XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) Review

By Chris Leebody 27.12.2018

Review for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PC

Travel back into the mists of gaming folklore, and there comes a certain point that holds a cult reverence for a certain generation. That point is 1994 and the launch of UFO: Enemy Unknown, which heralded the beginning of the later, more well known, X-COM. The title introduced a whole raft of fans to a new sci-fi strategy world, telling the story of an alien invasion of Earth and humanity's stubborn resistance. Critically praised, it directly inspired a host of similar titles in its wake, and demonstrated a sense of strategic scale normally reserved for tables and spread sheets, with a beautiful turn-based combat map in a variety of locations. Of course, one of the standout features was the sense of both tension and desperation that the "permadeath" mechanic instilled. Turning these virtual heroes into individual characters that people could relate to was what propelled what could have been a clever but monotonous strategy affair into something that truly hooked its extra-terrestrial claws into its admirers. Well, if there is one thing that sums up entertainment media in this current age, it has to be the fascination with reboots and revivals. 2012 saw such a revival and Firaxis Games (of Sid Meier fame) was the company to deliver it. Who said revolutions only have to happen once?

Reboots are, by their very nature, a tricky affair; in many ways even worse so with cult-followings. The fans of the original hold a special place in their hearts for the memories of long campaigns in the hope of saving Earth. They have their nostalgia and vision of how such a venture should go if one is foolish enough to reattempt it. Of course, on the other hand, the new prospective fans have no predisposed affinity with something far before their time. It is this conundrum that makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown such a brilliant and redefining title, even so long after its inspiration transpired.

The setting and context for the world are remarkably similar between old and new. The story is set in a world not too dissimilar to this one - humans have a contemporary level of technology and weaponry. Very quickly, however, the biggest question of human existence is answered in explosive fashion when an alien invasion threatens to conquer all of civilisation.

Screenshot for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PC

With that, the narrative and gameplay turns to the control of an elite organisation, which is independent from any one nation known as "XCOM," and control of its entire operation lies with the user. That's everything from research, recruitment, mission selection, expansion and general strategic decisions. All done in a very inventive "ant farm" side-on view of the underground headquarters that make up the XCOM organisation.

In many ways it defines itself as the epitome of a true sandbox experience whilst still guiding the player on a fantastic narrative structure with thrilling set piece moments. The balance struck: between the kind of day-to-day missions in order to gain new technologies from a dead alien corpse, or escorting a top scientist or official with some important piece of intelligence - to the against-all-odds rescue missions or alien boss battles; make Enemy Unknown a brilliant accomplishment purely from a story-telling structural point of view.

Addictive and brutal are two ways many of the fans described the 1994 original vision, and that hasn't changed here. Whilst the pure strategy gameplay plays out in the over world; balancing resources and putting together the right team to defend the earth, the tactical turn-based combat yet again plays out on a whole host of wonderfully bespoke designed maps.

Screenshot for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PC

Brutal is the right adjective to describe this. Once dropped down on the battlefield the AI throws everything in its power to exterminate all before it. The aliens are ruthless and expertly efficient in their ability to dispatch even the best armed force. Outgunned and outmanned, unleashing devastating ambushes or flanking manoeuvres, deploying unknown technologies, utilising the fog of war, random deployments on each play through. Everything and more is thrown at the XCOM team. This might sound in some ways a frustrating task. But what makes Enemy Unknown such an expertly crafted piece of work is that as much as there may be moments of unfairness, the abiding feeling it generates is one of nail-biting tension and a massive sense of accomplishment in the end.

This is for two reasons: the tension, because like it's spiritual predecessor, permanent death of soldiers means that comrades who are battle-hardened, levelled-up and armed to the teeth, are always vulnerable to a horrendous mistake or misjudgement. Secondly, the accomplishment, because there is a tangible feeling that each battle won makes the team just that little bit better, or each piece of technology stolen gives the base that further advantage to winning the war.

Screenshot for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PC

From an aesthetic and practical point of view, Firaxis has done a great job at designing a clean and efficient UI, and it makes the many, many hours working through these battles a breeze. The map is filled with lots of neat touches of character and world building - the burning cars the looted interiors, and many more. However it never feels cluttered and the movement and planning (which is crucial to victory) always feels clear. The information about use of movement, shooting, cover, etc, is clearly presented and easy to follow.

Of course, this being a turn-based strategy, the action and combat comes in the form of selecting one of the many weapons or explosives and unleashing them on the alien foe ahead. The one annoyance comes from the sometimes unfair RNG, meaning when the shot comes up as a 75% chance of success, it feels like more often than not that is an over exaggeration. When the stakes and margin for error is so high as it is in Enemy Unknown, it can be ridiculously annoying to lose a battle and suffer the consequences of it.

Screenshot for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PC

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a tour de force of a game. It says something that this very title inspired the creation of many similar turn-based styles, and probably helped push the rogue-like nature of permadeath even further than it had already started to become back in 2012. The sense of scale, and the equal sense of responsibility on the shoulders of the player to lead humanity's last stand, is immense, as, from USA to Australia, every theatre is covered, every front is battled, and every soldier's death is a tragedy that has an individual story behind it. That is the beauty of this creation, and that is the beauty of a game that feels like it is more than just a hobby - although it soon becomes an obsession. Of course, that was proven with its critical and commercial success, which spawned multiple expansions, a full-fledged sequel, and has, in many ways, turned the circle all the way back by inspiring future titles to build on the success and mechanics employed here.









C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


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