XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: A surprisingly personal turn-based masterpiece
8th Oct 2012 | 12:00
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the overhead camera and chunky, cartoonish art style, every shot in XCOM feels immensely satisfying. Weapons echo with a thundering boom, and death animations are exaggerated and theatrical. When you execute an attack, the game flips to a cinematic 'kill cam' and teases you with a brief pause before your soldier takes his or her shot.
You'll miss, a lot, but when a shot connects and your target tumbles backwards or explodes into the air, it feels great. Explosives shred the scenery around the impact zone, and almost everything on the map is destructible, but if you evaporate an enemy with a rocket launcher, you won't be able to recover their body and weapons to give to your scientists to research.
We almost lost Harper in his first mission. He was pinned behind a car, using it as cover. When you move your soldier to a location with a shield icon, they'll automatically hunker down and get a defence bonus. But we didn't realise that the car was on fire, and in the next turn it exploded, leaving our sniper as a bloody, writhing heap on the ground. Luckily we were able to revive him with a nearby support soldier equipped with a medikit.
One of the best things about XCOM is how it creates endless little anecdotes. Missions are filled with drama, and you'll come out of every play session with a head full of stories. Especially if you've named your soldiers after friends or celebrities. "So, Nicolas Cage was about to get eaten by a zombie, but Barack Obama had the high ground on the roof of a nearby pub..."
As you research new technology and weapons, and face more advanced enemies, the combat gets increasingly rich and varied, and more entertaining as a result. You'll start out with regular guns, but end up using laser rifles and devices that stun enemies so you can capture them alive for study. Your Interceptor jets - which are used to shoot down UFOs, but not controlled directly - get more powerful as bits of glowing alien tech are bolted to them.
Firaxis have added a version of their advisor system from Civilization to XCOM, and you have people on hand to give you suggestions on what to do next, or what research to pursue. Occasionally an item will be marked as 'priority' (like capturing your first live alien), which will advance the story, but you can tackle these objectives at your leisure. The B movie story threads missions together, and it's enjoyable enough, starting from the moment the aliens arrive on Earth. Characters are well voiced, and brief cut-scenes bring your ant colony-like base to life. But it's the random stories created on the battlefield that will linger in your mind.
As well as managing your base, you also have to expand it. Providing you have the money and engineers, you can add new facilities to your headquarters. You also get bonuses for building similar facilities next to each other: two laboratories, for example, will give you a research boost, while two satellite uplinks built side-by-side will increase your scanner coverage.
Scanning the planet cycles time forward, and everything you do takes a set number of days, whether it's researching a new gun, or building an elevator in your base. You can also hire new soldiers if your numbers are running low, but they'll be fresh-faced rookies and will have to endure a number of missions before they move up in rank. There's a lot of micromanagement in XCOM, which sometimes feels laborious when you're deep into the game. You'll have to deal with tech requests from other countries, UFO attacks, abductions, countries leaving the XCOM project, requests from the council, and a dozen other things, sometimes all at once.
The game, naturally, feels right at home on PC with a keyboard and mouse, but they've done an incredible job mapping the game to a controller. The console controls are remarkably intuitive, which is a rarity when it comes to strategy games. One journalist we know actually preferred playing the PC version with an Xbox controller plugged in. The interface works as both something to be viewed on a monitor up close, and a big TV in your living room. It's one of the most harmonious examples of a game co-developed for consoles and PC we've seen, and neither group of gamers will feel like they're suffering because of the other.
It's not an amazingly pretty game, but the depth of the gameplay and dynamic, destructible environments make up for it. Textures are flat and colourful, which makes the world look almost like a table-top game dotted with tiny, plastic action figures. From above, which is where you'll spend most of your time, there's some nice detail and atmospheric lighting in the city environments, but swamps and jungles feel a bit lifeless. The base screen is initially impressive, but quickly becomes little more than a gimmick. You soon realise that it's quicker and easier to switch between areas using the text menu at the top.
Firaxis have proved, along with the similarly excellent Civlization Revolution, that games like this can work on consoles as well as PC. XCOM is a dense, rewarding, and intelligently designed strategy game from the masters of the genre, and a faithful homage to the original series. But don't worry if you've never played an XCOM game before: the smart tutorial missions will put new players at ease, and the learning curve isn't too steep.
We'll never forget Jake 'Long Shot' Harper, from his first life-saving headshot to being carved asunder by a snarling space bug. Whenever we visit the memorial wall in our base (complete with mournful bagpipe music) we scroll through the list of names and think of all the brave men who died under our command, and the stories they created. You might think your Major is invincible, but all it takes is one bad move, exploding car, or chrysalid claw to unceremoniously end their life, which makes XCOM a surprisingly personal - as well as hugely entertaining - game.