XCOM: Enemy Unknown reviewed: A worthy successor to a defining legacy

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

By on October 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm

The original XCOM was — and actually still probably is — the most difficult game I have ever played. At the time of its release in 1994, there was literally nothing else on the market that compared, particularly in regards to the immense difficulty and the sheer depth of scope. I spent days attempting to create the perfect set of soldiers, trying to cover every possible scenario, whether crashed UFO or abduction, ensuring I would have troops specialized to get the job done. But the nature of XCOM, in which you are forced to allocate limited resources to take on a significantly overwhelming threat, means that regardless of how much you plan, you’re always going to feel two steps behind your enemy.

Its based on this particular element that I’m happy to say that Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown stands up proudly against its predecessor, instilling the same sense of dread, urgency and horrific loss on top of a truckload of tough decision making. This modern remake draws heavily from other Firaxis games, with a great combination of a slick UI, strong core strategy mechanics and stellar AI… along with a few surprises along the way. The dedication to the original is plastered all over this remake, from the customisation of your soldiers to the research you undertake based on what you’ve scavenged in the field.

It was always going to be an enormous challenge for any developer to revamp a series that was so universally lauded both in its day and over the past few decades, and one that still shifts units almost 20 years after it initially hit shelves. XCOM has endured thanks to its recurring and randomised system of play, where each game will be different to the last both in the various choices you make and the panic levels of each region. Enemy Unknown takes this same system and keeps it largely intact, although adds a much needed tutorial at the beginning that highlights the basics of movement, cover, attacking, research, fabrication and base management. But as soon as you’ve gotten to grips with the interface and stumbled your way through some handheld missions, the game drops you straight into the thick of it, just to check if you’ve paid attention.

Difficulty is very subjective — especially within squad based strategy — and some of Firaxis’s design choices to balance out the various modes are largely welcome. But thankfully even the easiest difficulty mode is hardly a cakewalk, so expect to lose some soldiers early on. Your enemy is almost completely unknown in the beginning, as are their tactics, weaponry and scope. You will never know how many you will be up against, where they are or what type of unit they are likely to be. Getting them in your sights, as before, is the only way to engage them — and its within the changes made here that I’ve found things become a little irritating.

Since your alien foes no longer roam around the map before they are detected, the developers have instituted a system where they are instead handed a free turn to move and attack. This can fundamentally change the entire course of the battle, since regardless of your unit placement, you can instantly be flanked and attacked without notice. On the flipside, you’re now forced to be much more conservative about how heavily you push and how much emphasis you place on using single units to cover parts of the map. But in practice, it seems like the advantage is much too often provided to an enemy that, by design, will usually be stronger and more agile, as they will always be defending an area. I’d much rather that the original system of a roaming enemy be put in place, rather than a static placement and an unfair advantage.

That said, there are methods at your disposal to combat this. The “Overwatch” function allows a unit to automatically attack any unit that enters its field of vision, preventing sneak attacks and a minor counterbalance to the free move. But this also removes your units ability to free move and attack, meaning that you are still generally at a disadvantage within this situation. Obviously, working around changes on the battlefield is part of the game, but when you are disadvantaged from the word go it can mean the difference between dead or alive squadmates.

Permanent death of your squaddies is still a big part of XCOM, to the point where your barracks even includes a testament to their sacrifice. Keeping them alive will make your alien-busting job a lot easier, as new skills are introduced based on their promotions and assigned class. Injuries take time to heal as well, so keeping a well rounded roster of soldiers is important, especially if a special mission pops up and half of your best guys are nursing broken ribs. Much of Enemy Unknown involves working with what you have, which most of the time never seems like enough, especially on top of the sheer demand for your help.

Taking a mission in China may increase panic in Australia or Canada. Egypt might beg you for a satellite but it’s going to cost 1/3 of your budget and you might not build it in time. You had a particularly bloody mission that put all of your best guys in the hospital or the morgue, and all you’re left with are a bunch of privates. Much of what you’re handed is based on pure luck, and many of the choices you make are based entirely on uneducated risk. But this is what makes XCOM so powerful: the sheer intensity of being broke, under resourced and overworked makes every single victory supremely sweet. Every item scavenged is that much more valuable. Like a real violent invasion, you are unprepared and forced to think rapidly on your feet.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is unforgiving in a manner that very few modern games have the balls to be, and it actually allows you to make poor or just plain wrong decisions. The only difference is that here, it’s no longer difficult to make clear choices, especially regarding research, as opposed to simply “allocating points”. If you want X project, it will take Y days and cost Z credits. You can easily see the status of the world’s anxiety and its contributions to your war effort, and all the information is at your fingertips at all times.

It’s a shame, then, that the PC has suffered slightly thanks to some obscure control mechanics. Firstly, the new grid system feels clunky when moving with the mouse, occasionally pushing you to select the wrong square or move the wrong soldier. Some commands, for some reason, require a keyboard response when it would have been easier to confirm with the mouse.

It’s not awful, but it’s obviously carrying a bit of consolitis on its shoulders, as the grid system alone feels like it has been designed for optimal use with a controller. But it’s hardly broken, or unusable — it just doesn’t feel as smooth as it should. It also tends to put an enormous emphasis on cover mechanics, rather than proper use of elevation, terrain and materials (although almost everything can be blown up). One intelligent part of the grid system, however, is the way it highlights the areas of cover offered, since it can be hard to tell just looking at the scenery alone. But then sometimes it’s a little arbitrary; a brick wall can be less flexible then, say, the hull of a UFO.

You’ve really got to look very hard to find something to dislike about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, mostly because it generally doesn’t stray too far from the tree. It’s a genuinely great strategy title, where everything looks and performs as it should, and it’s crazy hard enough to get the blood of even the most masochistic gamer boiling in some situations — especially after permanently losing your entire squad of veterans in a single mission.

I didn’t expect it to hook me like it has once I got into the swing of things, relaxing with fond memories pouring back in from early days in front of my Olivetti. Unfortunately, I played much of this game on pre-release code before the official launch date in Australia, so I have been unable to test multiplayer to any proper extent — I invite you to let me know your own impressions of that in the comments. Enemy Unknown is is a stellar effort on the part of Firaxis, and I can’t wait to see how they carry on the franchise into the future.

Good:

  • Still very unforgiving and difficult
  • Very welcome tutorial
  • A great hybrid of old and new mechanics
  • Clean, easy to navigate interface

Bad:

  • Would have liked a minimap
  • Questionable enemy discovery system
33 comments (Leave your own)

I had a minimap show up on 1 of the council missions. I thought perhaps it was a soldier upgrade or something I’d researched, but I haven’t seen it since. A minor annoyance not having it, but the rest of the game makes up for it. Am constantly broke and close to losing half the council member countries but it’s still awesome fun to play!

 

darthlondar:
I had a minimap show up on 1 of the council missions. I thought perhaps it was a soldier upgrade or something I’d researched, but I haven’t seen it since. A minor annoyance not having it, but the rest of the game makes up for it. Am constantly broke and close to losing half the council member countries but it’s still awesome fun to play!

I reckon that would of been a bomb defuse mission with the minimap. I am enjoying the game immensely. They have simplified / streamlined a lot of it but I think this will attract many new players to the genre.

 

I’m fighting a powerful urge to get this game. The demo, although super short really reeled me in and I can’t stand reading all these reviews. Why do I punish myself so?

 

Theres one major thing missing from this review.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a good game and I like it so far. However, it is missing alot of the detail an mechanics that made the original UFO so special.

Squad and inventory management has been dumbed down alot.

They’ve added classes and abilities, which basically works but that too reduces the flexibility and complexity of the game.

No longer are you able to precisely tune the equipment of your soldiers to make sure they have everything they need for the situation without carrying too much needless stuff around. No longer do you have to worry about producing and taking enough ammo with you.

Had they decided not to scrap all those original features, this would’ve been one of the best games created in a long time for me. Now it’s “just” a good game.

 
kaptaintoenail

lumenmelano,

I got it Friday and it owned my weekend. Really enjoying this game.

 

When I first started playing this game I hated it, but now it doesn’t seem so bad. The first thing that sucks about it is the terrible UI. Feels like a straight port from console. The unskippable cut scenes and speech makes the game irritating when playing. The terrible acting of the advisers also adds to the stink. Script feels like it was cheesiet people on earth, really can’t believe this came from firaxis…
The game has simplified too much from the original in my opinion. There are some good mechanics in it like taking cover which I like. Levelling up soldiers opens the game up to a wide range of tactics. The game also seems too easy on classic (2nd hardest) but way too hard on impossible. The aliens aren’t even scary any more. All up this game feels like it was built on a tight budget and rushed to PC. The doesnt feel like its worth the $50. I made the mistake of preordering before trying out the demo.

 
James Pinnell

A lot of tough customers then!

 

It’s a great game, It has some issues, such as movement with multiple levels the cursor doesn’t know what it’s doing, and the sim city part feels weaker, game seems less randomised.

But lets take a step back. You can’t tell me this isn’t the best XCOM game since Terror from the Deep. After all the sequals which were never real sequals. This game still feels like XCOM to me.

 

Yep, the best X-COM game since TFTD. But that’s not a hard thing to accomplish. X-COMs spiritual successor; reincarnated by way of a few lives lived in bad karma. I am disappoint.

 

Xenonauts should cater to those who prefer the micro managing of troops & a crapload more detail / freedom such as the old games. Cannot wait for it.

The main issue that annoys me in this game is trying to navigate multiple floors with the view changing constantly, levels do not focus where the camera is etc. Hopefully they fix it!

 

tajin:
Theres one major thing missing from this review.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a good game and I like it so far. However, it is missing alot of the detail an mechanics that made the original UFO so special.

Squad and inventory management has been dumbed down alot.

They’ve added classes and abilities, which basically works but that too reduces the flexibility and complexity of the game.

No longer are you able to precisely tune the equipment of your soldiers to make sure they have everything they need for the situation without carrying too much needless stuff around. No longer do you have to worry about producing and taking enough ammo with you.

Had they decided not to scrap all those original features, this would’ve been one of the best games created in a long time for me. Now it’s “just” a good game.

I agree 100% with everything you say. I was hoping GON (as a PC-focused site) would be a bit more critical of this, but unfortunately they´ve gone alone with the prevailing meme, which is to give this a positive review because it doesn´t totally stink,.

From everything I´ve read, the devs originally made something much closer to the original game but then had to dumb it right down to cater to a more casual audience.

The game is also buggy as hell, particularly line of sight calculation.

Kudos to GON for noting the dodgy ¨free moves for aliens¨ issue, which truly sucks.

 

I really hope they do some DLC soon (decent chance considering it’s Firaxis) that rounds out the game with some sidegrades for tech and the base facilities. As it stands almost everything in the game follows a steady linear progression. Which is fine for the first game, but it makes it all a bit too formulaic on any later playthroughs for my taste.

 

James Pinnell:
Since your alien foes no longer roam around the map before they are detected, the developers have instituted a system where they are instead handed a free turn to move and attack. This can fundamentally change the entire course of the battle, since regardless of your unit placement, you can instantly be flanked and attacked without notice.

This is not correct. I’m still on my first playthrough, on Classic, so I can’t speak for easy and medium, but aliens DO roam the map. I’ve been ganked by every single alien on the map with all soldiers stationary on more than one occasion.

Also, if you use battle scanners you can see the groups move around as a tight pack before they’re ‘revealed’ by direct sight. Their ‘free move’ enables them to scatter, but I have not ONCE been attacked by an alien on their free move – as far as I’m aware they only use it for movement (unless impossible is different).

Other than those inaccuracies it’s a fair enough review. A few UI complaints when it comes to multi-level movement and grenade/rocket aiming, but other than that it’s fantastic.

BTW you can use hotkeys to skip the confirm action dialogue for overwatch, hunker down etc. I found the PC controls quite good with hotkeys personally, apart from what I mentioned which seem buggy, rather than badly designed.

All in all I’ve found it *slightly* too shallow in the strategic department, but the tactical combat is wonderful.

 
James Pinnell

caitsith01: I agree 100% with everything you say.I was hoping GON (as a PC-focused site) would be a bit more critical of this, but unfortunately they´ve gone alone with the prevailing meme, which is to give this a positive review because it doesn´t totally stink,.

I don’t understand. It’s hardly a “prevailing meme” to give the game a positive review, because the game is great. I pointed out some things that bugged me but I don’t agree that the squad/inventory elements have been dumbed down enough for it to be a game breaker.

ooshp: This is not correct. I’m still on my first playthrough, on Classic, so I can’t speak for easy and medium, but aliens DO roam the map. I’ve been ganked by every single alien on the map with all soldiers stationary on more than one occasion.

Also, if you use battle scanners you can see the groups move around as a tight pack before they’re ‘revealed’ by direct sight. Their ‘free move’ enables them to scatter, but I have not ONCE been attacked by an alien on their free move – as far as I’m aware they only use it for movement (unless impossible is different).

From my experience, after completing the game on default difficulty, not a single alien attacked me before I saw them, not one. Sure, after they have been detected they move in the shadows, but until you break they seal they are sitting in static placement.

In any case, it’s the free move that bugs me, especially at higher levels with enemies that can literally rip you apart. I’ve had them attack me, or at the very least, move into a prime position for a 100% hit success.

 

caitsith01:
From everything I´ve read, the devs originally made something much closer to the original game but then had to dumb it right down to cater to a more casual audience.

-_- That sort of thing happens alot lately.

Anyway, from what I’ve heard, they’re going to support mods, so maybe that will help.

 

The enemies do roam, they have ‘patrol’ patterns that are active before you see them. Enemies will also call for reinforcements when they are engaged and those patrols will try to flank you.

In terms of inventory management you get to equip your guy with armour, weapons and items. Who actually ever ran out of ammo in X-COM and needed to micro manage that?

Agree about the UI, I’ve taken to just using the hotkeys like I was using a controller and the mouse to pan around the map. Also agree about the movement cursor behaving very strangely on the grid; this is especially evident when trying to move the bloody Cyberdisc in multiplayer, ESPECIALLY if you are flying.

 

I’ve not played this yet, but I’m more interested in how it compares to Terror From the Deep.

The reason I’ve not bought this is that the original XCom was incredibly simplistic compared to the sequel. TFTD was so ballsy in that if you made a few mistakes with the reasearch tree, you couldn’t even finish the game. There were also a lot more research discoveries to be made, and the alien design was a lot more unique.

After playing TFTD, I couldn’t go back and play XCOM without being bored out of my mind.

So every review I’ve read says something like “Stays faithful to the original”, but that is a huge negative when the original sucked to its sequel, and sadly, it doesn’t look like (from reading reviews) that this remake implemented any lessons learned from TFTD.

So it’s a no purchase for me.

 

“I don’t understand. It’s hardly a “prevailing meme” to give the game a positive review, because the game is great.”

In my view this game has been getting a pretty easy ride from reviewers because Firaxis have manged not to make it a total disaster despite huge expectations from the fans. IMHO the relief that it’s a decent game is translating into a lot of forgiving reviews – yours is one of the more critical, in fact.

I would say this is at best a 7 out of 10, but it’s getting treated like a 9-10 out of 10 by many reviewers which is crazy given its numerous problems.

The number of reviews I’ve read where reviewers twist themselves into knots about how they’re not going to compare it to the original is interesting. I assume that’s because it doesn’t really measure up to the original in most respects, so comparing it would be “unfair” somehow.

 

Having played all the XCOM and UFO games. I have to say this is the best yet. TFTD was good, if not great for it’s time, however, a lot has changed since it’s come out and it’s incredibly dated. XCOM: EU fixes up a lot of the tedium of the earlier ones. No worrying about ammo and inventory management for multiple squads of men, the tactical gameplay retains most of the complexity but with a greatly simplified interface. The rest of the base management/resources/research/global display captures the feeling of the original but with much improved interfaces. I haven’t finished it yet, so I don’t know how it’s depth matches up to TFTD

That said, tactical combat can be a pain with interface issues not going to the right level. Still I prefer it’s combat compared to the options presented in UFO:Afterlight, which basically consisted of getting into a defensive formation and waiting for the enemy to walk into view, or baiting them.

 

Thanks for that Fireslide. Might give it a go. :)

 
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