games / Reviews

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) Review

October 12, 2012 | Posted by Marc Morrison

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Title: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer Firaxis
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Players: 1-2
Rated: M for Mature

I’ll begin this review by saying that fundamentally, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a solid game. The underpinnings of the strategy are solid, the turn-based combat is great, leveling up your squad is rewarding, as is researching upgrades, dealing with base finances, and building up the facility itself. There is a lot going in this game’s favor, which makes the few rough patches rather depressing at times. The positive aspects outweigh the negatives ones, but the negatives parts get in the way of the game, which has some consequences the more you play the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the popular X-COM series from a decade ago. I’ve not played any of those games, so I cannot comment on how close this game comes to those. There are some systems in place in this game, that seem directly from those earlier games, but I don’t know. Regardless, this game feels like a modern game, in terms of scope and gameplay, so anything taken from those earlier games has probably been updated somewhat.

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The core gameplay of XCOM is that of a turn-based unit-driven strategy game. Your basic squad starts off with 4 soldiers, but as they get more experienced and rank up, you can expand that number to 5, and then later 6. You only ever control 6 soldiers on the field, for any mission, so it’s a good idea to keep them alive. Each unit only has two turns per round, where they can perform different actions. Ideally, you’ll want to move in the first turn, or set up a defense, and then be offensive in the second turn, by shooting an alien in the head. When you select a soldier, you’ll see a blue circle around him/her. This is their normal area of movement, where you will be able to use their second turn. They also have a larger orange “Dashing” radius, where you can move further, but at the expense of not being able to take a second action.

The crux of the game is positioning your units behind cover, and to flank the enemy. There are two types of cover in the game, full cover and half cover. Half cover usually involves; low walls, cars, park benches, and the like. It provides some over, but can be destroyed, and your unit isn’t fully protected by it. Full cover includes stronger materials like; higher walls (or part of a building), trucks, parts of alien crafts, etc. You can tell the difference by having your cursor in the desired spot, and either a half-shield (half cover), or full shield (full cover) displaying on the object. Cover can also be multi-directional, providing full cover in one direction, and half-cover in another (think corners of buildings).

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Flanking and unit placement is one strong element to victory. If you can get around to an enemy’s side, their cover becomes either half effective (giving it a yellow color), or not effective at all (giving it a red color). Enemies not in cover also show up in a red color, which makes them relatively easy to take out. Likewise, enemies can also flank you, which can be deadly to your soldiers. Proper use of cover and moving up the map slowly, in an organized fashion will serve you well in the game.

There are four different soldier classes, each with different abilities, weapons, and tech trees. The classes are typical for this sense of game. The first is the “Heavy”, who carries a light machine gun, rocket launcher, and is adept at suppressing enemies. The second is the “Assault”, who can carry either an assault rifle, or shotgun, is adept with flanking maneuvers, and excels with the “Overwatch” support command. The third class is the “Support” class, and it pretty much is, what it sounds like. These guys (or gals) can only use assault rifles, but they have access to more battlefield gear (primarily a smoke grenade), and are the ideal unit for healing your soldiers on the battlefield. The final unit class is the “Sniper”, and is probably the best in the game, due to some slight unbalancing problems. The Sniper can only use Sniper Rifles (duh), and are primarily concerned with taking long-range shots, and racking up kills with their big gun. The drawback to the Sniper class is that you can’t move and shoot in the same turn. The game just says that you’re incapable of firing your gun after moving (in that turn). The other three classes can do this, so you’ll need to plan a little bit more when trying to have the Sniper attack. The flipside though is that the Sniper class is a beast with attacking, usually one-shotting enemies with ease. Later talents improve their effectiveness, letting them take two-shots per turn, or giving them a “Battle Scanner” to improve their sight radius. Their biggest helpful skill though is the “Squadsight” talent, which lets them shoot at an enemy that is within any of your soldier’s visual radius. A good tactic is to move your Assault/Heavy guys up, let the Support soldier heal them, and have the Snipers laying waste to everything they can. The final third of the game, my squad layout consisted of, 3 Snipers, 1 Assault, 1 Support, and 1 Heavy, and I dominated most missions.

As you use soldiers, and they gain experience and level up, you gain points to put into their skill trees. Each soldier has their own individual skill tree, which correlates to their class. The Sniper has a different skill tree than the Heavy, for example. At the 1st (Squaddie), and 6th (Major) ranks, you’re forced to pick only one skill, but the other 5 ranks, you can pick between two different skills, tailored to what you direction you want to go.

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On the battlefield, there are a few universal commands that every soldier can do. The first is to fire on an enemy (if they are within range). The closer in range, or more exposed they are, the higher the percentage to hit will be in the firing camera. There is also a critical hit chance percentage, for the possibility of inflecting more damage. Another is to “Reload” your gun. As you take shots, ammo is depleted from your weapon. You can take a turn to reload it, or else eventually you’ll run out of ammo and be forced to reload. Every soldier can switch to a pistol sidearm, but it has less damage range and damage. A third command is “Overwatch”, which places the soldier in a state of alert. If an alien enters the sight range, the soldier will shoot at it, which can be extremely useful as a defensive tactic. There is less of a percentage to hit the target, however. The final universal command is “Hunker Down”. This places you in a defensive posture that can help defend against alien attacks.

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The other big part of XCOM is dealing with the XCOM base, and threats to the Earth. The base is divided into divisions which each handles a different specialization:

“Research” handles everything in relation to discovering new technology, doing alien autopsies/interrogations, developing new weapons and so on. You’ll need appropriate materials (alloys, weapon fragments, Elerium, etc.) as well as a set number of scientists to actually research it. The more scientists you have, the quicker you can research new technology. Once a project is done, you’re given a text screen describing the benefits, and have the option to take on another project.

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“Engineering” has to do with building weapons, armor and items for your squad, as well as gear for the aircraft in your Hanger. Engineering also has a “Foundry” department that can research new items, or upgrade existing technology. The final Engineering subsystem has to deal with the XCOM base itself. The base is laid out in a grid pattern that is 7 squares across, and 4 squares high. The rooms need to be excavated first, then you can plant specialized rooms in the empty space, such as; power generators, satellite uplinks, laboratories, workshops, and so on. Each room contributes something worthwhile, like giving you access to more engineers, giving the base more power, and so on. To undertake a project, you’ll need a minimum set number of engineers, as well as money, and (If required), alien materials. The rule of thumb for the first two divisions is, “The scientists research it, the engineers build it.”

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The third division is the “Barracks”. This is where you outfit your soldiers, put points in the talent trees, and view the Soldier memorial. There is also an Officer Training School, where you can spend money to increase the squad’s overall effectiveness, but only at certain ranks. The last section is the Psi Labs, where you can test your soldiers for psychic potential. If they have the ability, you can use telepathic/telekinetic attacks in battle. This unlocks a separate (much abbreviated) skill tree, where you can choose only a few powers.

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The “Hanger” is where you decide where to order aircraft, where to place them, continentally speaking, and what weapons to arm them with. It’s not a very involved part of the game, and is superficially kind of shallow. Then again, the mini-game to shoot down UFO’s is shallow, so maybe it matches it, perfectly.

The second-to-last division is the “Situation Room”. This is where you can place satellites; see how each country views the XCOM project, view the finances of how well you’re doing, and finally visit the grey market to sell off excess supplies you might have, in order to make a quick buck. The important part of this subsect is just the map though, because you can see how each country is doing. If a country is in the red (panic-wise), then it’s probably a good idea to launch a satellite at them, or take a mission in the country, to calm them down, so they don’t leave.

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And the final part of this XCOM process is the “Mission Control” screen. This is where the mission briefings come through, letting you see what the missions will be like, or choose where to go. You can also “scan the planet” for alien activity. What this means in practicality, is that time fast-forwards, so that research, engineering, and Situation Room briefings (meeting with the Shadow Council), can be completed. Around every 7 days or so, you’ll get a random mission, either aliens have landed on the planet, and you have to kill them, or else you have to shoot them down in an inane mini-game.

A UFO will appear on the map, and you can scramble an Interceptor to shoot it down. You can have up to 4 planes in each continental hanger, each with different weapons. You can also buy temporary boosts to increase aiming, or your planes dodge mechanic. As you go through the sequence (which is about 90% scripted), a timer is counting down, with the starting time being dependent on which plane you’re using, and what type of UFO is attacking. You can freeze the countdown by a few seconds using a third item (there are only 3 utility items available for this segment). The entire endeavor seems incredibly pointless. You are never in control of the Interceptor, it just shoots randomly. This makes it frustrating when you lose, and a sense of non-interest if you win. You didn’t shoot the UFO down, so it’s not really up to you. It feels like there are hidden dice being rolled during these segments, but you can’t see what is going on. If you fail, you can usually try to scramble one more Interceptor, but that is it. After the 2nd try, the UFO zooms away, if it manages to survive.

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The sense of dice rolls prevails during the strategy part as well, which is an unfortunate problem. Sometimes it works out, say you only have a 35% chance to hit an alien, and you manage to kill him, then that feels great. There were some instances though, where I had above an 80% chance to hit something, and failed to do so. The graphics engine doesn’t help with this problem, either. If the target is behind cover, then I can understand a missed shot. There were at least 4 times though, where the target was directly in front of me, I had a huge shot advantage, but still missed. I’m talking less than 5 feet away, in front of me. Another time, I tried to stun an alien to take it back to be studied, but only had a 24% chance to do so. I made a save before I tried it, and it failed. I reloaded the game, and tried again, to see another failure. I did this cycle 19 times, just getting more bewildered by it. Finally on the 19th time, my guy managed to stun it, and he didn’t even bat an eye.

Another problem is how the maps and enemies are laid out. When you first start a map, you barely can see anything. When you start moving up, more of the map is explored. Usually after two turns of you moving up a map, you’ll encounter some enemies, and the battling begins. This only occurs though when you move up the level. If you are to just wait around, skipping turns, enemies never show up. There are environmental triggers that you can usually guess at, the more you play. This lets you really start pushing the A.I. around, because they’ll never show up until you make the first move. It’d be like you having the first four rows open in a chess game, able to position all of your pieces in any way you want, because you know that the opponent pieces won’t show up, until after you cross the 4th row.

There are a few other unpolished aspects of the game also, mainly having to do with animations and map repetition. The training has you choose two different locations, but the map for each is the same, which I found odd. When you do an autopsy, the animation is always the same, as well when you do an interrogation. Some of the other minor problems are with the combat interface. The game is 3 dimensional, but has some problems with the Z axis. It gets worse when you enter a building, and the camera starts flipping out between trying to through different floors.

The final thing I’ll say, gameplay wise is that, the game is actually better played with a gamepad, which is sort of crazy. Since its turn based, there isn’t any quick-action needed for strategy placement. That’s usually why most (if not all) console ports of PC strategy games fail, because the gamepad interface isn’t quick to respond to that action. I played this game on a PC, used a gamepad, and enjoyed it, thoroughly. If anything, the keyboard/mouse controls were a bit shoddy, the camera was unwieldy, and some of the actions felt awkward. It can be played/enjoyed with a keyboard/mouse, but to get a better experience, use a 360 gamepad.

Graphics
XCOM looks good, with two caveats. One is the animation repeating thing, mentioned above. The second is that it’s an Unreal Engine 3 game, so you should know what that entails: textures taking a second or two to load, when units are selected in the barracks, that sort of thing. There is also some pretty nasty clipping that occurs in the game, your soldier shooting through walls, or one of my solder’s arms was freaking out in the last video of the game. Aside from all that though, the game is really good looking. The environments are pretty varied, going from small towns, to big cities, to forests. Your soldiers all look solid, and can be customized with a myriad of options. Some of the environmental effects look great specifically the rain, as well as the deformation of the cover, and various objects in the game world. It’s a minor detail, but it was something I noticed, that looked especially good.

Sound
Sound is understated somewhat, but handled well within the game. Music is muted during most of the game, with it occasionally swelling during big action sequences. This is intentional, because it induces a sense of unease once you’re exploring the maps, but not able to see any aliens. The voice acting is good, but some parts are a bit wooden at times. The sound effects all fit into the game world, especially the alien noises and such. The Firaxis intro movie at the beginning also sounds appropriately creepy.

Replay Factor
The game can be beat in around 20-25 hours, depending on how much side stuff you do, and how many much you want to see. Once the game ends, the game ends though, which is kind of a shame. It would have been nice to have a New Game + option. There are some additional difficulty modes, as well as an “Iron Man” mode, which limits you to one save, to make the game more challenging. The big mode to extend the life of XCOM is the Multiplayer mode which is….uh…fine? It’s functional, but seems kind of shallow, and not that fun. You have a points limit in the game, where everything you buy requires a set number of points. It’s only 1v1, the XCOM soldiers vs. the Aliens (which are slightly unbalanced). There are only 5 maps available at launch, you might get bored quickly.

The 411
While there are a few technical hiccups and quirky elements in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game is good enough to move past them. The core gameplay of the strategy game is incredibly solid, with every mission feeling tense, with you not knowing what is around the next bend. All the base building stuff is satisfying, but can be suspenseful as well. Grab XCOM if you can, and you’ll have a blast with it.

Graphics8.5Animations repeat, and Unreal Engine 3 problems can’t mar the technical aspects of the game, nor the beauty of the levels.411 Elite Award
Gameplay8.0Music is subdued but good when it pipes up. There’s plenty of voice acting, with most of it being decent. Sound effects help with the creepy mood the game evokes. 
Sound9.0Some weird enemy/unit behavior, and the hidden dice rolls are problematic. The game is a breath of fresh air for turn-based strategy games though, and is rewarding to play. 
Lasting Appeal7.0Different difficulty modes, and a half-baked multiplayer mode don’t extend the life of this game very much. You will enjoy your time with it though, and playing a 2nd time is fun. 
Fun Factor 9.0Once you understand the quirks, this game is extremely fun to plow through. Managing the base is tough, but rewarding. 
Overall8.5   [ Very Good ]  legend

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Marc Morrison

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