don't want to treat them like cannon fodder. I've adopted a "no loss" rule with each mission. If a soldier dies, I restart the mission (or at least to a recent save). This makes for pretty slow going, and I'm not sure how tenable it is.

You see, that's the real brilliance of XCOM: it's hard. Even on the normal difficulty settings, there's an element of randomness to each mission. You might play through flawlessly, and then right at the end, one Muton throws a grenade behind your cover, and wipes out half your squad.

Save early. Save often.

XCOM is an exceptional game, and one of the best of the year. It's a staggering time sink (in a good way), and is guaranteed to evoke the "just one more round" mentality, keeping you up late into the night. 

Intrigued? Listen to the team behind XCOM tell you all about it: