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XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: A surprisingly personal turn-based masterpiece

Civilization developer Firaxis gives us the XCOM sequel we've always dreamed of

As a boy, Jake 'Long Shot' Harper always dreamed of shooting things from really far away. That ambition was realised in 2025 when he joined XCOM as a sniper. A veteran of 14 missions, Harper was killed in action last week while defending American soil from an alien invasion. He was torn in half by a giant insect, turned into a zombie, and gunned down by his own squad. Captain Harper is survived by his wife and daughter. Rest in peace, soldier.

Don't get attached. That's our advice. XCOM gives you the tools to customise your own squad - name, face, nationality, beard colour - but it'll only hurt you in the long run. Harper had been the backbone of our squad for hours. We'd given him custom armour, tweaked his appearance, and the game had even generated a nickname for him - a bonus reserved for your very best soldiers. Then, on our first encounter with a chrysalid, he was killed instantly.

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It's genius, really. Firaxis know you'll get attached to these people, which makes you labour over every battlefield decision. One mistake can mean the end of your best soldier, leaving you with a squad of rookies who have no special abilities and who couldn't hit a barn door with another, bigger barn door. It's not cut-scenes or dialogue that give your squad personality, but their actions. Harper had saved countless comrades with perfectly timed headshots, becoming the squad's guardian angel - and we were genuinely distraught when he died. He was a one-dimensional grunt, but he was our one-dimensional grunt.

SPACE INVADERS

XCOM is an isometric strategy game that's split between turn-based combat and base management. It's by the team behind the Civilization series, which should give you some idea of its depth. Half of your time will be spent using tactics and improbably large weapons to outsmart and defeat an increasingly powerful army of alien invaders. The other will be spent back at your base researching and building advanced technology, shooting down invading UFOs, and dealing with global politics. There's a lot to think, and worry, about.

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The planet is in turmoil, and its your job to hold it all together. In mission control, the heart of your base, you scan a beautiful 3D hologram of the Earth for alien activity. When you pick something up, you have to decide whether or not to intervene. You can only be in one place at once, so helping one country may mean ignoring another, causing mass panic, and maybe even their departure from the XCOM project. 'Alien activity' can be a number of things: maybe an abduction, an attack on a city, or a crashed UFO. The mission is given a difficulty rating and a reward in the form of currency or personnel for your base.

When you select a mission you're taken to the barracks and can prep your squad. You can take a maximum of six soldiers into battle at any one time, and it's up to you to create a balanced team. Shotgun-toting support soldiers can be upgraded to carry three medikits at once, so having one on hand is always useful if things get hairy. Heavies can blow away cover with their rocket launchers. Snipers, like the dearly departed Harper, are useful to have at the back of your group providing support fire. Assault troops are dependable all-rounders. Each class has its own skill tree, and you unlock more exotic special abilities as their rank increases.

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