XCOM: Enemy Unknown has an awful lot to live up to; the original series still has an incredibly strong and loyal fan following since its mid 90’s release. As we all know, fans who feel that they’ve been betrayed by a new entry into their favourite series can be very vengeful – therefore XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a lot riding on it. Now in the hands of RTS veterans Firaxis, it seems that any worries fans had should melt away when they get their hands on what the Civilization developer has made.
Having been told more times than I can remember that I should play the original XCOM games – and yet still haven’t – sitting down to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a difficult moment for me. On one hand I already had this image of what to expect in my head, and quite honestly it wasn’t great – as I personally don’t get along with RTS games. On the other hand though I was looking forward to finally seeing what all the fuss was about. Pleasantly I found myself falling in love with XCOM really rather quickly.
After a rather pretty introductory cutscene and opening tutorial mission that saw all but one of my team being disemboweled at the hands of a new alien invasion, the real meat of the game began to appear. While all snug in your HQ beneath a nondescript mountain in a country of your choice – which coincidentally also gives you a bonus to your team – you’ll receive missions in the form of panic calls from nations around the world. As you only have limited resources you can only respond to one of these pleas for help at a time, meaning the nation who’s call goes unanswered is gripped by panic.
You answer the call by sending out a crack team comprised of four members – with the capacity to send out six if you upgrade down the right route. You’ll send these soldiers out into the battlefield to systematically wipe out the alien threat in some high-action turn-based gameplay.
Moving your team is blissfully simple thanks to a simple two stage movement system, coupled with a easy to understand cover system that helps you find an effective way to flank your opponents. Just like with many RTS’s, you’ll lift the fog of war as you advance forward into the darkness, and taking up post in vantage points also offers you tactical bonuses. You’ll be able to breach rooms or slip in quietly to surprise those alien foes.
This is where the incredibly simple combat system comes into play. Set up as a simple choice of moves, you’ll be able to take an offensive or defensive approach to skirmishes. Attacks clearly show the chance you’ll have to shoot an alien in the face, and are followed up by a suitably shooter-y animation to make the turn based pace feel a bit more intense. You can also perform a secondary move depending on your chosen solider type. The more defensive Hunker Down move drops you into deep defence and an Overwatch ability means you can stay in cover and still pop out to shoot a moving target. It’s really easy to pick up and use due to the expertise of each of your soldiers you’ll still have the tactical play that any RTS needs – despite the small and highly manageable unit you have at your disposal.
If ground based combat wasn’t enough you’ve also got some management to get sorted back at your base. I could go into great depth about the ins and outs of what you can do here, but essentially it’s a well-refined model that masks the general menu work that’s going on behind it all. You’ll perform research and upgrade units here, and by building it up you can also gain bonuses from room placement. Nicely your base’s attributes also differ depending on where in the world you decide to situate yourself: with Europe offering better research skills and North America offering a boost to firepower.
All those RTS fans who are sat at home worrying about those who are unfortunate enough to have to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown on a console, stop your worrying! I say this because Firaxis have managed to create a system that currently seems pretty damn well suited to the lack of WASD and a few mouse clicks too. It’s super streamlined interface works wonderfully well on both PC and console – and even the amazing tabletop game setups present at Eurogamer.
Thanks to the rather liberal use of cutscenes, the simple and effective team mechanics and combat, along with some considered design choices, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is so much more than I expected – even in my short time with the title’s current build. Personally I feel that anyone who had doubts about what Firaxis and 2K were rustling up will have all their fears quashed when the alien invasion hits on October 12th – or October 9th if you’re in the US.