Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

What now, commander?

Joey Davidsonby Joey Davidson

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

X-COM (pay attention to the dash) is just about as old school as tactical gaming can get. This classic strategy franchise was known for its brutality and lasting impression. In X-COM, gamers were tasked with building a base and managing a squad of soldiers in order to repel an alien invasion.

The game was intensely difficult. When soldiers die in battle, they’re dead for good. You can’t get them back. Not only was it possible to lose at X-COM, it was probably. This blend of frustration and relentless difficulty made the franchise particularly appealing to a small group of gamers…those who were up to the challenge.

2K Games had planned to rebrand X-COM into XCOM and make it a first-person shooter with an emphasis on tactical strategy play. They showed it at E3 a few years back, caused some waves and watched true X-COM fans lose their effing minds on the internet. This was not the franchise they fell in love with so many years ago; as such, it’s been delayed and pushed back to a level of uncertainty.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The new XCOM is a callback to the roots of this now classic experience. XCOM is like X-COM in all the right ways, so, diehard fans, buy the game. There. I said it.

Firaxis Games, the developers behind this relaunch, clearly understood what X-COM was all about.

The game is still tough, though not quite as brutally so. Once your soldiers die, they’re gone for good…unless you lower the difficulty and allow for multiple saves and reloads.

And, bingo, there’s the caveat that allows XCOM: Enemy Unknown the grace of being both a well-designed game and a true honor for its predecessors. Firaxis built in options to make this game either as brutal as veterans remember or as forgiving as modern gamers are used to. Either player is welcome here, and that’s probably the best news both sections of fans could have hoped for.

Classic X-COM lovers are covered as this game gives you the option to play it in old school, frustrating fashion. Gamers who like second chances and want to retain a core group of soldiers will be allowed to do so below lighter difficulties. XCOM: Enemy Unknown marries the two types of fans perfectly.

It flubs, though, in arenas like production value and UI management. It seems to me that XCOM: Enemy Unknown may have been rushed to the calendar a bit by 2K. Firaxis’ effort is fantastic when it’s on the virtual battlefield. Moving through moments of turn-based combat is fluid, and the weight the team placed on seamless play makes the whole experience addictive.

However, once players are tasked with moving through the menus, listening to dialogue or watching cutscenes, the value of this game drops drastically. Simply put: it ain’t pretty.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

For old fans, this is fine. It didn’t bother me when it came time to begin hour 22 of the campaign. For newer players, though, the process of figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B in the game’s base can be an instant turn-off. More than once I sat back and thought, “now what?” when it came time to navigate my base.

XCOM is X-COM. In an age of constant action and shoot-shoot, it’s nice to have a more refined tactics game to come home to. It’s not perfect, but it’s exactly what the doctor ordered after all of this bullet-fests we’ve gorged ourselves on for years. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a welcome relaunch that I hope leads Firaxis to even further greatness.


Full Disclosure: We received a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360 a week before publishing this review. We played the game’s campaign until completion.