Tension runs high in the excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Tension-filled turn-based matches
Great sense of progression makes you feel increasingly powerful
Complex interconnected economy makes each decision important
Soldier perma-death gets you invested in the fate of your veterans
Camera foibles and other visual glitches
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, victory is sweet--but it's so much sweeter when it arrives after a heart-wrenching standoff. With each turn, the newest entry in this beloved strategy series heightens the sense of tension, and each defeat of a hovering alien craft thus becomes cause for celebration. But don't get too intoxicated by the faint scent of triumph: nothing is certain until you've ripped your last enemy to shreds. Getting cocky and rushing ahead is a fool's strategy, and until the alien threat is eliminated, your guard must remain up.
Enemy Unknown isn't a simple remake of the original X-COM: UFO Defense, but like that game, it cannily instills a sense of fear. Earth is under attack by aliens, and the game makes no attempts to humanize the attackers. This isn't District 9--it's The War of the Worlds, and extraterrestrial invaders are to be annihilated, not welcomed or bargained with. This might be a modern rendition of an older game, but developer Firaxis relies on old-fashioned fears to drive its narrative. Almond-eyed greys and floating saucers ripped from popular culture need no explanation: they're clearly not of this world, and they're clearly out to destroy us. And so it's up to you, the commander of the super-secretive XCOM organization, to make Earth a safe haven once again.
Gameplay is divided into two portions: base management and combat scenarios. Near the beginning of the game, you select a location for your base of operations from one of several possibilities. The choices are more limited than the ones in the original X-COM, and this is the only base you manage through the course of the game. If you're a fan of the original, being limited to a single base might seem cause for concern, as might the subsequent loss of the oft-challenging base invasions. It may not share the full breadth of the game that spawned the franchise, but it would be difficult to accuse Enemy Unknown of "dumbing down" the core gameplay. Nevertheless, if you crave a relentless challenge (if not quite as relentless as the nail-biting X-COM: Terror From the Deep), you should play on classic difficulty, rather than the default difficulty level.
And so there are some changes to adjust to, but once Enemy Unknown is in full swing, you will be enthralled by its turn-based combat missions. Upon learning of an alien threat, you select units from your barracks to fill out your squad, and you are whisked to the point of contact. You eventually command up to six squad members--and in time, you might replace them with robotic SHIV units--but even in the early hours, the eerie atmosphere and faint sounds of skittering alien feet get you immediately invested. Upon discovery, the aliens are introduced with a burst of discordant music and a close-up of their ugly faces, and thus the stage is set for battle.
The basic concept is simple: get squad members behind cover where damage is minimized, and then take aim. Each squad member gets two actions per turn, though some of your soldiers will earn ways of extending this basic number. When possible, you want to move from cover to cover, diminishing the enemies' chances of landing shots while flanking them to lessen the benefit of their own cover spots. In the early hours, your options are few. But the soldiers that survive the mission level up and gain access to new abilities that you assign back at base. Additionally, you spend funds on better weapons, upgraded armor, and other enhancements. Simple grunts become trustworthy killing machines--and when your killing machines are fully leveled and decked out in your finest equipment, you'd best keep them alive.
But soldiers can, and do, fall in battle. The units don't have much personality apart from their battlefield quips, but you can customize them beyond their loadouts, giving them names, changing their hairdos, and adjusting the color of their armor. (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners be aware: some cosmetic customization features require that you enter a code that comes with brand-new copies of the game.) But while you may not develop an emotional connection with your soldiers, you'll certainly come to rely on the skills of your most senior combatants. Losing an effective soldier in battle is a tragic turn of events, though in some cases, a downed soldier can still be saved if you have a soldier with a medkit in battle--or if you are lucky enough to conquer the enemy before the unlucky victim bleeds out.
So you want to keep your soldiers alive. And that means treading carefully, even before you have encountered hulking berserkers and speedy floaters. As you close in on the game's final hours, you'll have discovered that managing the fog of war is as vital as performing the right actions once combat has commenced. If you move too quickly into the fray, you risk alerting more enemies than you can handle at once. One of your greatest adversaries in Enemy Unknown is your own patience, and this battle against human nature is part of the tension that builds from the moment you enter the map. Where are your foes? Should you risk flanking a cyberdisc if it means uncloaking a portion of the map? If you're already in over your head, you may not want a trio of pointy-legged chrysalids intruding on your personal space.
If they do intrude, however, you might still have the tools you need to survive. Soldiers of different classes have different roles in battle, and depending on their loadouts, you have a number of ways of approaching the enemy. Close-range weapons like shotguns and alloy cannons are super effective, but getting in close can be a big risk. Meanwhile, having a sniper move too close to a quick-witted floater can dramatically reduce your chances of landing the shot. You need to know your soldiers, and develop strategies that make sense. A quartet of mutons looks threatening, but you have ways of whittling down their numbers if you play your cards right. A SHIV's suppressive fire and a soldier's flush skill can be used in tandem to bring down stubborn foes. Alien grenades, shredder rockets, and other doodads can be more than helpful as well. Just as a seemingly simple situation can turn deadlier than you imagined, a difficult encounter can be tamed with a few smart moves.
A great strategy isn't foolproof, however: you still need the numbers on your side. Each offensive action has a chance to hit, and while it rarely makes sense to gamble when you've got a 1 percent chance of landing your shot, the choice isn't always that simple. Triumph can hinge on a dice roll. Your ability to maintain proper distance is the best way of maintaining supremacy, but you're still at the mercy of mathematics. You might shake your fist and curse when you miss a shot that had an 85 percent chance to hit--but you'll breathe a sigh of relief when the numbers aren't on your side, yet you land a critical hit that shifts the tide of battle. The tension of the dice roll is further drawn out by the cinematic animations that accompany the action. The camera closes in on your sniper and you hear the rifle charge. The fear rises and your heart skips. The anxiety might be relieved by the sight of a sectoid erupting in a gusher of green goo. But it might also be exacerbated by watching the laser fire miss the target, which means finding a new way of handling the danger--and the stress.
The glamorous camera angles that dramatize the successes and failures often contribute to the excitement, but the glam-cam occasionally glitches out, as do other aspects of Enemy Unknown's presentation. Along with close-ups of mean mutons beating their chests and thin men looking as if you caught them in the middle of something insidious, you get close-ups of plasma rifles clipping through walls, laser fire shooting through vehicles, and leafy bushes obscuring the entire screen in all their leafiness. A soldier might lean out from behind a wall and bug out, pointing her empty hands in one direction while her still-holstered weapon fires somewhere else. These seem like small considerations, but the game goes out of its way to look cinematic, so the visual problems really stand out.
Back at the base, in the meanwhile, you must manage a global array of countries that provide funding to the XCOM project. Their funds are important, because you use them to perform research (alien autopsies, for instance), enhance your squads (unlock another squad slot, perhaps), and purchase new facilities at your base. You view your base from a side cutaway view, ant farm style, and add facilities by excavating outward and downward. Those facilities fit into the bigger picture in a number of ways, producing engineers that you need to research upgrades in your foundry, for instance, or allowing you to place satellites over more regions of the globe.
Satellites are your way of keeping tabs on the state of the globe. Should a satellite detect a nearby UFO, you're engaged in a brief minigame in which an available interceptor attempts to take down the flying menace. Those interceptors--as well as the actions they perform, and the advanced weapons they can equip--also cost you funds, so it's well worth your while to keep different countries well protected. Should a country's populace panic, they may very well withdraw from the project, which negatively affects your monthly income. You can sell off various alien parts you earn after each battle should you need the funds, but those bits and pieces are used to both research and manufacture upgrades. You must always be aware of how your decisions impact future options. Buying titan armor for all your soldiers is tempting, for instance, but would those funds be better spent on more uniform satellite coverage, or foundry projects? There are consequences for every choice.
If you want to exercise your strategic skills outside of the core single-player experience, you can face friends and strangers online in one-versus-one matches. Players are given an equal number of points to spend on units. Soldiers can cost any number of points depending on how you equip them, while alien units are a set number of points each. There is no base management involved in multiplayer games, which are quick-and-dirty deathmatches in which the best (and sometimes, the luckiest) player wins. The matches have the same tense qualities as they do in single-player, with the added tension of not knowing your foe's play style, or the unit makeup of the opposing team.
You'll see strategies here that you won't see in the campaign. The opponent might use ghost armor to go invisible and then use the overwatch ability to spew plasma at you while you reposition yourself. Or he might buff up powerful human heavies even further by using a sectoid's mind merge. The multiplayer is enjoyable as a result, though its one-off nature doesn't have the long-lasting charms of the full-fledged campaign. You can save a go-to squad for easy use in multiplayer battles, though it's a shame you can't save more than one. Having multiple slots for various squads would be a really handy time-saver.
The limited number of multiplayer maps also takes some of the edge off of online competition, which echoes a limitation in the campaign. While you encounter a healthy number of maps when playing offline, Enemy Unknown does not feature the randomly generated maps of the game that inspired it. You eventually start to see maps repeat, which can be noticeable when you're traversing a map in Russia that you played in North America. The enemies may be in different spots, and you might begin battle from a different corner of the map, but the element of surprise isn't as strong in this game as it was in the 1994 original.
Don't be too concerned by the minor drawbacks, however. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a wonderful and worthy strategy game with a layer of campy charm that makes the stone-faced seriousness of the game's characters all the more endearing. It's also remarkably accessible, thanks to a great interface that feels comfortable whether you're using a keyboard and mouse or have a controller in your hand. Enemy Unknown packs dense amounts of dramatic tension into each turn. And so it's time to eliminate the alien threat, commander. Select a location, build your base…and save humanity.