I may be accused of cheating on this one. Not because of my “save scumming”, mind you, as there is zero shame in doing that when it comes to XCOM Enemy Unknown. I’ll get to why in a bit, but suffice it to say the reason some may not relish the idea of me writing up a review for the game is I’ve technically done it twice already: once for its classic old-school flavor and once as a first impressions.
However, at time of writing I’ve poured 32 hours into the game, which is more than I’ve spent in some MMOs, so there’s got to be something to it worth talking about.
The playability of the game may be tied into its emphasis on long-term goals and costs. When the game begins, after your first firefight, you’re given the choice of where to place your initial base. This is actually a crucial decision, as the bonus you get tied to the continent you choose is rather significant and stays with you throughout the game. Research takes time, manufacturing takes resources, and soldiers rarely start at a high rank, meaning each aspect of the game requires investment aimed towards a future payoff. In the case of the soliders, it’s payoff you may never see if they die in combat.
Speaking of combat, the few problems I’ve encountered with the UI during missions remain, but are thankfully not terribly frequent. Soldiers still occasionally shoot in the wrong direction, hot buttons for skills can move around which messes with you when you feel the pressure to get the Heavy out of the way of that charging Berserker he is about to go all Juggernaut on your ass, so on and so forth. But it still holds up in spite of the bugs and rewards forethought, positioning, mixed unit tactics, and not charging headlong into the enemy.
While some of the complexity and outright terror of the original game has been lost, the current iteration of XCOM remains tense and absorbing. This is especially true of Ironman mode. When you are unable to save when you wish and cannot load a previous save from within the game, you are forced to face the consequences of every action you take. Each decision must be weighed carefully. A mistake can spell disaster, and there is no going back. I consider this the ‘proper’ way to play, but if you’re unfamiliar with XCOM, don’t enable Ironman the first time you play. It can be an absolutely punishing experience, and without the safety net of so-called “save scumming”, your only recourse is to start the entire game over.
I have long admired this game’s previous iteration for its difficulty and complexity, and I continue to do so. While it may have lost some of its depth with the loss of time units and the watering-down of in-combat options, the perfect balance between developing your resources in your anthill-like base and getting said resources by shooting at aliens is entirely intact. As frustrating as it can be to lose a high-ranking soldier, playing the game never ceases to be fun and challenging. Even if you reload the same mission half a dozen times because a would-be sniper apparently can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
Stuff I Like: The new aesthetic and the cutscenes have grown on me. There’s an emphasis on planning and coordinated tactics that is good to see. The way in which the challenges ramp up keeps the game tense.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The random nature of the alien assaults and the payouts for missions can be a touch frustrating. The aforementioned bugs can get in the way of a ‘clean’ gaming experience. And would more than one accent really have been that difficult to nail down?
Stuff I Love: Pulling off a mission with no casualties makes you feel like a boss. The base-building is surprisingly involving and ties very closely into mission performance, which makes the whole game flow very well. An excellent soundtrack psyches you up for your missions, raises tension when enemies are in sight, and maintains an aura of dread even when all is well. And while this may be unintentional, the knowledge of bugs and miss chances means that your soldier pulling off an excellent shot is all the more satisfying to watch.
Bottom Line: Reviving XCOM could never have been an easy sell, and the fact that Firaxis pulled it off this well is astonishing in and of itself. XCOM Enemy Unknown proves that its blend of resource management and tactical turn-based combat is viable in an environment of modern military shooters and RPG-like slash-em-ups. In spite of its bugs, it is one of the best games I’ve played all year.