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.
- Still very unforgiving and difficult
- Very welcome tutorial
- A great hybrid of old and new mechanics
- Clean, easy to navigate interface
- Would have liked a minimap
- Questionable enemy discovery system