XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a strategy, turn-based, squad-focused, action role playing game based on the original classic UFO: Enemy Unknown released back in 1994.
The game gets straight into the thick of the action, with the player commanding a squad of soldiers while the tutorial eases you into the complex universe of the game. You play as a faceless protagonist referred to only as “Commander”. Your mission is to command a squad of soldiers and combat the threat of an alien invasion.
The game has three key elements: Combat, Economic and RPG.
The Economic side of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is extremely satisfying. It reminded me of Theme Hospital and the more modern Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, with its base and soldier management. The game takes place over across the entire globe, so you can choose for your base to be located in different continents, which will bestow you with unique perks.
Once you have chosen your base, you are shown the 4 key departments that you'll be frequenting during your campaign; Research (for developing weapons and tech), Engineering (for building the tech you've researched), and base expansion. Barracks serve as your management system for all your recruits and Mission Control allows you to pass the virtual in-game time, and pick up missions (among other things) - this is important because most research and development for weapons, abilities and events can take days or in some cases weeks/months and years.
At the end of each month, you are given a performance review by a shadowy council that represents a semi-quasi human-only United Nations, that will fund your efforts based on the results of your battles against the enemy aliens.
Many of the game's missions are randomly generated in response to an enemy presence building up in certain regions of the world. In this sense, the game has a very “domination” styled turn-based strategy feel to it, similar to Star Trek: Birth of the Federation. Other mission’s range from UFO attacks, where you can deploy your own aircraft in defense – the successful destruction of a UFO will result immediately with a ground combat mission.
Mission Control also factors in the management of all planetary affairs, with the satellites you've deployed to different regions in the world letting you spy on enemy activity, effectively allowing you to take part in more missions, and lockdown the alien threat to the world. Once enough time has elapsed and objectives are met, you will be rewarded with a “Council” mission, which will advance the game's story.
To successfully understand and complete XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you will have to commit yourself to micro-managing several regions in the world to not only save them from alien invasion, but to also gain currency in the form of Engineers, “Scientists” and money.
This trade of labor and cash helps reduce development time between your research and engineering departments. Money helps fund further development of your base and investment of more technologies and squad equipment ranging from body armor, weapons and useful tools such as medi-kits and grenades.
The base expansion screen greets you with an “ant-farm” grid-like map displaying all of your built facilities and free spaces that are available to build on once you've purchased them.
RPG mechanics in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are relatively light: there are still several factors that impact your soldier’s effectiveness in battle. Aim is important (of course) for your soldier’s effectiveness at shooting targets. All battle is dependent on your percentages (e.g.: the chances to hit a target range from 0-100%.)
Armor and Weapons effectively bolster the damage and defense of your soldiers respectively. Skills also bolster these abilities, but vary depending on the class of your soldier. Classes are awarded to your soldiers in a somewhat random matter – your soldiers start off as normal recruits and can level up to anything from a Heavy Machine Gunner, Support Infantry (Medic basically), Sniper or Frontline Assault (to name but a few).
Combat tactics is the mainstay of this game, with complex and technical strategic squad-based warfare. Most of your time will be dispersed between deciding soldier placement behind cover or using your squads many abilities to decide victory or defeat on the battlefield. Combat yields important components and perks depending on the reward for the mission, which can range from money to base assets (such as Scientists and Engineers).
Most battles take place with 4~6 selected squad members, which you outfit before each mission. Squad members are entirely customisable, from their country, name, appearance, load-out and items. I am going to say right now that I don’t recommend putting a loved one’s name as one of your soldiers, as that will only end badly. The feeling of rushing your favorite soldier into the battlefield, a soldier that you've built up through the entire campaign, and to suddenly see a bullet from an enemy end their life permanently is devastating – this is when XCOM: Enemy Unknown says to you: “Take me seriously”.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: a turn-based tactical strategy game on a PS3? A console with a controller and not a keyboard and mouse? Well, my initial worry was that my experience was going to hark back to my experience playing Command and Conquer 64 or StarCraft 64 on the Nintendo 64 which, to say the least, were awkward and very frustrating compared to their superior PC counterparts due to the controller’s limitation to map/macro all the controls h a tactical strategy game requires. It's also true that this game is a “reimagining” of an old PC game, so a common reaction would be to assume that this game would be a dumbed down console port job with funky controls. However, I can confirm that XCOM: Enemy Unknown, features neither of these tiresome traits.
Developer Firaxis really made this game with love. Graphics have been updated, mechanics polished and the heavy, complex strategy is kept fully intact.
Not once did I feel that I was without control. If I faltered or messed up, it was purely because I didn't think my strategy through, or I was rushing in headfirst. In this sense, the game shares traits with (but not exclusivel to) games from the Total War series – strategy first, results later.
Graphics aren't the best aspect of this game, looking somewhat cartoonish at times and effectively robbing the game of its grimness, but they're still stylish enough. Logistically the modern graphical power of this game is focused on creating a deeper environment for combat, displaying elevations, interiors and the fog of war, with scripted set pieces all effectively and fluidly implemented.
Outside of the massive campaign is a multiplayer mode that features one-on-one battles against other players. Players are allowed to play as humans, aliens or both, and are assigned predefined points to spend on their military budget. Multiplayer is effectively a simplified version of the main single player game, but it still feels very competitive and satisfying when you outsmart your opponent, as if you've just played a long (and violent!) game of chess!
What XCOM: Enemy Unknown has done right is simple: the graphics have been updated and the mechanics have been polished, but essentially kept the same with bolstered functions in its economy and squad management system. Effectively the game has kept true to what made it a cult classic, bolstering the facets of gameplay that made it enjoyable and evolving the series further to a new generation of gamers.
I think this is something we need to embrace in games more. Developers have a lot on their hands, and there is a lot for them to lose if they don’t appeal to a large market of gamers. However, games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown remind us that even though a game may be old, its game mechanics still work and are still enjoyable.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hugely enjoyable for old and new gamers alike. For those looking for something new or the hardcore initiated, this game serves a balanced and satisfying experience. If you’re obsessed about leveling up, micro-management and intelligent combat mechanics, this game is a love letter to you.
With hours of gameplay and numerous outcomes, XCOM: Enemy Unknown proves that old games can survive in a new age of gaming – displaying all the traits and features that makes a video game an enjoyable experience without gimmicks or fads.