Review: X-COM: Enemy Unknown

Dec 16, 2012

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There is a brilliance to classic strategy games like Checkers, Mancala and Chess. They are confined, simple to understand, yet each player’s moves creates a plethora of possible responses. Video Games can accomplish this, yet few have taken on the task. X-COM is not a new franchise, yet this re-imagination of the 1994 classic from MicroProse manages to pull it off. There were several iterations released between 1994 and 2001. None were able to recapture the magic of turn-based strategy the original X-COM is known for. And now, under the development of Firaxis games, strategy is back and there are several fun mechanics that make this a new classic for turn-based strategy fans. And once again, Video Games are the premier platform for games of this ilk.

Our world is under attack and a group of nations from around the globe have come together to create XCOM - a military force tasked with fighting the alien invasion. The game is simple to understand, but challenging to master. The tactics are separated into three main categories: research, engineering, and combat maneuvers. Research allows you to leverage the alien technology to create new weapons, armor, and equipment. Making it imperative that you tackle missions ancillary to the main objectives and collect specimen - sometimes even living aliens. Engineering is the traditional RTS mechanic of resource gathering and management. This is where you build facilities that increase your ability to produce more weapons, armor, or satellites (necessary for keeping the world safe). I will cover the combat maneuvers and tactical elements shortly.

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The nations that form XCOM provide various benefits to the command center. From monthly funding to particular gameplay bonuses. Protecting all your nations is difficult as you will be constantly presented with scenarios which force you to choose between defending the citizens of up to 3 countries at a time. But only 1 can be chosen. The clock is constantly running and new threats unfold at a dizzying rate. You can leverage the monthly finances, and grey market trading, to beef up your offense for missions, or your global defense of the various nations. If you wish to accomplish the latter, satellites and assault jets are your friend. Avoid my mistake: don’t put all of your eggs in the offense basket.

Tactical combat in XCOM is superb. This is where the similarities to chess are apparent. Granted, you never upgrade to a plasma sniper rifle with your rook, but the classic style of thinking 2-3 moves in advance (with the other player’s options in mind) is replicated. Where XCOM stands on it’s own two feet is the variation of player types: sniper, assault, heavy and support. Each with it’s own tree of upgrades. Like most games, the farther along in the story you go, the harder the enemies become. Keeping your squaddies alive will help you balance the scales. Be cautious: if you treat all of your troops as sacrificial lambs, you will struggle to complete this game! Which leads nicely to the difficulty settings. The usual easy, normal, and hard exist. But also there is a hardcore mode which does not allow you to reload a save file during missions. I tried this…it’s hard. Regardless of your difficulty setting, the mission requirements are to kill the bad guys. Doing so is extremely rewarding. Not only in the upgrading of your troops (via promotions) but also in the loot you can find and then sell or trade to reduce the panic in the world. There are several methods to take down the enemies who are aggressive and intelligent. They will hide behind cover, team up, and always try to flank you (damage is higher on a flank shot). The trick is to get your troops close enough, while behind cover, to deliver a strong shot at high accuracy. Damage strength, defense, range, and accuracy can all be altered with equipment, upgrades and character type.

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What makes XCOM enjoyable, for me, is the logic behind every move. I love considering the consequences of my actions, future actions, and balancing those decisions with the potential counter moves of my opponent. But on a less serious note, it is a blast to name your troops and customize their appearance to look like your friends. Watching them die after several missions and kills is such a downer! XCOM is one of the best games available on PC and a must play for any strategy fan.

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