Game Review: XCOM – Enemy Unknown

‘Roger dodger’, says Captain Hillier, as I order him to move up twenty feet closer to the UFO crash site. He’d proven to be a worthy soldier since I kitted him out with a new set of armour and a plasma rifle six missions back, and had prevailed where other rookies in the squad had failed (and met their end).

XCOM Enemy Unknown review

It certainly seemed like a wise move at the time, but as the camera pans along with his move, it reveals a pack of vile aliens with jet packs on his right flank. He’s completely exposed, and I’m given a few helpless seconds to see the error of my ways. No way of going back now – and now it’s the computer-controlled enemy’s turn. One of them effortlessly fires off a few shots, and they hit home. Captain Hillier falls over, lifeless.

For all the varying emotions different games have made me feel, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the first to really make me experience the weight of loss. Make no mistake; XCOM does not mess around, and it harkens back to the Un-remorseful PC gaming days of yore more than any game of recent memory, perhaps with the exception of 2011’s Dark Souls.

It’s similar in form, too, keeping the old series’ isometric top-down view, turn-based combat (which has been pulled off so wonderfully it doesn’t feel dated at all) and cheesy sci-fi fiction. It’s essentially a slowed down, micro-managed strategy game, only instead of sending endless peons at an enemy base, it’s imperative you pay close attention indeed to the strategic whereabouts and strengths/weaknesses of each of your squadmates. Once a soldier dies, they’re not coming back, and if you fail a mission, you failed that mission. Carry on, cut your losses, and deal with it.

XCOM Enemy Unknown review

On the surface, this can sound pretty unappealing. Yet there’s something in the way that XCOM makes you manage your mission base down to the tiniest detail, including the budgeting of your world-saving program, as well as the specific actions of each of your marines on the field, that makes the whole venture seem that much more real. It’s not inevitable that you’ll win, you’ll have to work for it, and when you succeed, it’s a real victory.

This isn’t abundantly clear immediately, and it took me an hour or two to really ‘get’ how XCOM could succeed so well in such an antique genre, and especially on a console. However, once you’re grabbed, it’s an incredibly addictive experience, and one that feels very personal to the player. The soldiers that fought off the alien invasion and saved the planet were my soldiers, customised down to the very name, and it we pulled through from learning from jarringly bad mistakes, and thoughtful management of resources and money.

Out of a clear blue sky, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the most triumphant game of the year so far.

Platform: PC (digital download), PS3, Xbox360
Developer: Firaxis Games, and XCOM by 2K Marin.
Pegi Rating: Aged 18 and Over

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Henry McMunn

Henry McMunn is a games journalist who currently spends a great deal of his time listening to 50s swing, smoking cigars and watching Chris Morris satire. You can follow him on Twitter @failboatskipper

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