In this day and age where games cost more than ever to make and titles like Call of Duty and copycats take the market by storm, you won’t often see publishers taking chances with new games or reviving old franchises in a modern market. Reboots of classic games like Syndicate pop up occasionally to remind us of the changing landscape when we see a classic strategy game turned into another corridor shooter to turn a profit. While gaming today is arguably much more diverse than ever before, many of the most unique titles tend to be made by indie developers with big budget publishers sticking to “safe” formulas. To see a big publisher like 2K Games take a chance on remaking a classic turn based strategy series like XCOM is rare in this day and age, and it’s even rarer that such a gamble could turn out to offer such an incredibly refreshing and fun experience.


A reboot of sorts for the classic XCOM series (and UFO: Enemy Unknown to some extent), XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set in the near future during an alien invasion event. Players are tasked with managing their XCOM units in turn based combat against the alien invaders, as well as managing resources at their home base. The game keeps things simple, so cutscenes and story background tend to be sparse in favor of gameplay. While this does a great job of keeping the player hooked on the gameplay, it means the story ends up being rather lackluster and by the numbers. All you need to know is that there are aliens, and you are in charge of taking care of business. Luckily, the variety in alien design and constant set of goals throughout the campaign will definitely keep players pushing through just to see what comes next.

The two main layers to XCOM (base management and combat) both exist to complement each other and do a very good job of keeping you invested. Players will want to spend time tooling around in their base to figure out how to best use their resources and find ways to improve their combat performance, while in combat you’ll come across interesting loot that will keep you thinking on how best to use them back in the base. It’s a cycle that makes it very hard to put XCOM down, especially since the game does such a great job of constantly evolving and giving you a feeling of progression.


With the scarcity of resources and wide range of abilities at your disposal, players will have a lot of decisions on their hands, and to the game’s credit most of these are explained well. I say most because while the game makes combat a case of being easy to get into and hard to master, the base management isn’t explained as well as it should be. New players might end up going far longer than they have to without necessary gear to fight an increased threat, while certain highly important abilities and resources (like satellites) aren’t given the attention they deserve. The developers end up leaving the players to fend for themselves, and while it’s nice to see a game allow the player to find things out on themselves, it can be daunting for newcomers.

To keep things interesting, XCOM: Enemy Unkown also has randomization down to allow for different experiences in multiple playthroughs. From random attacks and UFO sightings in varying locations and difficulties, to the percentage based combat system, the game tries to keep you on your toes. It can sometimes be a hindrance when you end up waiting several in game weeks for an event to happen to no avail or miss a 95% shot at point blank range, but this kind of randomization does add a lot of tension to the events of the game.


The difficulty and unrelenting nature of the alien menace certainly is something to keep players on their toes on its own. The game offers several difficulty levels (including an Iron Man variant to all normal difficulty levels), and on normal without Iron Man I still ended up straining my brain and surviving by the skin of my teeth one too many times. The randomized elements and occasionally cheap AI caused me to reload my save more times than I’d like to admit, but I did make quite a few big mistakes. Much like with Dark Souls, XCOM punishes mistakes very heavily, and on Iron Man players won’t have the luxury of reloading a save to bring back a squad member since Iron Man only allows players to have one save per playthrough and automatically saves the game for you.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is highly polished and extremely fun, but it does have some wrinkles. The multiplayer for starters, isn’t particularly engaging and is just a basic 1v1 battle of wits with one side taking control of the aliens (which unfortunately cannot be taken control of in any single player instance). The randomization means that map design is limited, so regardless of where the mission takes place (whether it’s Nigeria or Chicago), you’ll still run across the same few bridges, train stations and cityscapes over and over again, with only changing spawn points, goals and aliens to shake things up.


The hit chances also feel very off, especially in Iron Man where a 95% chance to hit may as well feel like 50/50 in some situations. It can feel very unfair to lose an entire squad because of factors that were completely out of your control despite heavy planning and preparation. Enemies also have a habit of turning invisible despite being in full view of your teammates, or occasionally dropping some IQ to run into an open space right in front of several heavily armed XCOM troopers (though in the game’s defense I only noticed these rare instances because the AI is so deadly smart otherwise).


XCOM is proof that you don’t need to play it safe to make an amazing title that anyone can appreciate. As someone who only occasionally enjoys strategy games, I can safely say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of my favorite titles from 2012, and for anyone suffering fatigue from modern games that hold your hand and string you along, I can gladly recommend XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a game that will force you to think and change the way you play games.