XCOM: Enemy Unknown places you as the Commander in control of a secret paramilitary organization called XCOM (short for eXtraterrestrial COMbat). Your task is to defend against a terrifying global alien invasion by managing resources, advancing technologies, and overseeing combat strategies and individual unit tactics.
With development having started four years ago with a team of over 50 staff (all of whom have played the original game), this latest game from Firaxis is no rushed title, and it shows. From the moment you start up the game you are thrown into a chaotic situation with a cut-scene showing the landing of a mysterious object which then captures civilians.
But let's start with the actual missions, of which there are well over 50 in the game. Moving your soldiers (and you can have up to six in the squad - although in our experience more doesn't always mean better) around the isometrically viewed battlefield is pretty easy, but also requires a level of strategy. Soldiers have two movement turns, which means they can move twice, or do a longer dash using up both turns, or move and then fire on enemies (or perform a similar action). The game isn't just played on a single level either with most missions allowing you to move to higher terrain (such as rooftops, or raised ground) and that certainly gives an advantage to classes such as the Sniper. As you move around it's critical to finish behind cover (which is pretty much any object) however this cover can be destroyed by enemy fire, and if flammable such as cars will explode, potentially injuring your soldiers.
As you complete each mission, hopefully successfully, soldiers that survive will move up in ranks and will gain extra abilities (you can choose which abilities to learn). Not only does this make that soldier much more powerful and useful in battles, but also much more precious. If they die then that's it. They won't be back and you'll need to bring a grunt into the team and start building up their abilities from scratch. It's a good idea to rotate through soldiers to give experience to a range - if any soldier gets injured they could be out of action for some time and unavailable for missions.
Another neat feature of this game is the ability to customise all the soldiers that come into your squad including their names, appearance and then equipment. This equipment includes a primary weapon (assault rifle, shotgun, plasma rifles), secondary weapon (sidearm), armor type and item (such as grenade, health pack or Arc Thrower which is used to capture aliens alive for experimentation).
We do have a couple of issues with the game - but given the scope of the entire project they can be forgiven for the most part. First of all, in a couple of missions the game locked up forcing a reboot and reload of the game - fortunately if Autosave is turned on it seems to do that every few minutes (in fact, that's another annoyance, too many auto saves!). Secondly, and more game breaking, is the fact that enemy aliens don't seem to do much until you get into their "area" and trigger their action - that's despite combat taking place often only meters away from them.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn't just a single player game with the developers throwing in a multiplayer mode which allows 2-players to pick teams, be they human or alien, with a set amount of credits and then battle it out. Given the game is turn-based there's obvioulsy no issues with lag.
So that's the bad, on so many other levels though this game is a visual treat with a wide range in locations, destructible environments, aliens, soldiers, cut-scenes, weapons fire and explosions filling the screen. When on the battlefield the screen can be rotated with a press of the D-Pad, while holding L2 allows you to zoom out to get a wider view of the action. Animation is decent enough for a game like this, as is the lip-synching during mission briefs and the like. We also love that, on occasion, when moving the soldier around the battlefield the camera switches to an "over the shoulder" viewpoint - you're never sure if it's for effect, or if an enemy is about to attack you from an Overwatch state. Likewise for any pivotal moment, such as the killing of an alien, or one of you men, the game switches briefly to an action cam shot.
The music from composers Roland Rizzo (who was a member of the development team on the original game) and Michael McCann, is superb and suits the tone of the game perfectly with both militaristic themes, but a dramatic, foreboding undertone at times too. The composers have even used cues created for the original game by John Broomhall, but given then the modern touch.
In the lead up to release I had high hopes for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but the finished product far exceeds every desire I had for the game. While it looks and sounds fantastic, it's the depth of the management and strategy in the game that is the big winner. If you're a fan of strategy and/or management styled games then this is a no brainer. An essential purchase of a game that is certainly in the running for Game of the Year. Stunning.
Review By: Dave Warner