XCOM: Enemy Unknown is damned hard.
It is unforgiving, relentless and constantly ready to crush all hopes and dreams in a single, fell swoop. A poor tactical choice can take that battle-hardened veteran soldier and introduce him to the business end of an alien rifle, squandering hours of gameplay with a single button press. It is at times infuriating, and will frequently have players reaching for the “load” button. At the same time, it never wanders into becoming unfair, and provides ample room for player growth. It might be a taxing game, but it is one of the best tactical experiences of the last decade and well worth the possible trauma that might follow investing in it.
Enemy Unknown is a modern reboot of the classic XCOM strategy series, drawing heavily from the first title, 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown. In the near future, aliens have begun invading Earth, abducting civilians and destroying cities. An intergovernmental organisation, XCOM, is created to help turn the tide of the battle and repel the alien invaders. While the story is simple and a tad generic, it works well as a basic frame for developer Firaxis to introduce a constant stream of new features and enemies. As the faceless commander of XCOM, tasked with the construction and maintenance of the home base, the player must simultaneously appease the governments of the world and command the tactical squads fighting back against the alien threat. While the core concepts may seem simplistic, it becomes extremely difficult to keep all these balls in the air at once - and when something finally gives, the results can be catastrophic.
This tension is enhanced by the fragility of the soldiers. Combat is played out as a squad-based tactical shooter. The player is given command of up to six soldiers and tasked with achieving a number of objectives, ranging from disarming bombs to rescuing civilians. There are four possible classes for soldiers: Assault, Heavy, Sniper and Support. As a soldier levels up with combat experience, they gain skills and abilities from a shallow tech tree. Each upgrade dynamically changes the gameplay style of the soldier, but it's usually a meaningful trade-off with another equally powerful ability. Snipers, for example, may take either an extreme boost to their range, or the ability to move and shoot early in their tree. There will always be circumstances where the other power would have been useful, and by making the choices between both powers consistently so difficult, it ratchets up the tension further. Even something as banal as levelling a character reinforces the central theme of Enemy Unknown: making difficult choices in difficult circumstances.
As soldiers explore a combat zone and the fog of war is lifted, more of the world is revealed, providing better knowledge of the area, more cover and more angles. Each soldier gets two actions a turn, used for moving, shooting, using items or preparing to counter-attack. This ensures that every decision to move or shoot comes at a distinct opportunity cost, which can have extremely dire consequences due to the fragility of the men and women in the squad. Most soldiers can barely stand up to two or more hits from enemy fire, which makes finding cover and protecting their flanks extremely important. Furthermore, soldiers that get hurt in battle carry their wounds, which take time to heal. A bad result in one battle can have disastrous repercussions in the next.
There is a solid variety of enemies, with around a dozen uniquely designed aliens to butt heads with, ranging from heavily armoured berserkers to flying mind-wraiths and everything between. Shooting is handled on a percentage-based dice roll system, similar to that used in Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. mode. Because of the high value placed on the lives of individual soldiers, a single missed shot, or undesired group of enemies can turn the tide of the battle from a narrow victory to a crushing defeat. The complexity of the combat and determining the “correct” course of action for maximum reward is an unrelenting quandary in every scenario.
Even determining the best way to eliminate a threat can be a struggle. Explosives, for example, deal extra damage but destroy the resources on the corpses. Meanwhile, capturing subjects alive provides a strong source of new weaponry and resources, for the base to expend. The decision-making process never ends, and creates a constant environment of stress. While it’s not perfect - there are a number of glaring clipping issues, as well as a few too many examples of killing an enemy through a brick wall, it is intelligently merciless, and enjoyable throughout.
The other half of XCOM is an in-depth base management simulation. As the commander, it is the role of the player to allocate resources to the various branches of XCOM. New technologies and advanced powers for the soldiers on the field can be researched at the laboratory, or new weapons and armour can be manufactured by the engineers. The home base can be expanded like a human ant farm to provide more power and staff. Finally, the various member nations of the XCOM Council will need to be placated in order to prevent them from panicking and leaving the project altogether. There is never a chance for rest, as it constantly feels like the player needs to accomplish five things at once, while only having the resources for one. Even outside of combat, it is a high stress environment based entirely upon compromise.
All actions undertaken outside of combat occur in real time, and will take a number of days to accomplish. Meanwhile, alien attacks will spring up at random, often catching the team at the most inopportune time. Sometimes, three attacks will occur in locations across the globe at once, but the player is only able to respond to one. There are a number of hard decisions that have to be made when determining which nations to protect and which to leave to fend for themselves. It’s a bad situation that predictably leads to two countries stepping closer and closer to the brink of leaving the project. It’s inevitable that players will lose a country or two across a playthough, but it is always disheartening when it occurs.
The design and originality throughout the game is a real boon. Combat takes place across the entirety of the globe, with maps originating from abandoned highways, crowded metropolitan areas, alien ships and dense forests. The graphics fail to dazzle, and are hinder further by some pretty jarring texture pop-in problems in the base management mode, however, it has a consistently strong visual theme. Similarly, the sound design is appropriate, if not a tad subdued. While the musical score fits the game well, the alien sound design is the stand-out feature. From their shrill screes when shouting at one another, to the squelching of their heads upon death, they are consistently strong. The voice acting for human characters, however, is competent but far too repetitive.
Nobody makes games like XCOM anymore. By design it feels refreshingly old-school. From the grey-headed aliens to the intergovernmental agencies, this plays like a game that was designed in 1992, not 2012. From a gameplay point of view, it is so much more unforgiving than strategy games have been in such a long time that it would be unsurprising to hear more casual players are put off easily. It's a game that is mercilessly difficult but consistently fair. Players will fail frequently, but they can know that it was their own mistakes that lead to that failure, and not a flaw in the gameplay. It’s not a game for everyone, but hardened players who persist amidst the difficult conditions set by XCOM discover a rewarding experience.
XCOM can be a cruel, vindictive mistress, but she is one that can be tamed. With an investment of time and patience, players can gain access to a true tactical masterpiece, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past decade.
Enemy spawning can be cheap at times. Half a dozen or so crashes during a single campaign.