Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

On paper, XCOM shouldn’t work. A graphical update of an 18 year old game with apparently only minor changes to the mechanics. A gameplay style that hasn’t had a proper retail release for years. Or if it has, no-one noticed (which is probably the point).

Most recent reinventions of classic franchises have tended to go in one of two directions. We either get a downloadable version with a fresh lick of paint (Bionic Commando Rearmed); or a reinvention in a totally different genre, with a smattering of the original’s unique points so as not to annoy its fans TOO much (hello, Syndicate).

XCOM has given us both. The attention grabber has been an oft-delayed FPS from 2K Marin, that at the last count, has been bumped back to sometime in their 2013/14 financial year. But creeping in under the radar we have this reboot of the original by strategy masters, Firaxis. In fact, until a couple of months ago, I was convinced this was of the “PSN/XBLA tarted up downloadable remake” variety.

No, what we have here, is a glorious HD remake of the 1994 classic turn-based squad-based alien-invasion-based shooter, with no pandering to the current climate of games, no toning down of difficulty, and no watering down of the original’s total and utter addictiveness.

Seeing as the original is now old enough to drink, chances are you may not have even heard of it, so in essence, what XCOM is, is this: You are in control of a secret military facility, trying to fight off an alien invasion of earth, from your underground base. You start off with 12 soldiers, and can take initially 4 on any mission, whether that be a report of aliens terrorising a city, or investigate a crashed UFO site. As you play each mission, you move your squad, one-by-one, around the map, trying to stay in cover and flush out any aliens. Each squaddie generally can make two moves (move twice, move then shoot, or just shoot). Other options become available as you team gain experience and promotions, such as specialisation in a weapon class, or gaining tech such as grappling hooks or a stun gun for alien capture.

The aliens you are up against start off as the little grey men beloved of almost all sci-fi, closely followed by Thin Men, engineered to look relatively human, who act like snipers and leave clouds of poison gas when killed. Before long you will be encountering nightmarish Chrysalids who tear your soldiers apart, or turn them into zombies, that if left unchecked, will mutate into a Chrysalid themselves. Innocent looking flying saucers that open up to reveal tentacles of grenade launching death, and massive two legged ED209-style robots with the same health as 4 of your soldiers combined, accompanied by healing drones.

That other half of the game takes place between missions – building your base and researching alien tech. You can build facilities beneath your base that enable you to research the technology you retrieve from fallen foes, and incorporate into your own equipment, so before long you will be wearing armour and carrying weapons derived from the very aliens you are fighting off.

This all sounds straightforward, but very soon while playing you will realise that the entire game is one of compromises. You will rarely have enough resources to do everything you want. Do you research armour or weapons? Do you invest in satellites to improve earlier detection of alien ships, or better weapons on the interceptors that would shoot them down? Do you go for an easy kill on the battlefield with a grenade or rocket launcher, and risk destroying valuable resources? Or do you put your men at risk and try to capture an alien alive? Do you investigate an alien abduction in India or Canada, knowing that whichever you choose will increase the panic level in the country you ignore? Do you name your squad members after eighties TV characters? Or your work colleagues?

And everything you do takes time. Upgrade the weapons on your ships? Wait three days. Order some more new recruits? Lets hope another invasion doesn’t take place this weekend.

On top of all of this, you are subject to a monthly review by the council of nations that are funding your operation. If you neglect any one country too much, and their “panic level” rises too high, they will quit the programme, depriving you of vital funding. And if 6 of the 16 countries quit? Game over, man, game over, we’re all gonna die.

This may sound incredibly negative, but what you have here is a finely balanced game, that thanks to it being turn-based, always gives you time to stop and think, and is supremely addictive. Just… one… more… mission.

Every time a mission ends, you want to do nothing more than invest in some tech to improve your chances in the next one. You’ll be changing your strategies as you encounter new types of foe, or develop new technologies, and the feeling having a single solder survive a mission with hardly any life, against all odds after defeating an ship full of aliens, is second to none.

Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention, when a squad member dies, unless you reload a saved game, that’s it. They are gone. The pain of losing a soldier who has been with you for thirty missions is almost physical. Before long your memorial wall will have more names on it that One Direction’s twitter followers list.

And my final word of advice? Don’t name a squad member after a family member, it will only end in tears.

Reviewed on PS3

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