It’s not secret that – as far as the core gaming demographic is concerned – 2K Games bungled the announcement of XCOM’s rebirth. Having taken an extended vacation that lasted over a decade (discounting the Game Boy Advance’s Rebelstar: Tactical Command, as many do) the return to consoles of one of the most overlooked genres in recent years would surely have been met with great enthusiasm. Instead however, 2K Games decided to reveal their new first-person shooter (FPS) project, simply known as XCOM, ahead of their full blow re-imagining of the cult classic UFO: Enemy Unknown. It was an odd decision, but thankfully not one which has had too much of an impact on the development of the franchise it would seem, as XCOM: Enemy Unknown is every bit the strategy experience that long-time fans have been hoping for.
As a ‘reimagining’ of the original title XCOM: Enemy Unknown plays much the same as the 1994 classic. The gameplay takes place across two fronts which alternate in execution; a tactical action sequence and the management strategy element. The action gameplay is turn based, with the player in control of a small unit of XCOM soldiers on a top-down map. Each soldier has a set number of action point which can be divided between actions such as movement, shooting and interacting with the environment; for example a soldier may move into close cover an then fire upon an enemy, or they may dash to more distant cover forgoing their option to follow-up with a second command. The formula may sound basic, and that’s because it is. However, there’s a great deal of dressing on top of this that gives XCOM: Enemy Unknown its addictive qualities.
Each soldier in your unit is unique. Not just by appearance or class – though of course these elements are part of their make-up – but in the fact that successful missions are rewarded with a promotion and unsuccessful attempts are rewarded with death. Loose a soldier in battle and he or she is gone for good. This inevitably means that no two soldiers will ever be the same: no matter how good you may become at XCOM: Enemy Unknown it’s unlikely you’ll be able to make it through the entire experience without ever losing a single soldier, and so purely by point of retention one or more of your soldiers will excel beyond a newcomer of the same class.
Each class can utilise different weaponry and learn different abilities, and therefore it’s wise to develop a combination of different class types in your squad to ensure you manage to cover weaknesses on the battlefield. Using the Overwatch function (which allows soldiers to fire during the opponents turn should an enemy in their line of sight move) is an invaluable resource, especially when stretched across the map, but also researching and manufacturing new equipment can make one hell of a difference.
Once a skirmish has been completed the player will return to their base of operations, equipped with a full staff in several departments. You have a direct advisor that informs you of immediate issues or changes in your situation, but by-and-large it’s up to you to determine the best path to travel along. Developing new rooms for your base infers bonuses to all activities, be it researching new equipment or earning additional finance, and the constant desire to develop yet greater resources is what keeps XCOM: Enemy Unknown moving. Every new element of progression leads into something else; researching new equipment will allow manufacturing to produce the item for your soldiers to wear on the battlefield, but this costs time and money which is earned by winning skirmishes against alien forces and bringing back salvage, be it alien weaponry or corpses. It’s a circle of effect that means you are always keenly aware of what is needed to make your forces stronger, more efficient or generally better, and the desire to achieve it the strong personal pressure that XCOM: Enemy Unknown breathes.
The campaign gameplay mode is nothing if not lengthy, and rightfully so as it provides such a compelling experience that most gamers will continue playing right through until the end. There’s no denying that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easier than the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, despite the enemies seemingly having a finer line of sight than you do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy; there’s a real weight involved in the loss of one of your experienced soldiers.
In addition to the single-player campaign XCOM: Enemy Unknown includes a two-player multiplayer mode, in which you create a small squad from a limited allocation of points and engage in a one-off skirmish. It’s a pleasant addition to the formula that does expand the life of the videogame, but only marginally. The single-player experience is far more compelling despite the team’s best efforts, and as such the multiplayer gameplay will be relegated to an afterthought by most players.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hardly a stunning videogame from a technical standpoint, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s most certainly of a quality that demands current-generation hardware, but placing it next to even seven-year-old launch titles won’t make XCOM: Enemy Unknown look out of place. The character models and environments are comfortable but never exceptional, but in contrast the voice acting is fantastic. The in-game narration and interaction with your base is of a top notch standard, where nearly every character is believable in their passion for your goals.
As a brand new entry in an oft forgotten genre, XCOM: Enemy Unknown stands alone in the current-generation market offering an strategy-action experience unlike anything else currently available on consoles. However, even if it were to have competition it’s likely that 2K Games would be praised for their latest output, as XCOM: Enemy Unknown pushes the envelope of what is to be expected from such experiences. Every aspect of the videogame, from control scheme to progression system, is designed with a fervent attention to detail, and it shows. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a pioneer for a genre that deserves a comeback, and Electronic Theatre couldn’t recommend strategy gamers a superior console experience in 2012.