X-COM:-Enemy-Unknown-Review---Xbox-360 X-COM: Enemy Unknown Review - Xbox 360

   01/11/2012 at 19:19       Richard Horne       2 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Turn-based-strategy, B-Movie X-Files, Alien Invasion, Fire Emblem / Advance Wars

I never played the original XCOM back when it was released in 1994 during what was something of a halcyon period for PC gaming. Therefore, the Xbox 360 version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my first foray into this popular franchise. And from the outside, and based on nothing but my own personal perception, I went into it expecting an impenetrable, hard-as-nails, spreadsheet simulator. Thankfully, however, I couldn’t have been further from the truth because what developer Firaxis finally delivered after an 18-year hiatus, turned out to be a devilishly brilliant and compulsive, science-fiction, turn-based-strategy game, with two very distinct feathers to its cap, each of which delivers upon its promise of a deep and rich, tactical experience.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown can perhaps be best compared with Nintendo and Intelligent Studios’ brilliant Advance Wars and Fire Emblem series of games. You take control of a small squad of units and must carefully and strategically manage their progress through a myriad of different mission types while engaging increasingly hostile alien invaders. 

Ostensibly a PC franchise, the mechanics and controls have transferred extremely well to the Xbox 360 console and controller, meaning your early unfortunate suicide runs are handled expertly well in an intuitive and user-friendly – if ultimately fruitless - fashion.

While fully 3D – it is, believe it or not, an Unreal Engine powered game – the gameplay takes place across a semi-isometric playing field. Units quickly snap to objects or cover with a handy shield icon clearly indicating whether said cover offers full or half-arsed protection against the invading enemy forces. You can then choose to engage an enemy directly, or set your units to overwatch mode, which means should an enemy pass their line of sight during the opposing turn, then your units will attempt to engage them from behind the safety of their cover. Add to that RPG-like abilities for ranking up your soldiers, plus different class types and the option to research alien weapons and technology and the game quickly opens up.

For all my comparisons to Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, XCOM: Enemy Unknown differs in that none of your units are hero characters. And by that I mean they’re not central to the game’s story – they’re all in effect expendable. However, if you’re anything like me, then you will create your own narrative and back-story for each of them as they survive missions against all the odds and pull off miracle shots that the statistics suggest they should have otherwise missed. The fact that the game generates nicknames for your troops as they reach a certain rank only adds to that. And with the option to customize their names and appearance, you too could have a squad made up of superheroes, 80s footballers, action heroes or even AATG forum members.

While undoubtedly deep and taxing, XCOM’s edges are softened somewhat by the cheesy B-movie cliché approach it takes to its character design and general aesthetics. Think of the most stereotypical Area 51-esque alien-type you can and you won’t be too far away from what’s actually delivered here. The cut-scenes that intersperse missions and highlight successful research projects are also pretty ham-fisted, and, if I wanted to be cruel, evoke memories of the PS2 and Xbox era. But yet for all its lack of invention and cheesiness, it’s not really what makes the game tick. You see, in addition to the turn-based missions, there’s also a hugely rewarding second layer to the game that sees you managing your own mysterious facility and resources, as well as panic levels the world over. It's a complicated and complex system, of, well, for want of a better word, systems, but it's presented in a brilliant side-on view that quickly moves from location to lcoation as you navigate the menus and areas of your facility.

One could also argue that it’s not actually until it’s too late that you properly figure out and understand the game’s strategic mechanics. I lost four countries from the XCOM project pretty early on through a lack of understanding of how satellites and uplinks work. Enemy Unknown does a pretty poor job of fully explaining the intricacies of its systems and at times it often feels like chunks have been ripped out of the game in order to meet its release date. You will eventually figure it out for yourself, but it can be quite testing early on when you don’t really have much of a clue what’s going on around you. Multiple play-throughs are definitely worthwhile and positively encouraged as you get to grips with the various systems.

Multiplayer, meanwhile, seems almost a token gesture. Added at the last minute almost as an after-thought to give Firaxis another feature to add to the back of the box. There are only a limited number of environments from which you can choose and the gameplay options are pretty thin on the ground. But then the main gameplay mechanics are so well honed and finely tuned that none of this really matters. Being able to play as some of the alien enemies that tormented you for so long is a very welcome addition and adds new abilities and strategies to proceedings, but be warned, for an experienced player will absolutely smash a newbie or beginner.

So even though XCOM: Enemy Unknown looks pretty last-generation, is very much lacking in terms of how it explains its systems to you , and is almost laughably archetypal, it still somehow manages to provide you with a lengthy and memorable experience that will have you engaging your brain rather than your itchy trigger finger. Charging in all guns blazing is not a winning strategy - you will have to out-fox your opponents rather than out-gun them. 

Sure, there are times where it feels like you’re going through the motions repeating mission after mission with nary a clue as to what you should do next, but this usually means the game is waiting for you to research something or capture a certain enemy type alive before progressing to the next story beat. The end-game also seems to come out of nowhere and fails to deliver upon the promise of what’s gone before it. But even that’s not enough to tarnish the experience. It’s more about making your own stories and discovering your own narrative. You will care when your sniper colonel who has survived 25 missions thus far gets his head taken off by an unexpected alien grenade and while you can save at any point in time, your conscience will weigh heavy on you as you umm and aah about restarting or just accepting the tragic loss.

With the promise of new units, environments and game modes via DLC, there’ll inevitably be plenty to keep you coming back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. And after selling extremely well initially, it’ll no doubt only be a couple of weeks before it drops in price. But I urge you, regardless of its many misgivings, if you’re even remotely interested in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, take a punt on it. You won’t regret it.

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