Developer: Firaxis Games / Publisher: 2K Games / Played on: PC / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence]
You know a game is the real deal when it gets into your dreams. 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense was one of the first games that did that for me. It was tense, difficult, and intellectually taxing like no other game I’ve ever played. In fact, in the almost 20 years since its release, no game has been able to beat or even match the experience it offered. I know that XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis Games has finally done it because I dreamed about it last night. Finally, this is the real successor that XCOM fans have been waiting for.
In XCOM, you’re always playing two interwoven games at the same time. You run XCOM, a clandestine private military organization that protects the nations of the world from alien attacks. The business management side of the game has you researching upgrades for your soldiers, upgrading your base with new facilities, and dispatching satellite coverage to different nations which in turn earns you more funding. Managing these needs and ensuring your funding is challenging and requires some tough choices. For instance, do you spend your money on base upgrades or get better gear for your soldiers? Do you help out France because they’re offering a cash reward knowing that Nigeria will withdraw funding if you neglect them? Those moments of decision and consequence aren’t common in most modern games. This part of the game has been modernized in a crucial way over the original — in Enemy Unknown, you’ll always know what to do to progress the game. In UFO Defense, it was easy to get stuck for long periods of time because you didn’t know what to do.
When you dispatch soldiers out to deal with an alien attack, the game switches from management sim to turn-based tactics. This part of the game has also undergone changes from UFO Defense, and all of them are for the better. Now, after ranking up for the first time, soldiers are assigned a class that comes with a default ability and more skills as they level up. These abilities work incredibly well together and allow for immense tactical freedom. Here’s an example: I saw an enemy hunkered down in good cover behind a flaming vehicle, so I pinned him to the car with suppression, then used a smoke grenade to make the suppressor nearly impossible to hit. The car explodes the next turn and I get a free kill. Feels good man.
Just like UFO Defense, combat is still tense and difficult though it’s much more fair this time around. I remember once while playing the original game one of my soldiers was under mind control the second I landed in a combat zone. He immediately whipped out his rocket launcher and annihilated my whole team in one shot. Enemy Unknown doesn’t pull that bullshit on you — for the most part, if you stay in cover and protect your flanks, you’re safe from insta-death. Still, a bad turn can kill one of your most seasoned and upgraded veterans. No one is safe and death is permanent in Enemy Unknown, they’ve just taken a welcomed step back from the needless masochism of UFO Defense.
Firaxis made a lot of smart decisions in adapting XCOM for consoles, but some control issues make playing on a PC more of a headache than it should be. There’s not just one aggravating problem but a collection of minor annoyances that started to build up over the course of the game. First off, the game can be really finicky when it comes to issuing orders on different elevations. Sometimes the ground would flicker back and forth and I’d accidentally order one of my men to open ground (where he would promptly die). There’s also no master list of your soldiers complete with equipment either in battle or out. Several times I’d try to find which of my soldiers had a particular gun or armor and the only way to do it would be to tab through them all one at a time. The same goes for battle — there’s no easy way to get a snapshot of your entire team to see who’s moved, who hasn’t, health, cover status, information like that. Granted, since this is turn-based, there’s no time pressure on your moves, but layouts like that would’ve really helped me maintain perception of the battle.
While Enemy Unknown isn’t technically impressive, it fantastically conveys the numerical complexity of turn-based strategy games though visuals. Aspects like movement radius, cover protection, and line-of-sight are all represented iconically when most strategy games rely on scads of numbers. The art style of the game itself is expressive and minimal which is serviceable considering most of the game is seen from a zoomed-out view. Every UFO Defense enemy returns in Enemy Unknown, and it’s poetically enjoyable to see early 90s monster design reworked under a modern aesthetic. Monsters like the floater would look kind of goofy nowadays, but Enemy Unknown found a way to make the hodgepodge monster roster of UFO Defense still look unified in a Half-Life Combine sort of way.
The audio in Enemy Unknown is almost perfect. Gunfire has a bass-y thump that beats out most shooters I’ve played. Let me tell you, it’s a real “fuck yeah” moment when you run up on an alien that killed half your squad and level him with a thundering buckshot. The voice acting is mostly superb as well. The soldiers and main cast members are voiced decently, though the NPCs you encounter on some missions aren’t so much. Enemy Unknown’s soundtrack is easily the best aspect of the game’s audio, however. Deep, pounding taiko drums mix with distorted synth to produce the perfect soundtrack for a futuristic war with an unknown enemy.
Enemy Unknown does include multiplayer, but it’s best to think of it as a tacked-on freebie than a fully-fledged game mode. To play, you assemble a squad of up to six units with each consuming a finite number of points you’re allotted to fill out your squad. From there, it’s a simple turn-based battle on a handful of relatively small maps. It’s certainly functional, and it’s marginally fun to use abilities of the alien units that have been terrorizing you in the campaign, but there’s not enough meat there to make Multiplayer anything more than a temporary diversion.
It’s clear that Enemy Unknown was made by people that both really loved the original XCOM and understand how to make games more approachable and enjoyable. Yes, some of those adaptations cause Enemy Unknown to lose some of the bite that the original had, but it’s an unquestionably better game for it. Despite some minor control issues and a variety of minor gameplay annoyances, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still a fantastic turn-based tactics game. If you’re an XCOM diehard or appreciate a good challenge, buy this game as soon as you can.