XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Review

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A worthy successor to the classic X-COM.

The name X-COM has a special resonance for gamers of a certain age. The original, a tense, terrifying and beautifully poised game of tactical alien hunting, is revered as an all-time classic and it is not to be messed with. So when a modern remake was announced decades later, by new developers, true believers – most of whom are part of the global games journalism fraternity – began to worry.

There’s so much, after all, that could go wrong. X-COM’s original sequels were increasingly rubbish, and no-one wanted another substandard effort to tarnish the legacy.

Happily, they’ve not messed it up. In fact, they’ve produced a tense, terrifying and beautifully poised game of tactical alien hunting; it’s just quite different.

The feel is the same – they’ve nailed the gloomy atmosphere, the sense of impending doom, and that moment of incandescent rage every time some poxy alien grunt nobbles one of your guys with a freak shot from across the map. Most of the old elements are in place, too. There’s still a ‘geoscape’, a rotating map of the globe from which missions are plotted and alien bases raided, battles are still turn-based and your troops still have daft names. However, while the fundamentals may be the same, the execution is markedly different.

All the old processes have been extensively streamlined, which on the one hand wisely excises many of the annoyances of an ancient game. The original X-COM is wonderful, but it was a long, difficult slog with a terrible interface, and the new one benefits from all the advances in technology and design 18 years can give it.

A lot of the changes make sense. You start with a squad of four, which you can increase to six. Originally, squads could balloon to as many as 26 – but the developers wisely realised that no-one ever really used this many; too many troops were a faff, and most would never get to leave the dropship. Similarly, in the new game, your basic actions are limited to moving, taking cover, and shooting – at first, this sounds ferociously limiting, until you realise that that’s all you ever actually did in the old game.

Other improvements abound: time units as a means of limiting a trooper’s actions are gone in favour of taking two actions of any kind per turn. They are not missed. Soldiers level up meaningfully now. Instead of random stat boosts on kills, your guys gain promotions, each of which comes with perks. These perks change the game – there are four different classes now (heavy weapons, assault, support and sniper) and each has a defined battlefield role, a notion that again seems heretical until you try it, at which point it feels fabulously natural.

The aliens are the same, but there are more of them, and they are less cartoonish. There’s more variety in missions, and much more variety in settings. The presentation is worlds away, and the narrative more attentively guided by subtle, well produced cutscenes. XCOM feels much more like a properly run paramilitary organisation now you get to speak to mission control, and your head scientist and engineer.

At the same time, a lot of gold has been turned into base metal. You only get one HQ – the joy of founding and designing bases across the world to better defend it is lost, while, if anything, they’ve made what were already basic aerial UFO combat missions even more perfunctory.

The process of building a global network of satellites is less satisfying than setting up new bases in the hope they’ll help, while the fact that your dropship can cross the globe in about half an hour sort of ruins the notion that you are geographically limited in your reach, and removes a small but significant dimension to the original.

Missions feel more scripted too. Instead of having to cross large maps hunting down alien patrols, you sometimes seem funnelled down quite narrow paths. When you do encounter aliens, they always appear in groups. A little cutscene plays and they all scamper into cover – it ruins the illusion a bit, and the feeling that you’ve outwitted them and caught them on the hop.

In fact, that’s probably the biggest single annoyance I can find, and I should point out that I am really enjoying the way the missions play – they’re generally much shorter than the original’s, which could descend into fruitless hour-long bouts of hunt-the-sectoid.

There are other niggles, too. The inventory is gone and so is ammo; no longer do you have to juggle belt-space to fit in a medkit, two grenades and enough ammo to make it through a big assault. Instead, everyone gets a gun with unlimited clips – though you do have to reload – and one or two tactical items they’re stuck with. This decision isn’t necessary; it’s streamlining for the sake of it. Yes, the interface and the gameplay needed to be modernised, but no-one would have minded if they’d maximised the tactical options.

Ultimately, Firaxis have done a damn fine job, and they can be proud of what they achieved. This XCOM is a worthy successor to the old X-COM, and I look forward to continuing on the fight, which I couldn’t always say in my grapples with its forebear. But in opting to sand down every single rough edge, they’ve taken it a step or two too far.

By Tom Mendelsohn

Score: 4/5

Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Price: £39.99-£49.99
Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2K Games

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