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Decisions with Lasting Consequences

 

 

I've just visited the Memorial in the Barracks of the XCOM headquarters. I pause as the music plays to honor the soldiers that have passed in the war for Humanity's survival, and reminisce on my memories with them, however long or short. One of them is a Russian Corporal who specialized in Assault tactics, a daring woman by the name of Natalia. She'd accompanied me on dozens of missions before taking a fatal barrage from an alien Cyberdisk, an intimidating creation of the alien forces that completely changed our romanticized view of the alien saucers we'd conjured in our classic UFO fairytales.

Carlos, on the other hand, was a hothead rookie who died too soon; an ambush with several Thin Men claimed his life. Olga, a high ranking support, died saving a hostage from a Cryssalid, terrifying aliens that put the xenomorphs of the Alien franchise to shame. Their deaths are both the result of my decisions, and as the aliens unveil their latest forces, now capable of mind control, the list of casualties I mourn grows larger. I could always hire more and toss them blindly into the fray, but this war demands precision, foresight, patience, and yet, immediacy.

The aliens are winning, countries are losing faith in the XCOM project they've invested their time and money in, and cities are falling. But we've got our will, and that's where the aliens have made their greatest mistake. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game filled with tough choices, punishing difficulty, and surprisingly approachable gameplay, filled with tense and suspenseful missions that push the player's resourcefulness to its limits. A cleverly designed narrative that capitalizes on our greatest fears about extra terrestrial life in addition to its surprising depth and possibility in terms of gameplay value proves that strategy games can adapt their formula to remain relevant as gaming continues to evolve. In addition to its unpredictable and stellar presentation, XCOM stands out as a near perfect reboot of the franchise gamers fell in love with.

Enemy Unknown places you in control from the beginning, as the Commander of the titular XCOM project, a multinational organization created to address the sudden threat created by invading alien forces. You'll establish the country where your headquarters will be located - more will unlock with repeated playthroughs; manage as well as hire new soldiers; authorize various research and engineering projects; choose locations to investigate while commanding your squadron; even handle international affairs with your XCOM allies by monitoring their stability - shown through individual panic levels.

However, with this wealth of choices at your disposal will come the responsibility associated with them. You'll need to carefully manage the monthly income you receive by allocating the funds wisely to the right projects. Missions will become available in several nations simultaneously, forcing you to choose from one of them while neglecting the others and raising the panic levels in those places. Increasing your network coverage in addition to researching alien specimens and equipment are a must to stay on top during a rapidly evolving battlefront, but nothing feels quite as critical as making sure your squad completes their missions competently.

XCOM has a markedly cartoonish aesthetic that feels nostalgic in comparison to other titles, but this only masks the complexity and risk involved on the battlefield. The maps- while randomly generated - do lack an aesthetic that feels authentic to the different countries you'll be visiting and will feel somewhat generic over time, but the action and mystery contained within them never loses your interest. Certain areas of the map will be obscured until your characters move within range, although there are a few times when your squad will be abruptly ambushed by enemy forces. When the actual battles do begin, you'll need to protect your squad by carefully positioning them in each map. Different positions will either grant limited cover, full cover, get your squadmember out of the enemy's line of sight, or leave them exposed - which can increase the chances of that soldier taking critical damage if they're hit by the enemy. Climbable objects and buildings will grant some of your squad tactical advantages in the form of offensive and defensive bonuses as well as inject needed variety into each encounter, and destructible areas in each environment, from trees in a forest to buildings, vehicles, and other stationary objects add to the tension. The eerie science fiction score sets the tone for each mission perfectly.

Several basic classes are available in the game, but each of your soldiers - who start out as rookies initially - will have predetermined classes once they gain enough experience, allowing them to gain a rank. Class-specific abilities unlock with each promotion, from the mandatory "Stabilize", which allows your support to prevent critically-wounded soldiers from bleeding out, to the "Disabling Shot" skill, which allows your sniper to deal a low-damage blow to enemies that drastically reduces the effectiveness of their weaponry for a turn. "Lightning Reflexes" allows your Assault class soldier to immediately dodge the first reaction shot that an enemy fires at them, which will prove invaluable when you find yourself in tight spots. Each class has also its own unique perks, and by the time you've fully promoted your soldier to Colonel, they'll either be wreaking havoc on the battlefield or providing your squad with the necessary defensive support. Special perks can be purchased once you build the Officer Training school that also grant you the necessary bonuses to maximize your squad's potential.

You can also customize their appearance, name them, as well as change their loadout and equip them with one additional item. This will naturally become important later on once you've reaped the harvest of all those upgrades you've been researching and finally manufactured them, from better armor to raise the defense and hit points of your soldiers, to attachments that raise your character's accuracy, even the ridiculously powerful plasma weapons. Don't however, take the wealth of resources your soldiers have for granted; the enemy ranks are just as varied. From the scout-like Sectoids to humanoid Thin Men, capable of poisoning your squadmembers with a cloud of venomous gas, your combat skills will be tested in multiple ways.

Mutons and their evolved counterparts will employ their powerful attacks and tank-like bodies to soak up damage while keeping you on the edge; Floaters can rocket up to higher positions on the field, making them harder to hit; then, there are the terrifying Sectopods, that oddly resemble miniature Reaper Destroyers and pack just as much of a punch, often capable of wiping out multiple squadmembers in a single hit. I didn't even count the Sectoid Commanders and the Ethereals, who can use their psionic abilities to take control of your characters as well as deal them damage. Knowing who you're sending into the battlefield becomes even more important as you become acquainted with the enemies they'll be facing.

The inclusion of permadeath in the game raises the stakes; make foolish moves and the expertly-crafted AI will waste no time taking advantage of them. Go into tough battles with characters with low willpower and you might find them panicking and wasting a turn, even injuring and inadvertently killing squadmembers. As a result, Enemy Unknown rather overtly discourages players from becoming too comfortable with their soldiers and encourages the player to experiment with others. Nonetheless, when you do lose a character you've invested a lot of time in, it will hurt. You might even find yourself trying to reset your console in frustration, but I'd advise against it, so that your gaming experience will have lasting emotional depth.

There are several main types of missions that players will engage in: the basic scouting mission where players investigate alien activity; abduction missions; missions where players investigate alien landing sites; terror missions where players attempt to rescue as many hostages as possible; then, there are extraction missions where you rescue key political figures and even missions that have players defusing alien bombs. Occasionally, your satellites might detect a UFO, requiring you to send out a ship of your own to intercept it and clear any alien presence at the crash site. You'll reap resources from your missions that can be researched and used to build stronger weapons and armor, improve your aircraft, as well as build better facilities; building similar ones adjacent to each other grants you extra bonuses. Capturing enemies - which will become integral later on - and interrogating them will also provide the necessary insight players need. While its depth isn't quite to the level of the original XCOM - the wickedly awesome psionic abilities are inexplicably limited, for instance - it's nonetheless addicting.

The main campaign is fairly lengthy and each arc of it is objective based, with plot points not progressing until certain criteria are met first, from capturing enemies to investigating alien ships. Players therefore won't feel rushed by the game and will have ample time to adjust as they learn to master the ropes. However, mastery of this game will not come easily. To say Enemy Unknown has a sharp learning curve is an understatement. Each month, you will also be evaluated by your superiors and graded on your overall success. If you haven't been supporting other nations in the project enough don't be surprised when they withdraw support from you. In the short term it might not seem like much, but in the long run these sacrifices will take a toll on you when you realize you're not getting enough funding to buy the supplies you need.

Keeping the panic level of each nation stable as well as monitoring alien activity is heavily reliant on the satellites you have uplinked, and those in turn are limited to a certain number per uplink, requiring you to build more if you want to deploy additional satellites. Expect to lose a country or so your first time through, but be careful, if you lose too much support you will fail. Choosing which nations to support can also be tricky: do I help Argentina for that $300 reward, or do I assist Japan to gain those engineers I need to build more facilities at the headquarters? Do I share x amount of resources for that hefty bit of money, or do I sell them on the Grey Market instead? Players will painfully learn the importance of long term thinking, as every aspect of the game feels like a tense chess battle.

If there are any truly wasted opportunities, it comes in Enemy Unknown's vanilla multiplayer that pales in comparison to the single player campaign's depth. Graphical glitches will occur on occasion, in addition to problems dealing with the game's field of vision for your characters: enemies that your characters detect for instance, might actually be too far out of range for you to see them, or just plain invisible all together for some inexplicable reason. Textures might have problems loading as well. I've had moments where aliens randomly spawned directly beside my squadmembers, prompting an almost immediate retreat. These and other minor gripes prove to be annoying, but not enough of a problem to outweigh Enemy Unknown's positives.

After playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown for dozens of hours, I finally beat the final mission and was treated to an ending that literally reminded me of the game's most prominent theme: sacrifice. Mankind had advanced further than possibly expected and nearly sacrificed its soul in this war, and when the tumultuous final events came to a close, I was undeniably excited for the future that XCOM hinted at. The sacrifices of my comrades weren't in vain, and I was treated to one of the best strategy game experiences in a long time. Firaxis had an incredible task ahead of them, and with this game, they succeeded in reviving a beloved genre while keeping it accessible to a new generation.

9.5 out of 10

 

Comments
  • A phenomenal write-up to an equally phenomenal game Levon!

  • Fantastic review!