XCOM: Enemy Unknown review
Tracing its roots back to 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, this year’s XCOM reboots the long-running series with its blend of turn-based combat and strategic base building. Defending the earth from alien invaders is probably the most hackneyed game plot there is, but the Roswell-style greys and flying saucers are firmly tongue in cheek.
As commander of XCOM, a secret organisation set up to protect the planet from just such threats, you have control over a sprawling underground base, a handful of aircraft and a small, but effective, squad of soldiers. All of this is bankrolled by Earth’s major nations - who are surprisingly stingy given the xenomorph threat facing the planet.
Alien attacks frequently occur simultaneously at multiple points, forcing you to decide where your lone squad will intervene. Defending the planet keeps your paymasters on side, gives your squad combat experience and unlocks alien technology which can be researched to provide better weapons and equipment for your team.
Your arsenal is limited at first, with just a few bog-standard rifles for your band of raw recruits. As they gain experience, they specialise into assault troopers, snipers and other classes which have access to special weapons. You’ll quickly have a pool of around 10 to choose from, with up to six able to participate in a mission at once.
Your squad can be specialised through their kit and abilities
Combat is turn-based, but highly streamlined, so you can whizz through complex firefights at quite a pace. Basic soldiers can move and shoot, or move twice, though special abilities allow for greater strategy - assault troops can still shoot after moving twice and heavy weapon specialists can shoot multiple times. Movement is a one-click affair, with no fiddly action points to worry about.
Cover is incredibly important in keeping your troops alive. Thankfully it’s made clear whether you are moving into good, partial, or no cover. Less clear is whether you will have line-of-sight to your opponent from your destination, which can be frustrating at times.
When shooting you get a percentage chance to hit, a maximum damage and a critical hit possibility. These are based on your elevation compared to the target and its cover. You’re only guaranteed a hit at point-blank range, otherwise you’ll have to settle for tipping the odds in your favour. Alternatively you can go into overwatch and take a reaction shot against a moving enemy during its turn - handy for covering advancing troops.
Battles start simply enough, but with more advanced kit and tougher enemies they become pretty hectic. Ammo has to be managed, with a poorly-timed reload spelling doom, plus there are grenades and rocket launchers to play with too – these can quickly destroy cover, exposing the enemy or creating shortcuts across the map. Combine this with psionic abilities, a varied range of foes and multi-level battlefields and there’s plenty here to get you thinking. The missions themselves could use a little more variety though, with only three main types.
Our squad takes cover while assaulting an enemy ship
Although not up to the same high standards as most modern shooters, XCOM’s presentation is well ahead of most strategy games. Your squad and their foes all look the part, and move smoothly across the multi-layered and detailed battlefields. Key personnel are nicely characterised and voice acted, while beautifully animated cut scenes highlight key points in your campaign.