XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Review]

XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be seen as low as $9.99 when the stars align. The original price is $39.99.

Two things can be said about the X-COM universe: the aliens are always evil and it’s grand daddy to turn-based tactical strategy games.

For many older players, the mere whisper of X-COM: UFO Defense is enough for them to wet their pants without a shred of embarrassment. Well, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has changed the series besides losing the hyphen in X-COM. Graphical enhancement comes to mind. And a bit of gameplay freedom lost in favor of streamlined design, as fans of the original would probably point out. Be prepared for little grey men, psionics, UFOs, and pretty much every beloved sci-fi staple in existence.

Let’s be realistic: compared to most strategy games, XCOM: EU has a flexible, dynamic campaign that is a wonder to the genre. When compared to the original, maybe not so much, but today we aren't reviewing that game. So this game works primarily by a milestone campaign. You must reach certain milestones to progress, but in-between you are free to play as you see fit. You can choose to help certain nations out, or not. Take a pick of missions for a choice of reward. Spend your cash on soldiers or ships. Still, those milestones must be reached or you are unable to go on. You race to stay one step of the alien invasion and falling behind means a slow death by lack of funding. No funding means you can’t keep fighting the good fight. So the ability to make plenty of choices is there, but the game isn't completely freeform.

Developer Firaxis Games spared no expense on bringing XCOM to the modern era. The graphics are as good as can be expected for a squad tactical game. Aliens burst into viscera with a satisfying punch. Lasers (of course there are lasers!) and explosions feel as good as any action game. The animation prowess going into the Thin Man give him an exceptional amount of character. Slow motion camera work often captures the action in grisly detail. However, the responsiveness of the controls are questionable, most notably with the jetpack and grapple. Soldiers are also known to fire off in a different direction and still hit their target. The game isn’t perfect, but being turn-based does tone down many of the problems into mere annoyances. Except certain areas are not as random as they should be (looking at you, UFO assaults); that’s a problem that doesn't go away.

Let’s talk about the most important part of all tactical games -- the combat. XCOM is fairly action-packed, as far as turn-based gaming goes. Your soldiers can move in leaps and bounds across the map, relying on each using two actions per turn. The selection of gadgets are interesting and diverse, ranging from grappling hooks to alien grenades. There’s even a mechanized unit that can replace a squad member. The class system by itself is a bit shallow and constricting. However when combining various equipment, psionics, gadgets, and other squad members, XCOM’s freedom gives you room to exercise your tactical genius. Just not too much room, especially since most weapons are class restrictive.

Surprisingly, XCOM: EU has a ranked multiplayer mode. While co-op might have been a better direction, the competitive (1v1) system is well-designed and doesn't feel like just a tacked on bullet point. And the multiplayer aspect is much needed, as the game has slim DLC options and a lack of modding tools. Ouch.

Overall, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a worthy addition to both the series and the strategy genre. Make no mistake (if you do, a rampaging Muton will surely cut you down), XCOM’s limited, streamlined strategy is a cornerstone of its design and it shows.

Side note: If you're playing the game for the first time, I don't recommend choosing any difficulty higher than Normal. Trust me!

Played XCOM and want more delicious tactical strategy? Shadowrun Returns releases next week and Xenonauts is in early access. Both are on Steam.

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