When I first experienced Firaxis Games’ and 2K Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, developed by Mythos Games and MicroProse and marketed as X-COM: Enemy Unknown, had already existed for nearly a decade and established itself and the resulting series of X-COM games as favorites of the turn-based and tactical strategy genres. Within a few years the game had become a cult classic and would continue to be a major influence to tactical strategy, adventure, and turn based games for the next decade. Thus its fair to say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as a reboot to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, has an impressive legacy to uphold.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts its players in the role of the Commander of the XCOM initiative, a secret organization formed by a council of select nations to combat a new and mysterious alien menace that has begun abducting people around the globe. Gameplay is divided into two parts; the player commands individual soldiers in turn based tactical combat as they go on missions to stop alien abductions, investigate crashed UFOs, and save civilians from terror attacks. The second part of the game involves managing and upgrading the XCOM Headquarters, an underground base that the player views via a cross section type display and features the barracks, research lab, engineering department, and other areas where the player’s soldiers and resources can be managed and upgraded.
Single player is the heart of the XCOM experience. The principle plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown follows its predecessor: a previously unknown extraterrestrial enemy has started abducting citizens from cities around the globe. The XCOM Initiative is an attempt by most of the worlds advanced nations to combat this threat. It could be said that the base plot of the game is not highly original; however it’s in the execution of this plot throughout the game that the story becomes intriguing. The aliens are expertly portrayed as an advanced and unpredictable threat, with the player having no sure way to predict where they will strike next or in what form. As the months of in-game time pass new types of missions appear and new alien species are added to the enemy’s growing arsenal.
Following a famous trend set by earlier X-COM titles the player is ‘invited’ to become attached to soldiers in their squad. Each soldier the player recruits starts with a random appearance (which the player can customize), nationality, and gender. As these soldiers advance in rank they gain a specialized class which defines the abilities the player can use to upgrade their combat performance. The soldiers can even be renamed, allowing the player to follow in the X-COM tradition of naming and designing soldiers to resemble friends and acquaintances.
There are few characters with actual identities and they play a supporting role for the player (none of them appear in combat missions). They advise the player on new developments, serve as voice assistants, and provide a conduit for the advancement of the single player story line before and after each scripted mission. The missions, aside from a few scripted missions that serve as boss encounters to advance the main objective, are also randomly generated based on what type of mission is currently in progress. The terrain is chosen from a series of pre-built levels and enemies are seeded on the map (although as the game progresses higher level enemies become more frequent).
XCOM is at its heart a single player game. It’s multiplayer aspect consists of matches similar in design to single player missions in which players are pitted against each other after selecting a team of XCOM soldiers, alien troops, or a mixture of both based on a purchasing system that is set by the match host. Combat in XCOM is turn-based, an element that is far more forgiving on lower bandwidth connections. Sadly no multiplayer aspect exists for the campaign mode with no possibilities for such an improvement in the foreseeable future.
XCOM’s lack of a heavily plot-driven campaign makes replayability a far more entertaining aspect of the single player mode. The many randomly generated aspects of the game ensure a wide degree of fresh experiences; the player can select additional features for single player to add random effects for their soldiers and special missions or increase the difficulty. The end game remains the same but the bulk of the game remains unpredictable and, depending on the player’s preferences, quite challenging.
The release of a dedicated expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, increases replay options substantially. New sub-plot missions and enemies are added as well as additional upgrades and features for XCOM soldiers, including a new class of soldier, the powerful Mec Trooper, through the appearance of a new type of collectible resource called Meld, which the player must gather from the enemy during missions. Once again the endgame remains the same, which depending on the difficulty selected can feel a bit anti-climatic but overall has little negative effect on the experience.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has many aspects which old fans of the series will recognize and enjoy. New players may find the wealth of different aspects overwhelming at first, but the game features a tutorial integrated into the campaign and very forgiving game play on lower difficulty levels. Also a single failed mission does not spell defeat for the player and a degree of sacrifice is to be expected throughout the campaign. Once familiar with the game’s aspects turn-based tactics fans of all skill levels should enjoy this remake of a venerable, time-tested series.