Out of this world
When 2K and Firaxis decided to remake the 1994 PC classic XCOM: UFO Defense, they were setting themselves up for a challenge of galactic proportions. On the one hand, they needed to please the legions of XCOM faithful who fanatically worship the original’s unique blend of broad geopolitical strategy and ground-level humans-versus-aliens tactical combat. On the other, they needed to sell a game that’s become infamous for its punishing difficulty and borderline inaccessible complexity to a modern audience that’s been coddled by years of regenerating health and tutorial-happy hand-holding.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way first. If you’re a fan of the classic XCOM games, there’s virtually no chance you’ll be disappointed by what Enemy Unknown has to offer. Sure, you might initially gripe over the fact that the experience has been streamlined, but you’ll soon realize that this is one of the rare cases where that term isn’t being used as a euphemism for “dumbed down.” Whatever depth was lost with the removal of multiple bases and defense missions has been more than balanced out by the new systems they’ve put in place. In fact, I’d say that every last change Firaxis has made to the design is a flat-out improvement. This is the XCOM you know and love, only better.
But now we get to the tricky side of the equation: the millions of folks out there who hear the words “turn-based,” “strategy,” or “tactics” and run screaming to hide under the nearest Call of Duty-shaped rock. Is this the game that finally manages to make the genre accessible to the coveted mainstream gamer? Probably not.
Now, Firaxis has certainly made some design choices that help on that front. Rather than simply dropping new players into the deep end and hoping they figure out how to swim, they’ve restructured the first few hours of the game into a more structured tutorial segment that introduces the half-dozen or so distinct components of the game one-by-one. They’ve also done their best to make the turn-based combat more exciting with an incredibly slick, easy-to-use UI, gorgeous animations, and cinematic camera angles that zoom in on the action.
But when it comes right down to it, Enemy Unknown can still be frustratingly hard—not in the sense that Battletoads is hard, but in the way that chess is. On the global scale, you’re constantly struggling to balance your cashflow, resources, personnel, and political standing like so many spinning plates. Poor planning early on can mean that you’re doomed to failure 3 or 4 (or 15) hours down the road, especially if you’re insane enough to play on one of the harder difficulty levels. If you’re not willing to pay close attention and learn from your every mistake, the game’s more than happy to constantly remind you of how little you know.
And once you send your squad into the field, there’s an entirely separate set of challenges for you to contend with. The robust new class and skill tree systems mean you’ll need to consider the makeup of your team carefully to give yourself a fair chance at victory. Even the most well prepared squad can still be wiped out by a bit of bad luck or tactical miscalculation, and given that this is XCOM, once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
Now, there’s a good chance you read through the last few paragraphs and decided that Enemy Unknown isn’t your bag, and things only get worse as the game begins to introduce more powerful enemies and new layers of complexity. Funnily enough, though, the things that make the game intimidating and unpalatable are the exact same things that make it so indescribably great. There’s something intensely refreshing about a game that forces you to understand and utilize every last one of its mechanics in order to succeed. The punishing difficulty and dynamic, unpredictable nature of the tactical gameplay mean that each skirmish carries uncommon emotional weight. There are moments—the rookie who proves himself when it counts, the grizzled vet who dies to save the rest of the squad—that outclass even the best scripted games out there, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s your actions that drive things forward.
Unless you’re fully aware of what you’re getting into, this probably isn’t the sort of game you want to play. Losing isn’t fun. Being forced to learn isn’t fun. Breaking down into tears because you’ve wasted the last 4 hours of your life isn’t fun. But once you manage to work past all the initial frustrations, once you finally begin to master the game’s intricacies, the payoff is more rewarding than just about anything else gaming has to offer. So, no, Enemy Unknown probably isn’t a game you want to play, but it’s a game you should play.
SUMMARY: To say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a phenomenal remake would be selling Firaxis’ monumental accomplishment short. The developer hasn’t just managed to capture the spirit of the original; they’ve also tweaked, trimmed, and innovated enough to deliver the freshest, most engaging strategy game in recent memory, if not ever.
- THE GOOD: A meticulously designed strategy experience that manages to outshine the original XCOM.
- THE BAD: Complexity and difficulty can take some getting used to.
- THE UGLY: Watching a Muton Berserker pummel your favorite soldier into a bloody pulp.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is available on the Xb0x 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on PC.