Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Why can't we work things out? Little people, why can't we all just get along?
-- President Dale, Mars Attacks
Okay, okay. I know I'm way overdue writing a review for XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  But give me a break!  There's been too many great games to play and not enough time.  That, and throw New York Comic Con into the mix and, well...enough said.  Anyway, enough excuses.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based, action-strategy game that makes you the commander of XCOM, an elite paramilitary organization charged with defeating an unknown alien threat.  In order to accomplish this daunting task, you must organize your XCOM base, manage strategic assets across the globe, train soldiers, execute missions, develop alien technologies, and numerous other activities that come with the territory--you know, saving the world and all that.
After a long period of playing primarily first-person shooters and point-and-click adventures, I found XCOM's strategic and turn-based action components to be a refreshing change.  At the XCOM base (in between missions), there are a wide range of things to do: recruiting new soldiers; researching different technology to improve armor, weapons, and aircraft; building new facilities to expand your base; and managing satellites and country relations throughout the world to combat the alien threat.  When you get tired of doing activities around the base, you can deploy your team to Earth to complete missions involving civilian rescue or alien threat "neutralization."  The balance between strategy and action, coupled with an underlying sense of urgency and easy flow of gameplay, makes XCOM quite addictive.

Soldier customization screen prior to starting a mission.
Photo courtesy of
The most fun part of the game was controlling the XCOM team on the ground during missions, allowing you to use unit-level tactics to defeat the aliens and save civilians.  The turn-based action takes your soldiers through alien-ravaged city streets, warehouse districts and alien spacecraft to achieve the mission.  Your team includes five soldiers which start out as Rookies but can achieve up to the rank of Colonel once they gain enough mission experience and kills in battle.  Each soldier receives a specialty designation: assault, sniper, support, heavy, and eventually psionic (a special alien-derived skill set).  You can also customize each solider--not just their gear, but their names and appearance as well--and rotate out soldiers to ensure the best combination of skills for a particular mission.  But unlike some other games, a soldier's death in XCOM is permanent, which can have a significant impact on your team and mission outcome, depending on that soldier's rank and skill set.  You can always recruit more, but a high-ranking soldier takes time to develop. 
Example of a mission mode scene during battle.
Photo courtesy of
While the turn-based action was my favorite part of XCOM, it is also the part with the most deficiencies.  The scenery and mission layouts could get repetitive, particularly later in the game, but in general the gameplay was engaging enough to distract from the deja-vu effect.  What wasn't easy to ignore were the recurring issues with navigating soldiers through multi-level buildings and executing attacks.  While I applaud Firaxis Games' efforts at developing what must be a fairly complex combination of maps and player actions to make the gameplay as smooth as possible, there were undeniable issues with transitions between levels of buildings and changing viewing perspectives to evaluate enemy locations and attack options.  In addition, there were numerous glitches where enemies and even soldiers' gear randomly disappeared in the middle of missions, and then randomly reappeared (not as part of the alien powers!), which is just annoying.  And lastly: hit percentages.  Every soldier has a percent change of hitting their intended target prior to shooting, which is displayed at the bottom of the screen.  This is to allow the player to make a determination if shooting from that location is effective.  There were way too many times that the hit percentage was listed as 80-90% and my soldiers would miss their intended target.  Way more than even random chance would account for.  I can do math, and this math didn't make sense.
Situation Room screen.
Photo courtesy of
Back at the XCOM base, most of the gameplay is straight forward: toggling between your lab, engineering, command and control, and your barracks to manage various aspects of your alien-fighting operation.  The only issue I had with this part of the game was that I had to rely on retrieval of supplies and artifacts from missions in order to be able to build new things.  There's an option in the Situation Room, called the Gray Market, where your team can sell artifacts and supplies that are no longer needed.  If we are able to sell items to other countries, why can't we buy them as well?  A lack of certain resources often precluded me from building certain new technologies, thereby delaying the overall forward movement of game.  I am sure that this limitation is intended to auto-regulate the game tempo, but I would have preferred to have the flexibility to procure some items through the Gray Market and accelerate the readiness of my team for the more challenging missions later in the game.
Overall, the balance between turn-based action and global strategy makes XCOM appealing and addictive.  However, I can't give it a resounding two thumbs' up because of the drawbacks in the mission mode that ultimately made me impatient and annoyed toward the end of the game.  But I still had to finish it to save the world and avoid alien domination.  I'll be interested to see what the future of the XCOM franchise holds.