Geekbox Reviews: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Official Website:
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and Ryan Scott

Eric Neigher, Samurai Delicatessen: Look, I usually like to hide the ball a bit with my reviews — let the reader think I might go one way, head-fake his ass Kobe style, switch hands… and then, ONLY then, actually disclose my opinion. But dude, XCOM: Enemy Unknown might be the best game I’ve played all year. This thing is so addictive, cleverly balanced, cool-looking, and nostalgic, that I don’t know much else that we can say about it that hasn’t already been said about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs. But maybe you feel differently (i.e., are wrong).

Ryan Scott, On the Jazz: So, I’m a big XCOM noob. I never played much of the original game, though I’ve got a pretty clear idea of what it is. That said, I too am thoroughly pleased with this updated sequel/reboot/remake/reimagining/re-whatever. I tend to prefer turn-based strategy games to real-time ones (unless we’re talking about something like League of Legends), and Enemy Unknown definitely plays to my preferences here. I especially like the way that it eases you into all the mechanics, which wind up getting quite a bit more complex and granular than they appear at first. Plus, I get to name a bunch of guys after the A-Team and shoot aliens. Since you’re an O.G. XCOM fan (from back when it had a dash in the title), what are you going particularly ga-ga about here?

Eric: You can rename your guys? Dammit, I wish I would’ve known that. It would’ve been nice to have killed the final bosses with a sniper shot by J.C. Chasez. At any rate, I love some of the differences between this version and the original, and I miss other things.

Things I love: It obviously looks much better, the controls are streamlined, and it’s easier to figure out what does what. Alien A.I. is (mostly) improved, and the sense of urgency is hugely heightened both by the storyline and the changes made to the way your little cadre of ass-kickers gets funded. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it’s a much more difficult task (especially at higher difficulty settings) to keep the world’s nations happy (and, thus, funding your efforts). Inevitably, some start to become dissatisfied and cancel funding — at which point it becomes even harder to please the remaining countries, and so on. Plate-spinning to please faceless bureaucrats is all about what working for the government is, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown does that really well.

What I miss about the original X-COM: UFO Defense, though, is the sense of “anything can happen” in a battle. In that game, your guys (and the aliens) could pick up stuff they found in the environment, or on dead bodies, and try to use it — with unpredictable results. Shots wouldn’t just miss; they would miss and continue on their line of fire, potentially hitting friendlies or destroying structures. And UFO Defense’s levels were procedurally generated in a semi-random fashion, whereas in Enemy Unknown, you get one of about six or seven dozen pre-fab levels every time you deploy. It’s not a huge issue, but it makes things more predictable with every match you play.

As a newbie to the series, did you feel like you were able to pick Enemy Unknown up and get into it right away? How was the learning curve? And has it held your interest?

Ryan: I’ve definitely also noticed the same repetitive handful of maps, and I’m not even all that far into the game (yet). Sounds like this thing pulled a Diablo III, eh? But as far as the learning curve goes, I think Enemy Unknown eases you into things nicely. The trickiest part, to me, is making sure I’m constantly looking at things from every angle. Too often, I’ll send one of my squad members into what I believe is a pretty safe spot with decent cover, and I’ll get blindsided by hostiles from a location I really wasn’t expecting. This game punishes mistakes rather harshly, too — if you screw up and wander into the line of fire, you’re only a couple of shots away from death. That tends to drive me a little bit nuts, since I’m a “no man left behind” kinda guy when I play games like this, and I don’t like anyone to die (especially my A-Team). So, from that perspective, I imagine my progress has been a bit slower (and more irritation-riddled) than the average player’s. The one area where I wish the game was a bit more clear was with base upgrades, and what your various purchases actually do for you. I feel like the game doesn’t present that information as concretely as it could.

Eric: You might be surprised with your “no man left behind” strategy and how common it is. When you finish the game, your stats are compared to the global stats — and the average death rate is something like 2.6 guys. Considering you MUST lose 2 guys during the tutorial (well, unless you disable it, which the majority of players probably didn’t), that’s a pretty high rate of no-man-left-behind-ism.

This leads to an interesting issue, though — squad size has been greatly reduced in Enemy Unknown. You start out with only four soldiers, and you can maximize your squad to six. Sure, you usually have to fight fewer aliens (I never encountered more than 18 on a mission) than in UFO Defense, but in that game, you could have upwards of 20 guys on a mission. With just six, the options for squad-based tactics are limited to fire-team style stuff (like run and cover), rather than honest-to-goodness flanking maneuvers, feints, and frontal assaults. I would say that’s one of Enemy Unknown’s biggest foibles: Everything is reduced in scope.

You’re right, though, that your guys aren’t very survivable. Even later in the game, with really powerful armor and weapons, your team gets cut down like tall grass in an instant if you don’t proceed cautiously. That’s especially true in Iron Man mode, where you can’t reload your game — this makes playing through a match of Enemy Unknown a white-knuckle affair, and gives you a real reason to celebrate your victories. And that, to me, is part of what makes this game so compelling. I do wish it had included more technologies to research, though, especially ones that didn’t seem extraneous (like just about everything you can research at the Foundry).

Ryan: Well, as a new XCOM convert, I’ve gotta say I’m pretty happy with this game overall, and it’s definitely on my list of best games for 2012. I know gamers have been pining for an honest-to-goodness XCOM redux for years now, and it seems like Enemy Unknown really fits the bill. Maybe if I manage to get through my normal, pansy-ass save-scummed game without letting Hannibal or Murdock croak, I’ll try your crazy roguelike Iron Man mode. Until then, Enemy Unknown is giving me plenty of tactical decisions to carefully consider, and I’d take this over StarCraft II any day.

FINAL SCORE: 162 out of 180 vaporized alien corpses (AKA the kind you can’t salvage research materials from)

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