Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of the classic 1994 game X-COM: Enemy Unknown (UFO Defense in US) cherished by many around the world and often mentioned in the top PC games of all time. When the remake was first announced it made my day, I have been waiting far too long to see my favourite PC game brought up to date. It is a mountainous task, with many changes, improvements and additions but have Firaxis Games captured the spirit of the original?

Aliens have invaded earth and a task force has been created to investigate and ultimately defeat them. Funded by countries around the world, you must keep their panic level down by protecting them. If a country’s panic level rises too high you lose their support, lose too many and the Doomsday counter reaches maximum and it is game over. You start with a skeleton base and staff with little idea what the aliens are or their full agenda. The game gently eases you in with fairly relaxed sporadic missions to investigate alien recon missions which your squad must defeat all the alien presence. One completed, artefacts gathered from the missions can be researched to unlock new weapons, facilities and knowledge.

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XCOM is a game of two halves, management of your base and its related activities and turn-based combat. In between missions you spend your time at the base overseeing the basic operations of your base. This includes researching alien artefacts, manufacturing new weapons and equipment, building new facilities, hiring soldiers and much more. Initially it can be quite daunting as you do not know what to build. Facilities and some manufacturing take time to complete so choosing the wrong build or delaying it can prove to be costly. It requires a degree of future planning, choose the wrong order and you can set off a chain of delays. All your actions are monitored by a mysterious head of the task force and reported at the end of each game month.

The combat is the real highlight of the game which sees you pick a squad of up to six soldiers to take to the scenarios such as alien abductions, UFO landings, bomb disposal, terror sites and special missions which progress the story. As previously mentioned it is a turn-based game so you take a turn then the enemy takes theirs. Each character has essentially two actions per turn which can be used in two ways. The first is to move shorter safe distance and allows you to fire at an alien, perform medical assistance or use Overwatch which scouts for enemies and lets you fire out of turn. The second allows you to move further but at the cost of ending that players turn.

The combat is very strategic, running and gunning out in the open will result in swift death. Use of cover is essential and fortunately there is usually plenty of it on the maps such as trees, rocks, vehicles and buildings. Patience is the key to winning a mission, use cover and never go alone! You start the game with human designed weapons which are not ideal against enemies that are clearly more advanced. It will take a few successful shots to bring one down, remember in most cases your characters can only fire once per turn! The aliens come in several varieties from classic skinny body big head features, Starship Troopers alien look-a-likes the Chryssalids and robotic units.

Firing at enemies relies on a percentage system to successfully hit them. It can be quite literally hit and miss at times, a 80% chance of hitting an enemy at close range would normally be a no-brainer but your soldiers will sometimes miss. A 30% chance at long distance should be a concern, but you will often stand just as much chance of hitting them if it was higher. I experienced turns where my squad have missed every shot and others where they could hit the target blindfolded. Don’t rely too much on the percentages – take the shot or wait in Overview!

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Your soldiers earn experience from taking part in missions, moving up the ranks as they progress. Each rank gained earns you a choice of perks to select one from such as the ability to take reaction shots at the enemy, improved medical treatment and improved stats. These perks can greatly affect your usefulness and tactics on missions so it pays to keep them mixed. Death is infamously permanent in the game. One of the great things is being able to name your characters, I recommend naming them after family and friends to help keep them alive! There is nothing like running halfway across a map to save a loved one from death 🙂

The game follows a story that won’t progress until you complete a plot based mission or task at certain parts in the game. You can if you wish to, delay doing these missions to spend more time levelling up your characters, build new facilities and so on. After these plot missions new tougher enemies are introduced which ramp up the already high difficulty. The curve can be brutal, especially if you are under equipped and stumble upon an Ethereal!

XCOM uses the Unreal Engine which is starting to show its age. While the graphics look fine they are nothing that truly shines. The switch to 3D in combat also brings up a few issues such as being able to fire at enemies through walls and floors. There are also a few occasional camera angle issues during combat such as not being able to see enemies clearly which can be annoying. This extends to movement where multiple levels of height are possible to move to, the game thinks you want to move to a different level when you do not. Overall the issues are forgivable largely thanks to the very good implementation of the controls for console users.

A multiplayer mode is included in the game which allows you to play against one person. You have a number of credits to spend on creating a squad which can be a mix of humans and aliens found in the game. The game remains turn based but you can set a time limit for each turn. There are a small number of maps to play on which are good in design and offer up a good opportunity to hone your tactics against a human. While it is not a massive part of the game and certainly not worth buying the game for it alone, it does offer some re-playability with friends or via matchmaking.

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I avoided comparing XCOM to the original throughout the review as I think the game should be reviewed as its own and not reflect the score in any way. If you are a fan of the original you will find quite a few differences. One of the main changes is that you no longer build multiple bases, instead you build satellites to monitor activity in other countries. Some weapons, equipment and facilities have been added, removed or changed which can cause some initial confusion. Perhaps the biggest change is the story ending, though I hope to see this as part of a DLC expansion. The story plots make the game pace much faster, almost to a point where I felt pushed to do them. There are also a few nods to the original, keep an eye out for one  when you research Plasma weapons!

XCOM captures the spirit of the original, albeit in a more streamlined game. There are a few issues with the story based missions, but a second playthrough (which I highly recommend) will negate these as you know what to expect. It is great to see turn based strategy alive and kicking in 2012 and XCOM is a perfect example. I highly recommend you buy the game whether you have an interest in management or combat, it is the best of both worlds. And a final note to the developers, can we have Terror From The Deep next?


A great mix of management and turn based combat. It captures the spirit of the original; suspense and fear!
The graphics do look a little dated, the switch to 3D is great but does cause some issues.
While not as suspense filled as the original the music does a good job of building up tension. Voice acting is overall done well.
9.0Final Score

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