XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

xcom_logo
Let me just start off by saying that although I play mostly on xbox, I occasionally have a look at the steam sales, and close to the release of XCOM 2 there was a 2K developer sale which I jumped on. Although my laptop doesn’t have the processing power to run most of the games I play on the xbox; since XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released in 2012 I thought it was a safe buy for £5, and I needed to see what all the fuss was about!
My steam library has around 14 or 15 games, most of which I’ve only put a hand-full of hours into, some I’ve yet to even play! Since downloading XCOM a couple of weeks ago I’ve already doubled the hours played on any other game on steam. This review should hopefully shed light on how and why this happened… (Also, just a warning, this is going to be a long one!)

The Premise

The story is pretty simple: without being boring that is. Aliens have landed and they have been identified as hostile. You are the commander of an emergency alien fighting corporation called XCOM which receives vital funding from around the globe to combat, research and repel the invaders. I won’t spoil the story for you, because I believe anyone who enjoys strategy games should pick this up, but I can tell you that your jobs as commander are… extensive. Its just a relief that you can take your time with decisions before the repercussions occur. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me outline your job description as commander.

Your Job

Your most immediate job is to bring the fight to the aliens. This can be done in the air (with interceptor jets) or on the ground with your XCOM squad. Choosing to send your troops into a fight is a risk, especially if they are ill equipped to deal with the opposition, however it is important to go on as many missions as possible to keep panic in each country down, to receive money rewards, and to gain loot in the form of salvageable alien gear. Your squad are expendable, but when one dies, they are properly dead, harsh I know!! You have to hire troops to replace the dead ones! The more experience your troops get the more adept they become at staying alive, and killing aliens of course. Basically, always have 2 snipers, and buy the extra squad member slots from the officer training school RIGHT AWAY, you’ll see what I mean when you play (you will play).

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Another important job is to build up a base with similar buildings adjacent to each other (for extra functionality). Facilities cost gold and also require power, so building plenty of power stations is crucial. Your most important buildings are your satellite uplinks which enable you to send satellites into space above specific countries. This not only gives you monthly bonuses, but reduces the panic rating in that continent. Letting panic get out of hand results in countries leaving your cause, which reduces your monthly funding. For you humanitarians, this also means you’re failing to save innocent lives, you suck.
Other monetary outputs lie in engineering weapons, armour and kit for your troops as well as interceptors to shoot down enemy UFOs. Shooting down UFOs and scouring the crash sites provide valuable alloys and elerium which are needed in addition to cash for researching and building more high tech weaponry. Much like in Age of Empires, you can have all the gold in the world, but if you lack wood and stone, you’re not going to be able to function. In this case, you must spend your resources wisely and sparingly, most successful squads only bring back a few alloys per mission.
The research labs are a place to visit often. If your scientists are not researching, then that is wasted time. New technologies and advantages can be discovered by researching, doing autopsies on bodies and interrogations on live alien prisoners. Each project takes a different amount of time, so generally pick the shorter period options because the more advanced technologies take less time when you have more scientists. Also doing interrogations makes various research projects quicker depending on which species you have captured.
Your most difficult job is balancing. Balancing time, balancing resources, balancing pros and cons of each and every decision you make. One of the biggest is whether to go for money, engineers, or scientists. Obviously you want a balance of each, but I’d say engineers are the most important people to have about. The more engineers you have, the more you are able to build, research can wait! Your monthly cash bonus comes every 31(ish) days when the ‘government’ appraises your performance and gives you a grade. I don’t think the grade matters, but the student/nerd in me hated getting a C just because I let a few measly UFOs escape…

Combat Scenarios

Dog Fights
UFO_fight
Ok. Dog fights aren’t the given name. I’ve just called them that, I’m sorry. But moving from that, these are less to do with tactical skill and more to do with how well prepared you are for aerial combat. Buying, assigning locations, and equipping your interceptors can mean the difference between shooting a UFO down and being shot down yourself. You CAN escape, but there are also other options; little buffs you can buy to assist aim, speed, and maneuverability (dodging) which can be bought from the foundry (prior to combat). Other than that, its just a case of watching your interceptor’s life get gradually lower as you randomly click which buffs to use. Theres probably a tactic to it, but I never really excelled at it, so I won’t pretend I know any!

Abductions

You are given the option to choose 1 of 3 affected countries to assist, 2 of which will suffer an increased panic level so chose wisely! Despite this, abduction is the most stress-free mode because you don’t encounter civilians, and you don’t really have to worry about using explosives (which wreck salvageable tech, especially on UFOs). The combat, as with any ground based combat, is turn based. Meaning each of your squad members are given 2 actions before the turn ends. Right-click to move your squad around, making sure to keep them in cover! If your team are caught out of cover by a group of aliens, you can expect casualties. You have the option of half cover (a half shield) or full cover. This affects the percentage hit chance of the enemies shots and the percentage critical hit chance. Be careful hiding behind potential explosive cover like cars and alien pods though! The most difficult thing to get used to is moving your team as a unit. Its easy for a slower heavy trooper to be left behind, or for a flanking assault to get cut off. The intensity in each fight is in the lack of situational awareness wrought by the fog of war; a fog which obscures areas of the map not in view of your squad.
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Depending on which specialists you have, you are able to move, shoot, reload, or go into overwatch, although as your progress there are even more options linked to class abilities and items. Overwatch is an ability which enables the squad member to fire on a moving target during the enemies turn with a slight reduction to accuracy. It is always handy to keep a couple of members in overwatch while the more versatile squad members scout ahead. Shooting at an alien, especially one in cover is a gamble. It’s a game of numbers where you are able to assess the potential risk of engaging. Even a point blank shot at a sectoid out of cover with a 99% hit chance can end in tears, technically, like rolling a 100 sided dice and getting the one fail number (probably 7). I frequently go for 70%+ odds and get punished for it. Which is why it is best to be cautious and always have back up. This is easy to do on abduction missions because you have as much time as you like, however on Alien Terror Attacks, that is very different.

Alien Terror Attacks

This is as stressful as XCOM gets. The sound effects may even be more stressful than the gameplay, I have to turn the sound down every time because my mum starts making her own sound effects of disapproval. The first time I was sent to deal with Terror attacks in Sidney I actually had to restart the game because my squad were so inept and underprepared. I’d even gone as far as to customize all of them with names, nicknames and different visual traits (I was so proud of them), then they all died.
The aim of the mission is to put the civilians before yourself, saving as many as possible before the Chryssalids murder them horribly and turn them into zombies. Apparently this occurs because they lay eggs in the bodies; these eventually hatch into more Chryssalids (heres a picture of one – I actually hate them, so much).
XCOM-EU_Chrysalid
So my advice to you is to keep your squad safe and at a distance, because these are highly mobile melee enemies, and if they get near a squad member, thats one less squad member you’ll be moving on your next turn. Kill them as quick as you can, the quicker they are eradicated the less civilians they can kill and the more will be rescued. If you try to save them all by moving your squad next to them, you will likely be moving your squad into a dangerous position. Also do not be scared to use explosives, I mean, try not to murder civilians yourself, but each wall taken out reduces the need to actually move into a house (or other confined space). Also, if you take out any armed enemies first, you need not worry about taking cover!

Crashed/Landed UFO raids

Your most important missions for loot, especially alloys and elerium. There is no choice of mission location here, as with the terrorist attacks and government missions, so achieving victory has no negative consequences on the panic rating of other countries. A similar, close quarters combat situation occurs in these missions within the enemy UFOs. Try to draw them out if you know whats good for you, but if you can’t then be cautious: using explosives really injures your chances of development when managing your facility! Other than that these missions vary in difficulty depending on the ship size and the landing situation. If the UFO crashed, then expect an easy fight. If it landed, then the aliens will be ready for you!

Government missions

These are little bonus missions where you and your squad are tasked to deliver VIPs to safety, or to diffuse alien bombs etc, that kind of thing. There is often a monetary incentive, and they are moderately challenging in the early game but the difficulty doesn’t scale well (translation: they are painfully easy) when you have a strong, late-game squad. If you can be bothered they are good for training up your lower ranked squaddies, but sometimes you’ve just got to let a mission go.

Aliens and Squad specialities

I don’t want to ruin all the nasty surprises you’ll get from some of the enemy types, but I will say there is no lack in variety! The early game sectoids vary massively from the agile thin men, just as the late game sectopod varies from the psychic etherials. All I can say is, do not underestimate anything, a near victorious moment can turn sour very quickly as soon as you neglect cover and overwatch capability. The alien designs and unique abilities make them all completely different to play against and the variety of different combinations you are put up against delivers new puzzles every game. Also it is important to note that each map is procedurally generated, so you never get the same map, ever, so learn the tactics rather than the maps!
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Where I didn’t go over the aliens much I’ll shed light on some of the specialists (The image is one off google images, I was too lazy to edit my own in):

– Assault
Versatile, able to carry most small/medium weapons, can run and gun very effectively whilst having perks which make them more and more difficult to hit as they get more experienced.

– Support
Much like the assault, more mobile, but carry more baggage as these guys are most effective at keeping watch and healing your team, provided you kitted them out with a medkit before the mission started.

– Heavy
This is your overwatch class, give them a high tech heavy weapon then put them in high ground and blow everything up with your many explosive items.

– Sniper
Your invaluable squad member, every squad needs a high level sniper. Keep him/her back, preferably elevated slightly to increase their accuracy and use the squad sight perk to make the game a LOT easier.

So I played the game on normal and it took me longer than I’m comfortable saying, but that’s probably because I was busy customising my squad. I was organised (sad) enough to colour coordinate my classes so I could easily tell which was which on the battlefield. On top of that I gave my squad members headwear when they reached the top rank (Colonel), and yes that varied between classes too! But why did I spend all this time on such minute aspects of the game? Because I, completely by accident, found my favourite strategy game ever. The music is intense, but it makes you feel powerful. The gameplay is hard, but well balanced and intuitive, making you feel clever. The level of customisation and micromanagement is astounding. And whats more, I’ve already started my second playthrough of the game, on Classic difficulty with Ironman mode activated. The fact that there is a newgame plus (second wave) and so many different difficulty levels and options adds to the replayability, making this one hell of a game. One negative note is that the missions can get repetitive, but only if you neglect to follow the progression of the story at the intended pace.

That being said, this game easily exceeds all expectations, so I’m going to give it a 9.6/10.

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