The Friday review: Xcom: Enemy Unknown

20:41, Nov 05 2012

Yes, I know this blog is late today. Blame all the other stuff I had to do today but read this over the weekend, if you have to. I don't mind.

I've decided to run reviews in this blog more often mainly because I don't have the space I'd like in The Press' hardcopy tech/TV tabloid to run as many reviews as I'd like. Today's review is 2K's Xcom Enemy Unknown, which I'm really enjoying, even though I generally dislike turn-based strategy games and I initially got my arse handed to me on a plate because I didn't play it smart.

If you're playing Enemy Unknown, how are you finding it?

''We'll be in touch, Commander.''

With those five words, I hung my head in shame and pondered what had just happened. Those five words meant I'd screwed up in the eyes of the planetary council.

To be honest, it wasn't the first time I'd come back from a mission in Xcom: Enemy Unknown with my entire squad wiped out by those pesky alien invaders but this time failure in the mission to investigate an abduction site in South Africa felt different.

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Not only had my entire squad died, with the loss of an eight-mission heavy weapons specialist, but my decision to respond to South Africa's cry for help rather than the Middle East's meant that hysteria was now sweeping across Egypt like a dark black storm cloud - and there was no way to escape it. Another country had now pulled their support from the Xcom project, the joint union tasked with eradicating the aliens, and the council wasn't happy.

 ''We'll be in touch, Commander'' might have well been ''You screwed up again, Commander, and we don't know what to say. We're going to think about what to do.'' Now that I think about it, I'd screwed up quite big earlier when I'd failed to save Brisbane from alien attack. The city was promptly decimated by the invaders. Sorry about that, Brisbane.

Xcom: Enemy Unknown is a game that will punish you brutally if you don't play smart, if you don't think while you play. It took me a few missions to realise that. Sure, you can go in all guns blazing, forget about working your team as a unit and isolate your squad but you won't last long, not against the tougher enemies later on in the game. Stupidity gets punished heavily in Enemy Unknown. It's a game where you will lose soldiers time and time again. Death comes often to the soldiers of Xcom.

Truth be told, I never played the original Xcom games when they first appeared in 1994, even though I'm from the generation of gamers that probably should have. Perhaps it was because I never really dabbled in turn-based strategy games, a genre of video game that usually bores me to tears after an hour or so. Xcom: Enemy Unknown comes from developer Firaxis, which made Civilisation IV, another game that I liked a lot.

In this modern re-boot, you are the commander of the Xcom project, a collaboration of nations that have joined together to fight the alien invasion. You micro manage the organisation by building equipment and weapons (much of it based on alien technology you recover) needed to repel the alien attack and launch satellites to keep a watchful eye over planet Earth.
It's a finely tuned balancing act at times, with more calls for help than you can handle at once but ignore a country's plea for too long and chances are the panic level in that country will rise. If it gets too high, the country will pull out of the alliance, taking its funding, scientists and engineers with it. That's bad news for you.

You have soldiers to help in your task, each with different attributes and of different nationalities, and it's these four to six person squads that you must control on the battle field from an isometric perspective. You soon learn quickly that an exposed soldier can easily be isolated and picked off by aliens, especially if you don't play things smartly as some environmental objects give full protection while others disintegrate in an explosion of wood and concrete.

I liked how troops often acted independently on their own, depending on what the aliens did, but their actions were always beneficial to the Xcom cause. I remember in one mission, where my squad was being outflanked by two large aliens and three aliens with jet packs, one soldier became so spooked by what was going on that she fired blindly, hitting one of her squad mates in the process. He died a few turns later, wounded by friendly fire.

I really enjoyed playing Enemy Unknown and it's a highly addictive game but sometimes the intelligence of both soldiers and aliens made me mutter to myself ''WTF?'' More than once one of my soldiers missed hitting an alien that was at almost point-blank range. Also, some missions are much more difficult than others, meaning you'll be challenged, even in normal mode.

Xcom: Enemy Unknown is a game that will most likely have fans of the original X-Com: UFO Defence celebrating it and fans of turn-based strategy games praising it. For me, it's a game that has got me interested in this genre again and that can only be a good thing, right?

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