XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review (Xbox360)

If the original 1994 version of X-Com: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-Com: UFO Defence, also known as UFO Defence: Enemy Unknown) is considered as one of the best videogames ever made, then the 2012 remake XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be considered as one of the best videogame remakes ever made. Probably. We don’t mean to begin on such a hyperbolic note, but there is something special here. It’s by no means perfect (see last few paragraphs), it’s by no means as extensive as the original, but it works oh so well, especially on the console on which we reviewed it and is very worthy of praise.

Like the original, XCOM has two main game-modes – the ‘HQ’ management view, and the tactical battle view. In the latter, you take squads of up to six guys into small-to-medium, pre-defined maps (oh which there are many types and variants there-of) and basically kill some ‘X-rays’, although there are other missions types as well such as rescuing civilians during terror strikes, escorting a VIP or defusing bombs. Mainly killing things though. Each soldier can have a specific ‘class’ they specialise in (Assault, Heavy, Support & Sniper), and their abilities and actions are handled by an action-point and toolbar system. There’s also cover (which can be destroyed), flanking, ambushing and all the hall-marks of a decent squad-based action game. Combat is both immediate and far reaching – fail a mission and you could lose not only some valuable squad members, but also an XCOM member nation, which impacts on funding and resources.

As cool as it looks, they ability to fly isn’t always that useful we found...

The management aspects of XCOM is just as important (if not more) than the combat missions itself. Combat missions can be won or lost depending on the research and resources you have available back at ‘HQ’ – do you research better armour? Or better weapons? You only have enough resources for a new satellite (which reduces panic in a specific country), or a really cool piece of kit for your solider – which do you choose? A lot of the the main story is controlled through HQ interface as well. A part from a few key combat engagements that you have to fight, most of it is controlled through the research or construction of specific ‘priority’ things, which allows you to control the pacing somewhat. Good thing too, as you don’t want to be rushing through the story before you get ahead of yourself and are unable to progress any further. This is more of a self-discipline though, so some might struggle.

XCOM’s single greatest strength is to draw you in and make you care – the soldiers, the civilians, the war. in so many videogames past (perhaps too many) it was understood that these were just fancy visual representations of people that didn’t exist, but give a person the ability to set names… then they become more than that, they become your mate Tom, your housemate Gavin, even Jen Taylor of Halo fame. When Tom died I was mournful, when I got both my best mate and his little brother killed I feared speaking to his family again, and when Jen died during the last battle, I was ready to wreak bloody vengeance on the universe, except I couldn’t because the game ended. I got over Gavin dying - he’s a pants housemate. The point is though you begin to care for these characters, you want to see them develop and you want to see them live through. You have your A-team, your back-up team, your rooks… you imagine how it must be like in the mess hall when a new person comes in to replace a long-standing member of the squad, you even catch you yourself going “it’s just not the same”.

You know what else bugs me? It’s never explained what those pod things actually do

With everything the single-player has to offer, multiplayer seems like an afterthought, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was. It’s not a bad mode, and can provide a nice distraction if the single-player gets too tough. Essentially, you participate in one-on-one battles against another player. You get to choose one of five maps from the main game, you set a point limit (including no limit), and then you choose and customize your squad of six soldiers, like you would in single-player. Unlike single-player, you can also recruit most of the alien forces to your team as well, the only caveat being they aren’t really customizable like their human allies, they just have the ‘in-built’ armour and abilities they have in the single-player. Testing out your tactical prowess against a real live human is fun enough, but learning the various traits and tricks of the aliens is not only interesting, but can even help you understand how they work when facing them in single player as well.

Now for the bad stuff – sadly, Enemy Unknown isn’t as polished as we’d like. There was some noticeable lagging, some late texture loading, the Alloy SHIV units broke completely so that I couldn’t select them for my squad, and one or two instances of the game bugging up so bad we had to exit the game entirely and reload an earlier save. There’s other stuff we could point out as well, some of it of a technical nature (although not strictly speaking bugs), some of it not. The ending of the game, for example, is a tad rushed and nothing is really explained, although it is really dramatic despite being a let-down. The way the combat system works allows for scenarios where you essentially shoot through several bits of wall and objects and still hit something (and the same can be done to you), and there can be other glitches or oddities relating to spawns that can sometimes give the game a very rough visage. The fact that you can’t choose what specialisation your squad members end up as is a tad annoying, as is missing at point blank range but with ‘only’ 93% accuracy to leave the possibility of failure, but again, symptoms of the game’s design more than anything else.

You’d think these buggers were the worst this game has to throw at you. It’s surprising how wrong one can be

It’s ultimately a question of what you can live with – what are ‘acceptable’ losses. We decided we could live with the odd glitch and bug (albeit one was game-breaking), just like we could live with the death of Captain ‘Doc’ Romanov’s, Sgt. Kelly and the countless recruits who didn’t make it through their baptism of fire. Make what you will of the final score in light of the negatives – it is the humble opinion of this particular viewer that the game (more or less) transcends its flaws on the console. Yeah, there’s stuff there you wish was better, the ending definitely needs some more work on… but a lot of the niggles are an unfortunate by-product of its core design, which is still pretty decent.

XCOM has a knack for sinking its alien fangs into you and never letting you go, inducing many a sleepless nights wanting to do one more mission. The fact that there’s apparently DLC for this game means that, hopefully, it will just get better as time goes on. There’s hidden depths to this game that make it work really well as a console strategy game, and everything is suitably cinematic that, at the very least, you should have a very entertaining experience. And that’s not even touching upon the different difficulty levels and the Ironman mode, the particulars with expanding your ‘Ant Hill’ base, your… well; I’ll let you discover it all. Get to it Commander, the Earth isn’t going to save itself.

Top Game Moment: Personal highlight was when, after a particularly challenging middle section due to lack of resources (and some painful losses), I finally rolled out with my A-team kitted out in some of the ‘high-end’ gear for the first time and just started owning. Also, S.H.I.V units are pretty handy.

Platform Played: Xbox 360

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