XCOM: Enemy Unknown is damn hard, and it knows it.
It is unforgiving, relentless and constantly ready to crush your hopes and dreams in a single, fell swoop. A poor tactical choice will take that battle-hardened veteran soldier and introduce him to the business end of an alien rifle, squandering hours of gameplay with a single button press. It is at times infuriating, and will frequently have players reaching for the “reload” button. At the same time, it never delineates into becoming unfair, and provides ample room for player growth. It might be a cruel mistress, but it is one of the most unique and enjoyable tactical experiences of the last decade and well worth the trauma involved with investing in it.
Enemy Unknown is a modern reboot of the classic XCOM strategy series, drawing heavily from the first title, 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown. In the near future, aliens have begun invading Earth for unknown means, abducting civilians and destroying cities. An intergovernmental organisation, XCOM, is created to help turn the tide of the battle and repel the alien invaders. Whilst the story is simple and a tad generic, it acts well as a skeleton for developers Firaxis to justify the constant stream of new features and enemies. You play as the faceless commander of XCOM, tasked with the construction and maintenance of the home base whilst simultaneously appeasing the governments of the world and commanding the tactical squads fighting back against the alien threat. Whilst the core tenets seem simplistic, it is impossible to keep all the balls in the air at once - and when something finally gives, the results can be catastrophic. This creates a constant sense of tension that permeates the entire game.
This tension is enhanced by the extreme fragility of your soldiers. Combat is played as a squad-based tactical shooter. The player is given command of up to six soldiers and tasked with achieving a number of objectives, ranging from disarming bombs to rescuing civilians. There are four possible classes for a soldier to be given: Assault, Heavy, Sniper and Support. As a soldier levels up from combat experience, they gain skills and abilities off a relatively shallow tech tree. Each upgrade dynamically changes the gameplay style of the soldier, but usually comes at the cost of another equally powerful ability. Snipers, for example, may take either an extreme boost to their range, or the ability to move and shoot early in their tree. There will always be circumstances where the other power would have been useful, and by making the choices between both powers consistently so difficult, it ratchets up the tension further. Even something as banal as levelling a character reinforces the central theme of Enemy Unknown: making difficult choices in difficult circumstances.
As soldiers explore and the fog of war is lifted, more of the world is revealed, providing better knowledge of the area and more cover. Each soldier gets two actions a turn, used for moving, shooting and using items. This ensures that every decision to move or shoot comes at a distinct opportunity cost, which can have extremely dire consequences due to the fragility of the men in the squad. Most soldiers can barely stand up to two or more hits from enemy fire, which makes finding cover and protecting their flanks extremely important. Furthermore, soldiers that get hurt in battle carry their wounds, which take time to heal. A bad result in one battle can have disastrous repercussions on the next.
There is a solid variety of enemies, with around a dozen uniquely powered aliens to butt heads with, ranging from heavily armoured bezerkers to flying mind-wraiths and everything in-between. Shooting is handled on a percentage-based dice roll system, similar to that used in Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. mode. Because of the high value placed on the lives of individual soldiers, a single missed shot, or undesired group of enemies can turn the tide of the battle from a narrow victory to a crushing defeat. The complexity of the combat and determining the “correct” course of action for maximum reward is an unrelenting quandary in every scenario. Even determining what way to eliminate a threat can be a struggle. Explosives, for example, deal extra damage but destroy the resources on the deceased corpses. Meanwhile, capturing subjects alive provides a strong source of new weaponry and resources for the base to expend. The decision-making process never ends, and creates a constant environment of stress. Whilst it’s not perfect - there are a number of glaring clipping issues, as well as a few too many examples of killing an enemy through a brick wall, it is intelligently merciless, and enjoyable throughout.
The other half of XCOM is an in-depth base management sim. As the Overseer, it is the role of the player to allocate resources to the various branches of XCOM. New technologies and advanced powers for the soldiers on the field can be researched at the laboratory, or new weapons and armour can be manufactured by the engineers. The home base can be expanded like a human ant farm to provide more power and staff. Finally, the various member nations of the XCOM Council will need to be appeased in order to prevent them from panicking and leaving the project altogether. There is never a chance for rest, as it constantly feels like the player needs to accomplish five things at once, whilst only having the resources for one. Even outside of combat, it is a high stress environment based entirely upon compromise.
All actions undertaken outside of combat occur in real time, and will take a number of days to accomplish. Meanwhile, alien attacks will spring up at random, often catching you at the most inopportune time. Usually, three attacks will occur in locations across the globe at once, with the player only being able to respond to one. There are a number of hard decisions that have to be made when determining which nations to protect and which to abandon. It’s a bad situation that predictably leads to two countries stepping closer and closer to the brink of leaving the project. It’s inevitable that players will lose a country or two across a playthrough, but it is always disheartening when it occurs.
The design and originality throughout the game is a real boon. Combat takes place across the entirety of the globe, with maps originating from abandoned highways, crowded metropolitan areas, alien ships and dense forests. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, and there are some pretty significant texture pop-in problems in the base management mode, however, it has a consistently strong thematic look. Similarly, the sound design is enjoyable, if not a tad too subdued. Whilst the background music tracks fit the game well, the alien sound design is arguably the stand-out feature. From their shrill screes when shouting at one another, to the squelching of their heads upon death, they are unique and consistently strong. The voice acting for human characters, however, is fine but far too repetitive.
Ultimately, the thing that stands out about XCOM is its uniqueness. Nobody makes games like XCOM anymore. Design-wise, it feels refreshingly old-school. From the grey-headed aliens to the intergovernmental agencies, this feels like a game that was designed in 1992, not 2012. From a gameplay point of view, it is so much more unforgiving that strategy games have been in a long time that it wouldn’t be surprising to see more casual players put off easily. In some ways, it echoes the hallmarks of Super Meat Boy, a game that was mercilessly difficult but consistently fair. Just like in XCOM, you would fail frequently, but know that it was your mistake and not a flaw in the gameplay. It’s not the kind of game for everyone, but those who get past the initial difficulty and embed themselves into it will have a phenomenal experience.
There is almost a “supercar” mentality about it, like an old Lamborghini. Old sports cars were notoriously difficult to drive, constantly trying to put inexperienced drivers headfirst into a tree. However, once the beast was tamed, the driver would get an experience unlike anything in a regular car. XCOM can be a cruel, vindictive mistress, but she is one that can be tamed. With an investment of time and patience, players can gain access to a true tactical masterpiece, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past decade. It is deceptively deep and infinitely rewarding, but it definitely isn’t for everyone.