XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a strategy game on a scale unlike just about anything else out there. First, on the large scale, you are responsible for managing the resources for the defense of the entire planet Earth from an alien invasion. On a smaller scale, you are also responsible for guiding your hand-picked squad of soldiers through direct combat encounters in turn-based battles with the enemy. It is two totally different types of gameplay, but they come together to form a satisfying and cohesive whole. If you are looking for a new and refreshingly unique strategy title on Xbox 360, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is worth a look.
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Developer: Firaxis
- ESRB Rating: “M" for Mature
- Genre: Strategy
- Pros: Nice presentation; every decision actually matters; limited resources keep things tense; customizing your squad
- Cons: A bad decision can cost you hours later; combat gets a bit repetitive
The story in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is pretty simple. Aliens are invading Earth, and you are the person in charge of leading Earth's defenses against them. Boom. The end. Nice, huh? At least until a larger plot slowly starts to unfold.
At its core, XCOM is a strategy game, but it isn't real-time-strategy like Command & Conquer or Halo Wars, nor is it a strategy RPG like Disgaea or Operation Darkness. It is a something else. The gameplay is split into two distinct sections - management and combat. The management aspect has you in charge of a group of the best scientists and engineers on the planet and you are free to have them research new technologies and then build new tools / weapons / armor / etc. based on that research. Your resources are surprisingly limited, however, so you can only spend so much money or use a certain amount of power before you run out. You also get the chance to put together a squad of soldiers, equip them with weapons and abilities, and even completely customize them if you want them to be more like real people you know, which of makes sending them into battle a bit more interesting than if you're just sending in randomly generated grunts.
These strategic management sections are interesting because you never have enough time or resources to do everything you need to, which means you'll have to make some hard decisions now and then for the greater good. If you let aliens invade an ally country, your funding from them goes down, but if you keep them well protected, they might increase your funding instead. That lets you research and build more, which makes your chances of survival better. You can also choose to build satellites and uplink sites to find UFOs faster, but then you might not have enough cash to build interceptor craft to actually shoot down the UFOs you detect. But if you do that you won't have enough resources to upgrade and equip your soldiers. If you upgrade your soldiers, however, you won't be able to afford any satellites at all, which will result in allies getting taken over and you losing your funding anyway. Everything you do can have a snowball effect on everything else. You have to figure out the balance of it all.
The decisions you make in the game matter. Some in more obvious ways like the balancing act of resources mentioned above, but others in more subtle ways that you won't see the consequences of until much later. The game presents some either / or "do this, or do that"-type choices at points, and their results aren't always obvious until hours later when you go "Oops, I should have done this instead". The game opens up and leaves fairly important decisions up to you pretty early on, and doesn't exactly explain what everything does, and you can actually irreversibly screw up your resource management right form the start if you aren't careful. The game is meant to be replayed with different techniques and strategies, though, so figuring things out - both good and bad - as you go is part of the fun here.
The other half of the gameplay has you controlling a squad of soldiers in vital battles around the globe. This part of the game plays like a strategy RPG where you move each of your soldiers one by one around the battlefield between cover and / or attack the enemy during your turn. Your soldiers can all have different weapons and abilities, so having the right soldier in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to do the job is a huge part of the strategy of it all. As your soldiers survive more and more battles, they will be promoted and earn new abilities. They won't all survive, though, because the enemy A.I. actually puts up a decent fight. The A.I. is patient and won't usually rush into your traps, and different enemy types have their own unique abilities that create their own set of strategic problems for you. It can all be very interesting. At least for a while. When you figure out the nuts and bolts of it and have a few missions under your belt, the combat isn't particularly deep, and since many missions consist of simply destroying all of the enemies on the map, it can get repetitive. There are certainly a few particularly good missions that give you more interesting things to do, but the combat sections are definitely the weaker half of the overall experience.
Graphics & Sound
The presentation in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is well done all around. The management half of the game is mostly menu driven, but is presented in a neat way where you zoom in on the department you're working in (research, engineering, war room, etc.) and get a visual look at what is going on even if you're really still just doing it all via menus. The combat half of the game is done on fairly small, but nicely detailed maps filled with buildings and cars and other stuff (you are fighting in cities and towns, after all), and it all looks really good. Special effects for weapons and fire look good as well. Character models for your soldiers as well as the various alien types all look really nice overall. Gameplay is presented in an isometric view above the map, but you are free to zoom in and out and pan the camera around wherever you like, so it is easy to see everything you need to.
The sound is similarly well done with great especially sound effects during combat and for the aliens. The music is appropriate, and the voice acting is actually quite well done.
In the end, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a unique and interesting twist on strategy games that is unlike anything else on Xbox 360. The weight of your responsibility and the impact of your actions in the strategic half of the game is wonderfully intense, and then taking your newly researched toys out into the battlefield in the combat half of the gameplay offers a totally different feeling of satisfaction and fun. It could have just as easily been yet another generic elien blasting FPS
(and, hey, there is another XCOM game in the pipeline that IS a shooter ...), but we're thankful that it isn't. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is, polished, fun, fully featured (in addition to the multiple difficulty modes of the campaign there is a multiplayer mode as well), and completely different from just about anything else you've played before on Xbox 360. As much as we praise it we do have to clarify that it won't be a game for everyone - strategy RPGs aren't the most popular mainstream genre ever - but if you are a fan of strategy games, especially challenging ones that actually require you to be careful with your decisions, you'll have a blast with XCOM.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy