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Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players
Matt Bailey PC/Mac 2K Games Firaxis 1-2 (Online)
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Windows Vista/7, 2GHz Processor, 2GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT or ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT or greater, 20GB Hard Disk Drive space PS3, Xbox 360 Click here to buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown review

X-COM is one of those classic PC names, like DOOM, Ultima, Wing Commander, Civilization and pretty much anything made by Bullfrog - games which defined their genres. However, X-COM was also a dormant franchise for over a decade until 2K Games announced its return a couple of years ago in the form of a first-person shooter, something that wasn't popular with many fans. While that project sits on the backburner, the publisher has instead, given us a game that fits much more with the original isometric turn-based strategy game in the form of XCOM Enemy Unknown.

It's a reboot of the 1994 game from Firaxis, a developer whose roots lie in the original creators Micropose, and who in recent years have been working on the much-praised sequels to another treasured Micropose franchise, Civilization. It's not surprising then, that this is a game that shows much love for the original, and again puts you in charge of an elite military organisation which has involvement from a wide variety of governments from across the world. Your job as commander is to put together the best squad possible and head out on missions against the alien invaders who have been threatening Earth, kidnapping humans, and wiping out cities.

On the ground, the combat is turn-based, and uses a 3D isometric perspective, so you can rotate the camera between the four different viewpoints, but this isn't a third-person shooter. When you enter combat mode, the camera will shift behind the character so you can see your target head on, but as a tactical game it's relying on randomness, with explicit percentages of chance, to determine the outcome of your actions. In addition to weaponry; psionic combat - the prime method of attack for your invaders - returns and can be harnessed by humans later in the game. The use of cover is vitally important as your soldiers are highly vulnerable in the open, but you'll need to be aware of the enemy trying to flank you, as well as a new addition not available in 1994; destructible environments. You aren't going to be tearing down buildings like Battlefield 3, but you can destroy a set of boxes being used as cover, or pull down walls. These provide new routes to move through, but may also leave you unexpectedly vulnerable to a well-positioned foe.

It's incredibly important to look after your soldiers as permanent death is a feature that has been carried over, and one that many gamers in 2012 may not be familiar with. Screw up, and your team will remain dead (unless you reload an old save), so you need to consider whether certain actions are worth the risk or if you should be more patient instead. To drum home the consequences of your actions you can rename all of your characters, maybe to people who are important to you. Each of your squad members can be customised, both in terms of their appearance and their inventory, although the options are more limited than in the past.

On-field action takes place in a variety a locations, although they don't seem to match up with the counties you're fighting in. For example, a trip to China didn't give me a modern Asian city, but a swamp region that looked suspiciously like one I'd visited in the USA. So despite your world tour, locations are actually made up of a few different types of environment, with a variety of maps for each one. It may not be authentic, but the battlefields themselves are interesting and their different layouts and features provide for a variety of tactical options. They are not randomly generated, which means they will eventually repeat, but they are generally well thought out, although the camera, and in particular the tile selector, can get a bit glitchy on the few occasions that the action takes place inside a complicated structure like a downed spacecraft.

Away from the combat, there is a significant amount of time spent at your base, which provides the game's strategic element. It's not only a place where you set up your squad and select from the multiple mission options; it's somewhere you conduct research to improve your weapons and armour; where you construct these items for your troops and build new facilities, as well as keep track of the current state of the XCOM member nations. Each country has a panic rating, and if you let things get out of control, the government will withdraw from the project, reducing your funding and thus making it more difficult to keep your soldiers equipped. Panic can be reduced by purchasing and then launching satellites over troubled regions, but with long lead times to build the necessary uplinks and the satellites themselves, it takes careful planning to ensure that the right level of coverage is achieved. You also need to construct aircraft and deploy them across the world to take down incoming alien ships, before sending your squad towards the wreckage to gather more materials needed to progress your research, and fend off any surviving threats.

Panic levels will also influence your mission selection when you are presented with a choice; often multiple invasions are happening at once and you need to choose where you should send your forces. You'll probably want to visit the most panicked nation, but each will provide you with different rewards, so it's not always an easy decision. You have to remember that whoever you don't select will see their panic meter rise. Whichever mission you choose, though, only impacts the location you visit and how it affects them, rather than influencing the story. There isn't a significant amount of depth to the story, which is mostly about the alien invasion, how we understand the attackers, and how to defeat them. It's not particularly original or likely to stick in your mind for long, but what's there is told well through cut-scenes, and you get a strong sense of being part of a team who is battling to save Earth, even if you don't know anybody's names. It's just enough story to provide a narrative background, without getting in the way of the combat, strategy or your own stories you'll weave on the battlefield, where your closest friends are gunned down by an alien who is out-thinking you.

The missions aren't all simply about taking down the opposition. Some will require you to deactivate a bomb or to escort a VIP to safety, while a particularly challenging scenario involves you saving as many civilians as possible - the longer you take the more will die. Enemy Unknown does a good job of offering a variety of missions so that you don't feel like you're playing the same thing over and over again but with a different backdrop. The compulsory story missions require you to do more, such as carrying out specific objectives, although these are scattered and can often be initiated at your own pace, allowing you to build up your squad and put the world in a better shape in your own time.

If you've had enough saving the world then you can turn your attention to the online multiplayer which allows two players to compete squad-vs-squad. Gameplay here is similar to single player, except because a real person has to take their turn, it may take a bit longer before you're back in control again. To ensure this doesn't get out of hand (particularly if the other player was to leave their keyboard for a considerable length of time), by default turns are limited in time, the length of which can be customised when you set up a game. Another difference is that your squad can feature aliens in addition to humans, adding an extra tactical dimension, and making those who had already thought through their strategies playing solo, to think again. The squads here are separate from the single player game, and you instead get a limited number of points to spend on building your squad before the game starts. You'll need to use these points in a way that allows you to have a strong, balanced squad that suits your style of play - whether that's more, but less powerful, units, or whether you just want to run around with a couple of more powerful soldiers. Custom games give you the full flexibility to turn off time and point limits, but generally you'll end up in a game with some limit in place. There isn't any variation in the gametype - it's always a squad-vs-squad battle to the death, but it can often be enjoyable, especially against friends, and ranked matches and leaderboards give you something to work towards as you play.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like a fresh look at a classic genre, and one that doesn't get much attention in 2012. It's engaging, enjoyable, and highly replayable, because even though you probably won't care about seeing the story elements again, you'll likely want to try out the missions to see whether Uncle Tim will survive that spacecraft assault this time around. It's about weaving your own stories out of your successes and failures, and we're glad that Firaxis were able to deliver the update that fans of the original games deserved.


Overall Firaxis have long held the torch for the turn-based strategy game, and now they've revived the turn-based tactical game in style with XCOM Enemy Unknown. It feels modern without ignoring its heritage, and comes highly recommended to all those looking for something different away from all the first- and third-person action games of the last few years. We want more of this. 9/10

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