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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

October 24th, 2012 by

Renewing  a classic or cult favourite game surely must be a terrifying endeavour.  Firstly, you must try to do right by the team that spawned the IP, the fans that love it, and finally you must make it shiny and appealing to a new generation of gamers in order to make it a success.

Changes made to the original formula or genre can go catastrophically wrong, (Looking at you Starbreeze), and such a reboot far flung from the original concept could be a complete failure.

Thankfully, Firaxis decided not to go down this route. They have gone back to the original, stripped it down to its core components and decided which of those would suit their vision.  That’s not to say they haven’t made alterations to those retained core mechanics of the original game.

Firaxis have a great strategy pedigree having the Alpha Centauri, Civilization and Pirates! Series under their belt, and have in recent years released remakes of the latter two to critical acclaim in the form of an updated version with renewed mechanics and updated graphics. As such, X-Com: Enemy Unknown is Firaxis’ attempt to bring that same success to the classic 1994 strategy game of the same name, also known as UFO : Enemy Unknown outside of the US.

Following the arrival of hostile extra-terrestrials, you are employed as the commander of the newly formed XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat) unit. You are tasked with managing the finance provided from the coalition of countries you are tasked to protect, including all training, research, development and the outfitting of all soldiers under your command, installing and running the detection and interception systems to detect and assault the alien aggressors. Your overall goal is to rebuff any future attacks, and discover the reason behind the alien incursion.

Graphically, you can tell this has had the Firaxis makeover, with the character models reminiscent of those seen in Revolution, but with a reduction on the cartoon look favoured for their previous remake. Utilising the Unreal engine, character models and environments are beautiful to  behold and are a good representation of modern console games. So, other than the graphical overhaul, which brings the series up to date, what else have they amended?

There has been a major overhaul of the combat and squad formation systems which streamlines combat to be a much faster and fluid experience. Firstly,  the individual characters statistics have been reduced down to hit points, Defense, Aim and Will. Hit Points is obvious, denoting how much damage your character can take before being critically injured or killed, and an be modified by equipment and ranking up. Defense denotes your chance to avoid enemy fire, with modifications coming from equipment, cover, elevation and abilities. Each point of Defense reduces the enemies chance to hit by 1% so when you decide to tackle the game on Ironman Mode, where every action is saved so there are no do-overs, every point in defence is a must. Aim specifies your ability to hit enemies with standard weapons and can be increased through rank, items, perks and specialised weaponry. Finally we have Will, which incorporates the original Bravery stat, and represents your soldiers morale. The higher the stat the greater the resistance to panic, and it also denotes both your base ability and resistance to psionic abilities.

Strength, Time Units, Stamina, Bravery, Reactions and Throwing accuracy have all been removed, or replaced with new mechanics. Omitting some of these particular statistics, removes control of both the selection of class and loadout for each player based on their particular speciality that made the original game a master-class in squad micromanagement. Instead, each character has an inherent class, which is revealed once they progress from Rookie to Squaddie. As such, you no longer need to search for that high Time Unit character for your reconnaissance assault unit, or the bruiser with high strength to equip your heavy weapons, as this is all predetermined when the character is generated.

Some of the other missing stats have been implemented into new mechanics, with a ranged free aim ability on your explosive weapons, and a new standard ability called Overwatch, which makes use of a hidden Reactions value.

The removal of time units, is probably the biggest bone of contention for most of the die-hards, and has been supplanted with a more straight forward action point system. A unit may perform 1 or 2 actions per turn. Some actions (firing the sniper rifle or rocket launcher) may only be performed on the first action. Each unit finishes its turn once it has either moved and performed an action, moved to the maximum dashing distance,  or performed any action other than moving on the first action turn. Each of the following perks provide exceptions to the above rules. Bullet Swarm allows a Heavy to fire first before movement or further action, including shooting a second time. Double tap allows a sniper to take two shots, including any specialised shots such as Headshot or Disarming Shot if no movement is performed. Snap Shot allows the sniper to move and fire with the sniper rifle, and finally Run and Gun allows the assault class to Dash and fire/Overwatch but not Dash and use equipment, effectively giving the assault class a limited additional Action Turn.

Gone are the bases of the past, instead superseded with a new satellite coverage system. Instead of building bases in areas to cover a particular sub continent, you instead have a centralised base in a choice of 5 starting locations, Asia, North America, South America, Europe or Africa. Each of these locations confers a bonus to your overall base, which range from ALL IN , which delivers an increase in overall monthly XCOM funding from the council, to WE HAVE WAYS, conferring the ability to instantly autopsy or interrogate aliens recovered on missions. Your council is made up of 16 countries, each of which must be managed and monitored, and these countries make up the continents that confer your bonuses. Building your base in Africa, and placing satellite coverage over Argentina and Brazil, would supply you with both the above perks in your arsenal.

In addition, each satellite over a country confers a financial bonus to your monthly funding, and each satellite over a continent supplies either Engineers or Scientists to your cause.

Firaxis have done a fantastic job with the situation management, placing sufficient tension on your action or inaction in these situations. This is achieved through your strategic control of country panic levels. Each country has five panic levels which are dictated by your response to UFO’s in their vicinity, Abduction missions within their borders and that of their neighbouring countries, terror missions on their continent and the key main quests fighting the alien menace. Ignoring a cry for help from the Canadians and Nigerians to undertake an abduction mission in Germany, will see panic levels rise in not only those countries, but also adjacent United States, Mexico, Egypt and South Africa. Launching satellites not only increase income and staff levels, but also reduces panic in the country selected.  At the crux of this gameplay is the “Doom Tracker”. Should a countries panic levels be at maximum when your council review takes place at the end of the month, that country will rescind its membership and as such its funding for the XCOM project will also vanish. The “Doom Tracker” tracks how many of these countries have pulled funding, and once it reaches eight, the project is shut down.

Utilising your finances puts the next level of complexity onto the core strategy. All purchases from your engineering team, such as the essential squad armour/weapons, interceptors and Satellites for tracking and disabling UFO’s (Satellites are the swiss army knife of this game), facilities such as the laboratories for research projects, generators to maintain your bases needs and arrays to control and monitor the satellites all must be budgeted in your monthly costs. Fail to buy enough arrays and satellites and you could miss UFO’s or even lose the ability to control panic in the countries. Fail to sufficiently equip your team and you could lose them all in one mission. Don’t have enough scientists and the latest breakthrough research that could save your squads lives may still be under investigation when it is needed. Insufficient engineers and you might not be able to craft that newly designed laser or plasma weapon that could mean the difference between life and death. Walking this tightrope of financial planning is the key to succeeding in this game, and it is by no means an easy task.

Fail to manage all of these aspects and you will find yourself having to concede defeat, and normally it is blatantly obvious what you need but don’t have, as much as a year before the inevitable collapse of the XCOM program. Built into the game, are a few machinations to help you achieve the management of your finances.

Firstly, on the many missions you undertake, you recover artifacts and items that can be used not only for research and reverse engineering, but can also be sold on the Grey Market. This option allows you to sell those alien corpses, weapon fragments or power supplies you recover from alien landings, crashes and abduction missions that could be the difference between financing that urgently needed item to keep your countries in the project.

Periodically you will also be approached by council governments for samples of your latest breakthrough in the fight against the alien menace, and will typically have a higher return than the initial investment required to create the required items.

Finally, each mission you undertake for a specific country or the council directly, will not only reduce their respective panic levels, but will also have rewards to decide between. This could be a financial reward, additional staff in your research or engineering department or even a skilled squad member who could fit into your team in an immediate capacity, or even as a back up should one of your squad members be killed or hospitalised while fulfilling their duties.

Squad members take on one of four roles. Heavy, utilising Rocket Launchers and LMG or equivalent heavy weapons, Support which utilise rifles, smoke grenades and excel with medikits, Snipers, who can be built for either long range or short range cover, and Assault, which is your soldier best suited for Close Range encounters with a shotgun or even as a perfect reconnaissance unit.

Skill trees are unlocked as your soldiers progress up the ranks, further expanding their roles, whether that be to further boost a heavy’s explosive talents, allowing more rockets and grenades to be carried, and their damage area to be increased, or the medic who can move further than other classes and have the ability to not only stabilise, but revive fallen comrades. Each Class can be developed to suit the style in which you play them and with 99 available slots, you can even ensure you have a soldier available for any eventuality.

Inventory management has been simplified, and is now limited to an armour type, primary and secondary weapon selection and a choice of item. The options for these grow as you recover technology and build the schematics researched by your scientists to improve your firepower and survivability exponentially.

Items come in all flavours, with Grenades for that extra free aim explosives, Scopes for an increase in your aim ability, right the way up to mind shields to give added protection to enemy psionic abilities.  This is expanded yet further with the Foundry, which expands on existing technological breakthroughs to make new variants or improved versions of almost every weapon or item in the game. It must be said at this point, that one of my minor niggles with the game, is also one of its most frustrating although it doesn’t truly appear until you reach the end game. The game itself recommends diversification in your squads, to prevent a catastrophic loss of all your skilled combatants. This also means distributing armour and weapons between up to 99 soldiers. This said, there is a ten item limitation on each item you can create, which can lead to several minutes of searching each soldier to find the one that has the item another unit currently requires. It would have been nice if Firaxis could have included an unequip all button, but unfortunately this is not the case, and as such, you could find yourself hunting an elusive set of armour, or single build of your most powerful weapon, to ensure your current team has the best odds.

In additon, should for example your support go down, there is no option to have another soldier stabilise with the supports equipped medikit. If they go down, and no other soldier has a medikit equipped, you best hope you can clear the level before the support bleeds out. The missing ability to pick up a downed soldiers item, which was so crucial in the original game, can mean the difference between winning and losing a battle.

Missions will always be one of five categories. UFO Infiltration and Capture, Abduction, Terror, VIP Escort or Bomb Removal, each with their own rules of engagement and rewards.

UFO infiltration will come in two flavours. Landed and Crashed. Successfully targeting and shooting down enemy ships will have two direct impacts on the mission. Firstly, the amount of enemy soldiers you face will be reduced, but so too will the usable resources you can recover from the mission. Your interception craft can be outfitted just like your squad members, so at later stages in the game you can equip your craft to reduce the damage to key components when shooting them down. Landed Craft will have a higher return of resources, but also a much higher concentration of enemies between you and your goal.

Abduction missions will be your bread and butter for most of the game. These require nothing more than to sweep an assaulted area, and wipe out any resistance you may find.

Terror missions are truly what the name implies. Having intercepted transmissions, you have arrived as an alien assault squad on the ground and civilians still remain in the area, unlike abductions which have already evacuated the Operational Area. Again unlike Abductions, which always come in threes, Terror attacks are focused on a single country. Your key goals, are to eliminate the enemy threat, and save as many civilians as possible. This is made all the more difficult, as like the original, units deployed on Terror missions tend to be more powerful than the enemies you have faced until that point.

VIP Escort is exactly as stated, and will always be a council issued request. Someone of importance, to the council or to the project itself, is in harms way, and it is your job to find and extract them from the danger zone.

Finally you have Bomb Removal, which is a decidedly unique mission once again issued solely by the council. You have a certain amount of turns to find and deactivate a bomb that has been placed by the enemy forces. Power nodes throughout the level can be manipulated to give you more time to clear and defuse, and once complete, you must survive a new wave of enemies intent on reactivating the bomb, and remove all threats from the area.

Although limited to these five predefined types, the large maps, varied terrain and enemies involved stop the missions from being straightforward and easy. Planning and strategy must be used for each mission in order to confer the greatest damage to the enemies plans and minimise your own losses. It is quite easy for one mistake, to inevitably cost you the entire mission if you are unfortunate or foolhardy.

That brings us to the core combat of the game. Central to the game is the cover and aim mechanics. Leaving men out in the open, rushing them forward into a bad position or simply bunching your troops too closely together will quickly cost you dearly. Each move must be made with the utmost care for your surrounding environment, and the positioning of your soldiers is key to succeeding in all missions. Most of the environment is destructible when fired upon by plasma weapons or explosives, so care in picking your cover is key. Hiding behind a stack of crates will leave you exposed should the enemy decide to throw in a grenade or even get lucky with some shots from their plasma weapons. Respectively, unlike destructible environment in the 1994 XCOM, you cannot specifically target the enemy cover with anything other than explosive free aim weapons such as grenades or rockets, and as such only suppressive fire, or aimed fire that misses its target can destroy the enemies defences. All cover is denoted with a shield, blue for added defence, red for in enemy line of sight and confers no defence bonus, and yellow for a flanked position, which confers an additional 50% chance to do critical damage.

Hit points, damage, wounding and death are calculated using a very simple algorithm. Each weapon has a maximum base and critical damage which is removed from overall hit points on a successful attack. Any unit which receives damage below the bonus provided by armour is fit for active duty immediately. Depending on the damage above and beyond the armour bonus represents in a wound when returned to base, which can take days or weeks in game for the unit to return to active status. Remove all of a units hit points and they will either be critically injured, which requires someone to use an action to medi-kit and stabilise within a certain time limit, or they are killed outright. This percentage chance can be modified by purchasing perks in the main base to increase their chance of survival dependant on their rank.

Combat relies on a Line of Sight system that is common in strategy games, with a sight range on each character, and a fog of war clouding the actions of anyone or anything outside that limit. This is where reaction shots, or Overwatch comes into its strength. Overwatch relies on that range limit, and will place the soldier into a position to shoot at the first enemy that enters his cone of vision. Fortifying a position and placing your troops on Overwatch can seem like the boring option, but it is certainly the most sensible, especially when you increase the difficulty levels within the game. Taking out an enemy on their movement turn in a barrage of gunfire from your squad allows you to reduce the inherent threat and can turn the tables of any match.

In its previous iteration, you could field squads of up to 26 members, with numerous different builds, classes and load-outs. This would have to be balanced with equipment stored for use in the Skyranger and as such maxing out the squad members, reduces the weapons and items you could take. This has been reduced to a squad of four, with the ability to purchase upgrades to facilitate six soldiers per mission.

Multi-player is again a fantastically streamlined affair, and has taken the swift and smooth combat created by these changes, and allowed you to face off against players in Ranked or Public/Private Matches.

While ranked is held to a limit of 10000 points, and 90 second turns, private and public games can be anything from 10000 points to infinite points and 90 seconds to unlimited time turns, whatever suits your play style.

Alongside the standard soldiers you can include in your team, the multi-player lets you include all of the enemies seen throughout the game, from Sectiods to Ethereals as members of your team, with all the abilities that go along with these aliens. The only exclusion being the absolutely devastating and overpowered Sectopods, which even if they were included, would most likely cost more than could be afforded in a Ranked game. Each class has a set of 5 specific builds, each catering to a different play-style, and with access to all the weapons, armour and items available for research in the single player campaign.

Multi-player is ready for the quick pick up and play games with the ability to create a custom team as a standard build before entering the multi-player lobby. This allows you to have a favoured team to hand for quick skirmishes.

These changes have had two major impacts on the overall game. Firstly, combat is a lot more action oriented, with soldier movement made much simpler and combat actions being more refined,  and secondly it is decidedly faster to play a level. This is also helped by the rethink developers have made over squad size as less squad members to maneuver reduces the overall time required to complete a turn.

The only actual problems I have encountered with the game, is the occasional loss of sound either from the ambient background or from combat itself which, although can easily be remedied by reloading a save or restarting the machine, does tend to destroy any immersion in the game at those points. The other issue being the infrequent freezing during actions, which although it does tend to clear up after 10-15 seconds, has also occurred in the multi-player aspect of the game, and with only 90 seconds to perform your entire round, this can quite easily turn a winning performance to a loss.

With such major alterations and removals,  I feel these changes will bring in players new to the franchise, but could isolate the die-hard fans of the series. There is also a distinct feeling that this has been designed to focus more towards the console community, than the PC players, as it does feel extremely well suited to the controller configuration.  Whether this is the case or not, could only be answered by those who are playing keyboard and mouse, and until the point I double dip on this title, this is just theorising on my part.

This is why, rather than a remake, I believe this should be treated as a reboot of the XCOM universe, and a pretty damn good one at that. If you approach this game, with no knowledge of its fore bearers, or correctly acknowledge that this is not the same game with a graphical overhaul, there is a huge amount of pleasure that can be gained from Firaxis’ latest outing. Although not game breaking, some of the bugs/design flaws in the game take away from what should be a thoroughly well rounded and accomplished title.

Lets hope that this release is a success, and a new wave of strategy games from the Firaxis line up could hopefully be on the horizon.

MLG Rating: 9/10 Platform: Xbox 360/ PS3 / PC  Release Date: 12/10/2012

Disclosure: Derek McRoberts (DigitalPariah) purchased a physical copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown upon release. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.

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2 Responses to “XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review”
  1. avatar Shatnerzbassoon says:

    That sir is a comprehensive review! I’ve had some pretty odd glitches too, in perticular aliens spawining into the middle of my troops when they’re grouped but its just so good I can’t help but love its little quirks.

    As a big fan of the Amiga version ‘back int day’ I thouroughly aprove of this version too, everything I had hoped it would be, will give it a few more weeks for a price drop and double dip as I fancy the PC version too :D

  2. avatar Egg Daddy says:

    Brilliant review mate. My copy has just arrived and your review is far more useful than the ‘manual’ you get with the game!

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