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XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: A classy update for a PC classic

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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The XCOM franchise was returned to life on the PC on October 9th by 2K Games and Firaxis with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, now available on Steam. So does it live up to the classic game's turn-based strategy heritage?

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In a word, yes. XCOM is back in a big way.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts you in charge of the Earth’s first and last line of defense against alien invasion: XCOM. And while your goal is simple (defeat the invasion), the road to it is fraught with difficult choices and critical strategic decisions at every turn. You have to be as successful at strategically managing XCOM’s resources as you are fighting aliens in the field.

It’s a big job—and one that gets deliciously deeper and more complex as the game progresses. Strap in, grab the caffeine, and get ready for some long nights ahead. XCOM: Enemy Unknown will consume you.

Easy to learn, hard to master
XCOM: Enemy Unknown thankfully provides a fairly intuitive user interface and a good tutorial, so it makes getting into the game pretty easy—if a bit protracted. The first 60-90 minutes of the game are purely a linear, straightforward tutorial that covers the essentials of combat, upgrading units, managing research and building new tech. (If you’re anxious to get started, you can choose to eschew the tutorial levels.)

There are 4 difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, Veteran, and Nightmare) for the game, and for the truly hardcore XCOM fans, there’s even an option to play the game from a single, irreversible save game.

Field Operations—kicking alien butt
XCOM: Enemy Unknown delivers a finely tuned, turn-based strategic game that simplifies the experience through modern UI (user interface) without sacrificing depth. Along with base expansion and management, turn-based strategic combat is the heart and soul of XCOM games.

Combat fundamentals are simple. Every unit can move a certain distance and then perform an action (firing or using an item). Alternately, you can Dash, which is basically a double move that uses the unit's entire turn. The UI shows you exactly where a unit is capable moving so you don’t need to count squares, keep track of movement points, etc. On the other hand, you can’t tell a unit exactly which path to take from point A to point B.

Once a unit has moved, it can fire, use an item (like a medikit or whatever extra item you’ve equipped for that unit), or you can choose to have the unit Hunker Down or go into Overwatch. Hunker Down grants defensive bonuses, and Overwatch means a unit will fire at any enemy unit that enters its line of sight and attack range.

Using cover is essential to survival, and the environment plays an important role. Cars, for example, make good cover—until they get shot up, at which point they will explode and kill any unit near enough. I found this out the hard way, unfortunately. High ground also grants bonuses, as does flanking an enemy.

The mechanics are simple, but the combat is deeper than it seems at first. Careful movement, teamwork, and flanking are all simple concepts, but combined with the complexity of the environments, unit abilities, and enemy types this simplicity becomes a deep chess game of ‘cat and gun.’ (And the enemies are pretty smart. They know to use cover and flanking too...)

Don’t tase me bro!
Although keeping your squad alive and the aliens dead is your goal, it’s generally advisable *not* to blow the crap out of every alien you meet, particularly with grenades and explosive weapons. Explosive weapons blow up real pretty and do a spectacular job of killing the enemy, but they also destroy any alien artifacts you might have gleaned from the kill.

Alien artifacts are important resources you need for research and spending on manufacturing and upgrades. In addition, capturing a live alien yields research benefits, so it’s good to take aliens alive when you can. This becomes an available option fairly early when you build a short-range alien “taser” style stun weapon and an Alien Containment area in your base—this occurs during the tutorial levels, so you don’t really have much (if any) choice when it comes to creating them.

Base Management
Early missions are completely linear—almost annoyingly so, but they do a decent job of schooling you in the basics. But don’t let the simplicity of the tutorial fool you into thinking XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a simple game. It’s not.

Granted, it starts slowly—almost frustratingly so when you’re eager to jump in. But once you’re well into it and cut loose from the tutorial, a vast array of management, construction, combat and research options open up. (And at this point you may even wish you’d paid more attention during the tutorial.) You’ll need to start making critical decisions about what technology to research, how to expand your base, and where to invest your resources.

In between missions, you’ll need to direct the expansion of the XCOM base, research and development, engineering, and finances. You’ll also need to expand your Satellite coverage, which in turn helps expand your communications network and increases your monthly income. Managing these elements alone will consume a fair amount of time in between combat missions. Base expansion requires you to excavate areas so you can build new facilities, all of which takes many days to complete.

In addition, every major nation needs your help, but you can’t be everywhere at once. Ideally, you want to keep the Panic Level for every nation low, because if it gets too high a nation will leave the council of nations that oversees XCOM—and take their funding with them.

And through it all, you must constantly make difficult tactical decisions, without any real guidance. Do you want more labs and scientists so you can research technology faster? Or do you need more workshops and engineers to produce the products of your research? And don’t forget about your Satellite network, which keeps track of everything all over the world and alerts you to alien activity. In addition, base expansion has power requirements, so you need to make sure you have enough generators build to power your base.

And if that isn’t enough to keep track of, you also have an air force to manage. If an alien craft is detected by your satellites you can send an Interceptor to attempt to shoot the craft down. This is a mostly non-interactive sequence. The fight between the Interceptor and the alien craft is largely determined by the type of alien craft and how powerful your Interceptor is. As you might suspect, there are also various alien technologies you can research and build to improve your interceptors and their weapons—for a price in resources, of course—and then you must choose which of your Interceptors get upgraded.

Does this all sound like a lot? It is, and there's still more. The bottom line is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown provides a deep, intricate strategy game experience with many different tactical options you can use to achieve your goals. Like Firaxis’s Civilization V, when XCOM: Enemy Unknown gets going you may find yourself saying “just one more turn” (or “just one more mission”) long, long into the night. Stock up on energy drinks.

Unit Customization—send in the red shirts
There are four unit types in the game: Sniper, Heavy, Assault, and Support. Units only get a class when they survive a battle and graduate from Rookie. Each class has their own upgrade tree of abilities you can purchase when they gain levels, and each level gained beyond the first lets you choose 1 of 2 possible upgrades. Each unit can also equip a primary weapon, a side arm, armor, and a utility item (medikit, stun gun, grenade, improved armor, and others as you unlock them). With a couple upgrades in the Officers School, you can have as many as 6 XCOM units in your ground force deployments.

But if you want to take a break from all the stress of managing XCOM, you can edit your units cosmetically. You can change their names, armor color, faces, and hairstyles. And while this is primarily intended for purely cosmetic entertainment, I actually found it to have a very functional use.

In addition, you can also customize the look of each unit and change their face, armor, colors, and other aspects. At first I ignored this feature—it’s fun to do but seemed like just another way to suck away my time. But then I realized it’s actually quite useful. The default colors for new units are generally drab, and when you’re in combat telling units apart visually can be difficult. (I'm a bit disappointed that you can't quickly pull up an overview of all your units at once,, which would be handy in combat.)

To alleviate this, I customize each unit with brightly colored armor and change their names to reflect their class. For example, I put my Heavy Weapons guy in bright blue power armor (“Big Daddy”), my veteran medic/support guy in bright green (“Dr. McHealth”), my Sniper in black (“Dead Shot”), and my Assault guy in red (“Stormin’ Norman”). Rookies that join my group are forced to wear bright pink power armor and get call signs like "Precious" or “Not The Face” to reflect their lowly status. If they survive a mission or two, I change their name and armor.

On the other hand, don’t treat your rookies as cannon fodder. One thing I learned is that it’s not a good idea to get too invested in a small set of units that you've leveled up. Even as they level up, they can still get injured in combat, which puts them out of commission and makes them unavailable for a certain number of days in the game. After a hard fought victory, my veteran units all came back shot to hell and wounded, which put them all “on the bench” at one point. And when a new mission came up, I had no choice but to send in The Pink Brigade (i.e. band of rookies). It was not pretty.

Overall: 5/5 stars—Outstanding
This was a difficult review to write because there’s just so much to write about (and I didn't even get into multiplayer). But suffice to say XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that deep and it’s that good--and it's sucked plenty of hours long into the night away from me. If you were ever a fan of the original XCOM series or just a fan of turn-based strategy games in general, you owe it to yourself to get XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

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