Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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By on January 7, 2014

Good turn-based strategy titles seem to only come up every so often. Why that is is anyone’s guess, but when a really good one – Valkyra Chronicles, Fire Emblem – lands, it’s a pretty great time for those of us who enjoy the genre. Enter: XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis Games and 2K Games (ported to OS X by Feral Interactive). The aliens have come because…reasons, and they are wreaking havoc across the globe! Those jerks.

Can you be tasked with commanding an organization to fight off this new terror? If you said “Yeah, sure, whatever,” then you are in luck because this game is a treat.

Hey, guy. Need some pants?

Aliens Attack!

Those crazy aliens, always wanting to come to earth to get our precious resources! So it goes with XCOM. Aliens have arrived, and it is up to earth’s greatest team of elite soldiers to make sure they don’t get all cozy on our planet. From the major countries around the world, soldiers are brought to form the multinational XCOM, our last chance for survival.

XCOM is all about strategy at every level of game play. At its most basic, there are three main areas where your decisions are going to have an impact on gameplay: the XCOM base, intercepting alien craft in the air, and, finally, in ground, turn-based missions. That description is woefully simplistic, but we have to start somewhere.

When you are not on the ground, you are at the XCOM HQ. Fireaxis’s influence on the game can definitely be felt in the base, where researching technologies and building additional rooms in the underground base pulls a thread from Civilization. The five sections of the base are the Lab, Engineering, Barracks, Hanger, and Situation Room. In the Lab you’ll research new tech from devices and cadavers you find in missions, Engineering is where you will buy the new tech you research, your squad can be managed in the Barracks, ship management in the Hanger, and in the Situation Room you can see how each member nation is doing as well as sell alien tech to the black market for more cash (though it does seem kind of odd that you would want alien tech out on the streets, but, hey, after we deal with this alien thing we’ll need some wars to fight in the future against terrorists with alien weaponry, right? Gotta keep the lights on at XCOM after all).

Funding the development of technologies becomes the crux of the strategy while in the base. XCOM is made up of partner nations from all over the world, and by keeping them safe and monitored for alien threats, you will receive more cash. But, having the ability to monitor their skies also costs money as you will have to purchase satellites for each of the nations before they will start providing you funds. And since you are only given new funds at the end of each month in the game, deciding whether or not to build more satellites, expand the base, buy new gear, buy new interceptors, or recruit new team members takes a bit of priority juggling. You will almost always be wanting for more cash, but that only adds to fun tension of trying to survive an alien onslaught.

Occasionally, a rogue space craft will be sighted by one of your satellites, and you will have to scramble interceptors to take them down within a short period of time. These interactions are mostly on auto-pilot (pun intended), but you can upgrade your ships to have better shields and firing accuracy. From the base you view how your ship is doing and the outcome: whether your ship is lost or if it successfully neutralized the target. And if you come out on top and the alien craft crashes, that sets up for an on-ground mission to clear out any remaining threats and gather alien tech.

A few rooms in the baseOl' Spinny globe

Boots on the Ground

Missions can come up in a variety of ways, from clearing out grounded alien ships (as was just mentioned) to specific story missions. Mostly, though, as you watch the days go by on a neat holographic earth, you will be alerted to alien forces on the ground somewhere in a member nation’s borders. And, usually, this happens in triplicate, forcing your to decide which nation deserves your attention, with the other two nations further spiraling into fear and calamity because you aren’t there to help. If a nation becomes too overwhelmed, they will drop out of the alliance and pull funding from the XCOM project, so there is another set of plates to keep spinning.

Just before launching your forces, you are given the option to choose who is going along on the trip. Each member of your XCOM ground forces team can be customized aesthetically, from hair color to voice to name, giving you the ability to become a bit attached to characters that might otherwise just be meat shields. These units will evolve and grow in skill and power as they gain experience on the field, so making sure they stay alive is paramount, and giving them a little personality helped me keep from just throwing them to the wolves. Like Fire Emblem or Valkyria Chronicles, once your squad member dies, they are dead for good, and losing that fully leveled unit to a wayward grenade is the worst.

Once your squad (made up of classes your are familiar with: sniper, heavy, assault, medic) has been chosen, they land at the area of operation to kick some alien butt. On-ground missions are turn based, with your side starting first then the aliens’. Your squad members (and the aliens as well) can take half or full cover behind – often destructible – objects so they might not be so easy a target. Leaving a squad member standing out in the open is a recipe for disaster, as you might expect, so cover is paramount.

Your team members have basically two motions to their turn: a movement and an action. The action can be a number of things: firing the unit’s main weapon or their secondary weapon, reloading, hunkering down for additional cover, using an item or going in to “Overwatch,” where if any enemy presence is seen during the alien turn they will take a reaction shot. One must be careful with their movement selection, though, as a unit’s movement cannot be undone if they are placed accidentally. Additionally, you can opt to take no action but two movements, though sprinting into areas yet to be uncovered without means of defending yourself won’t be your best choice.

On the whole, the gameplay is super solid and feels great. Coming from more “static” strategy titles, the range of movement afforded to you here is pretty awesome. Though there might be an invisible grid that characters can occupy, it never feels that way. I always felt like I had a lot of breathing room to experiment and come towards areas of interest from multiple directions. Simply put, controlling the game feels really good once you learn all the things you can do.

Let’s take a second to give thanks to the developers for making this game wholly usable with a controller. You can use a keyboard and mouse, but you would be some sort of crazy person if you did because the controller configuration is great (with the PS3 controller working natively on the Mac version, hooray!). Moving the camera around the 3D battlefield feels great with the controller, and I was kind of surprised that it worked so well. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, but I guess it is because controller enabled titles on OS X seem few and far between, and that is the platform I played the game on.

That thing has a lot of HP.

Visual Wizbangs

XCOM looks great, too. Each mission map is created in three dimensions, and you can spin the camera about and zoom to get better views of where you are about to send your troops. I was particularly impressed by a few rain filled missions, where streets were being flooded by a deluge that my units splashed about in. Most of your engagements will either be in forest areas or urban environments, but luckily no two maps are exactly the same. The forest areas seemed to crop up just a little more, and I did get a little tired of them, but the terrain was always different and posed different challenges, so I can’t complain too much.

The XCOM base is equally cool to look at. The standard view is zoomed out, letting you look at all of the additions to you have created, like it all is a little diorama. You can, however zoom in to any room to see workers checking things and milling about. It’s all very cool.

I was also impressed that in ran so well on my 2009 iMac with just 512mb of video ram. I could run it natively at 2560×1440, though that stuttered a bit, so knocking it down to 1920×1080 with a little aliasing was just fine. For whatever reason, many games ported to OS X run like garbage (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you; get your crap together), but XCOM ran great.

The typical display with bonus water everywhere!

The Missed Shot

But, unfortunately, not everything is perfect with XCOM. Many people have cited the difficulty of the game as being somewhat a barrier to entry, but that never bothered me (it is not an easy game). But I did find that as the game went on I felt less and less confident in my characters’ ability to actually hit their targets. When aiming to hit an alien, the game gives you a percentage chance to hit based on your position, your weapon, and their cover, and that’s great. But I always felt like that number might be lying to me. In discussion with others about this issue, they cited that it is a simple probability-to-hit and that I shouldn’t expect to always hit the target if it is showing me 70%+. And I don’t. I have no problem with missing shots here and there, but I seemed to miss so many high percentage shots that it felt skewed. It’s not impossible for my character to miss – with a shotgun – a 98% chance-to-hit on an enemy standing right next to him (I know it’s not impossible because it happened to me), but that doesn’t feel fair. And I will give that up to just dumb luck because that honestly only happened once. But missing high percentage shots did happen over and over and over to the point where I tested one scenario out.

Having saved the game before taking a missed 85% shot, I decided to reload a few times to see if I ever hit the enemy in that instance. My sniper was standing on top of a bus on a freeway, shooting towards a big, green meany, and out of five reloads at 85% she hit them exactly 0 times. I am not too good at the odds, but that seems a bit…off. The only way I could get her to hit the target was for another one of my units to hit it first. Then she hit – with the same 85% chance – every time over several reloads. If my character has no chance to hit, just say 0%. I don’t need to waste that shot.

That is really the only big issue I had with the game. There was an instance where the game glitched and I was forced to play the last moments of the final story mission with only three units instead of six with the glitch persisting over saves. That was not so fun, but I was able to pull out a victory by the skin of my teeth.

Also, I was never able to participate in online play. Not sure if that is me or the game, but it simply wouldn’t load, and I couldn’t invite people to join in games I attempted to create.

Should You be an XCOM Commander?

Yep. Even though I got frustrated with percentages and missed shots, there is a ton to love about this game. It is probably the best strategy game put together for the PC (and consoles) for the last couple of years save for Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS. Best of all, at this point you can find it for pretty cheap (I got it for $10 on a Steam sale) and an expansion has been released that adds new character abilities and more story.

XCOM is definitely worth your time if you have any interest in strategy titles.

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