The XCOM franchise first debuted in 1994 and revolutionized early PC gaming before slowly fading into relative obscurity. After nearly a decade of silence, Firaxis Games, developer of the long-running Civilization series, brought this once-dead series back to life with 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Updated for the twenty-first century, XCOM: Enemy Unknown stays true to its roots by delivering on the promise of tense tactical gameplay.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown divides its gameplay into two sections. These are the turn-based missions and pseudo real-time base management.
As the Commander of XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit), it falls to the player to make crucial decisions on how best to use the organization’s resources to counter alien invasions of Earth. The number of countries under your protection determine XCOM’s monthly income. Building and launching satellites takes precious time and resources that could be spent on other projects.
Some countries contribute more than others, but losing any nation to alien conquest is irreversible. It also brings you one step closer to total defeat. If half the world falls to the alien invaders, it’s game over.
Losing a country also locks you out from receiving the unique bonuses for having complete satellite coverage over a continent. Wealthier nations may offer better rewards, but players have to balance short-term gain with long-term strategy.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a traditional linear plot, but you get more mileage out of the game’s emergent storytelling. The game’s plot is perfectly functional and does a decent job of stringing the missions together, but the real story is in the handcrafted levels and the battles that take place there.
What’s the other main way of gathering resources? Turn-based missions, of course. The interface has been simplified substantially when compared to the original XCOM. Enemy Unknown also places a much higher emphasis on cover and specialized roles than previous installments.
XCOM soldiers are split into four classes with two upgrade paths for each. Success often relies on coordinating each role’s strengths and weaknesses. Players have to put real thought into how they organize and equip their squads.
Battles take place on detailed maps disguising the invisible grid your solders are moving around on. Positioning is the key to victory. Players need to account for things like cover, elevation, and line of sight when planning their next move. Environments are fully destructible, adding another factor to your tactical considerations.
Instead of the time units used in the original game, each soldier in XCOM: Enemy Unknown has two moves per turn. This is part of a larger effort to streamline the clunkier design aspect of the original games. Purists might scoff, but the developers have found a good balance between complexity and efficiency. Some actions, such as shooting, automatically end the turn for that character, so it’s important to look before you leap.
When you find yourself out of moves and flanked by enemy reinforcements, you have only yourself to blame — unless it is the result of the pathfinding screwing up. In that case, you have every right to blame Firaxis.
More than once I’ve seen soldiers shimmy up drain pipes before immediately jumping down. This seems to be because XCOM doesn’t account for elevation when calculating the most direct route. While this is usually a minor annoyance, it has a habit of alerting enemy squads that had not previously noticed your team’s arrival.
You want to be extra careful because leveling a soldier up takes time. If one dies, they’re gone for good. This creates fantastic tension, but things can get out of hand fast.
XCOM isn’t a very forgiving game. One or two bad mistakes can sink an entire campaign. Players can afford to lose a soldier here and there, but defeats have a way of compounding one another. Things can spiral out of control fast and make the game un-winnnable.
Speaking of XCOM soldiers, each one is randomly generated and fully customizable. The fact that they all have names and faces goes a long way to making them feel more like people than disposable pawns.
It’s hard not to get attached to your soldiers after watching them slowly climb their way up the ranks. Every battle is a new chapter in their ongoing story. You start to pick out your favorites and invent little stories about them in your head.
You cheer when they pull off an impressive shot and let out a sigh of relief when they escape what looks like certain death. Then, when they die in the final mission while trying to revive a fallen squadmate, your heart genuinely breaks.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown also features multiplayer. If this acknowledgment seems token and tacked on, you understand my feelings toward this gameplay mode. With so many core mechanics built around single-player progression, standalone deathmatches seem out of place.
There are only five maps in total and custom game options are limited. The campaign features a variety of mission types ranging from civilian rescue to boarding alien ships.
Multiplayer has one. There is some fun to be had controlling alien units, but so many mechanics have been stripped away that it barely even feels like the same game.
I seriously doubt anybody on the XCOM development team cared about this mode at all. It exists only to tick a box on a marketing memo. It’s mechanically functional but wholly divorced from the core XCOM: Enemy Unknown experience.
Putting aside its token multiplayer mode , XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still a great game. The missions are challenging but fun. I found the base management aspect very rewarding. The tactical combat drew me in, as did the way the game allows players to carve their own stories from the core mechanics.
If you’re a fan of turn-based tactics, this game is a must-have. If you aren’t a fan, it just might make you into one. Reasonably well-paced and with impressive replay value, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is absolutely worth your time and money.