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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Surviving XCOM: Enemy Unknown's First Three Hours
by Adam Biessener on Sep 28, 2012 at 10:29 AM
Platform PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita, PC, iOS, Android
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Firaxis Games
Rating Mature

The aliens go wherever they want, whenever they want. They kill and abduct innocent humans with impunity, engulfing the nations of the world in tidal waves of panic. In the middle of this whirlwind of death and terror, a small squad of human soldiers has caught up to an extraterrestrial landing party before they could complete their grim work. Merely catching the aliens in the act is an unprecedented victory. Emerging victorious from this unfair fight seems like a miraculous outcome, given the aliens’ advantages of advanced weapons and psychic capabilities. Killing one alien is a remarkable achievement, but XCOM’s commander must somehow build on that tiny victory until the monsters from beyond the stars tremble at our approach instead of the other way around.

[This article originally appeared in Game Informer #234]

Put in charge of the small organization at the heart of humanity’s defiance of an overwhelming alien invasion, I gave those aliens what-for until 2K pulled the plug on my hands-on session. Australia may be more or less on fire, and the memorial in XCOM’s barracks may be well-lit by remembrance candles, but that’s a small price to pay for having laser shotguns rolling off of my assembly lines. 

Skipping the tutorial

Those who would rather poke around on their own than have the game hold their hand can skip the tutorial entirely. Instead of the pre-set missions and dilemmas -described above, you face randomized situations from the start. I played through a second time without the tutorial and was pleased to find that the game takes off running immediately, presenting maps and enemy force compositions I hadn’t seen in my first game.

The tutorial quickly accommodates players with everything XCOM’s first hour has to offer. A nearly combat-free mission ends with three rookies dead (and the last one promoted to squaddie) while showing off the slick interface for commanding the turn-based tactical battles. Back at XCOM’s secret headquarters (I choose a European base, which makes labs and workshops half as expensive to build and maintain), a quick tour familiarizes new commanders with the critical areas: the research lab, engineering bay, situation room, council room, hangar, and barracks. The outstanding presentation zooms and swoops the camera around the “ant farm” base, turning fundamentally menu-driven strategic tasks like setting research priorities for your scientists and submitting fabrication orders to the engineering corps into pleasant (but thankfully quick and skippable) interactive vignettes with full voice acting. 

Here, I’m given my first priority objective. Dr. Vahlen, the head scientist, wants to autopsy one of the sectoid corpses the ground team brought back. The choice is left to the player whether to pursue that or a different line of research, but I see no harm in going for it. The research will consume one of my sectoid corpses and take a few days, so I head back to mission control to scan for alien activity (effectively fast-forwarding time until something interesting happens). Soon enough, another extraterrestrial contact demands XCOM’s attention.

Two concurrent abduction missions force a choice between helping the U.S. or China. The effects of going one way or another are minimal for tutorial purposes, but later choices shape the course of the conflict with the alien invaders. For now, another tutorial-limited mission highlights the power of recently promoted Ben Reeves’ rocket launcher (naturally, all my soldiers are named for Game Informer editors – see sidebar on page 69) as XCOM’s brave soldiers slowly creep through a midnight-blackened dock. The skyranger VTOL transport soon returns our wounded squad to base, where another round of upgrade decisions require the commander’s attention before one of our national allies tips us off to an escaped alien abductee who needs rescuing.

This two-phase mission starts out like the others, with a small group of aliens waiting in the darkness for XCOM soldiers to discover them. The thin men we fight display a dangerous poison spit ability as soon as a squaddie moves into range, wounding her badly enough to force a retreat. Once the squad fights its way to the hostage at the other end of the map, I take control of the escapee. The XCOM squad escorts her back to the skyranger, one piece of cover at a time to avoid messy deaths at the hands of the incoming aliens wielding energy weapons.

Upon returning to headquarters, XCOM’s satellite coverage network picks up an airborne UFO ripe for interception. Sending an interceptor to engage the UFO in the sky above Germany is an easy choice, as I have two birds ready for launch, though later on XCOM’s interception capabilities will be strained along with every other facet of the organization. Our jet fighter knocks the bogey down to relieved cheers at XCOM command, and the crash-landed UFO offers another mission for our ground troops. Strapping back into the skyranger, my soldiers once again fly off into the unknown.

Thankfully, only a fraction of the UFO’s crew survived the crash. The dispatched soldiers gingerly pick their way past burning trees and flickering energy fields only to have a new alien type – the energy-based outsider – nearly one-shot Corporal Reeves with a previously unknown plasma weapon.

Back at base, the preset -missions of the -tutorial are behind us. From here on in, the gloves are off. 

Setting your priorities

The priority objective system is the main narrative thread that weaves its way through XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Though you can’t win the game without completing the entire chain, how you go about it is up to you. Few technologies are linked to any given objective; nearly the entire tree is available with sufficient time, weapon fragments, and alien corpses. Crucially, the alien invasion does not take your progress through the priority objective chain into account. The types of aliens that land, the frequency with which the aliens attack, and everything else happens on its own schedule and has nothing to do with your actions. It’s up to you to keep up with the invasion’s ever-increasing pace; the bad guys don’t pull their punches.

With the sectoid autopsy complete (which comes with a squishy little narrated cutscene), I’m presented with another priority objective. Dr. Vahlen thinks she can make an electric stun gun capable of immobilizing aliens if she were supplied with sufficient time and weapon fragments. The engineers can build a containment facility to house any captives for an expenditure of cash. Unfortunately for her master plan, I decide that we need advanced scopes to help our inexperienced squaddies actually hit the aliens they’re shooting at.

Now that I have full control of the XCOM organization, it’s time to spend the credits burning a hole in my bank account. Reeves has reached the rank of sergeant, which unlocks the ability to spend a big chunk of money for a fifth slot during squad deployment. I set the engineers to start excavating additional caverns below ground, to be filled later with labs, workshops, and satellite uplinks to expand my research, fabrication, and interception capabilities. The few remaining credits go to purchasing a few medical kits for in-mission hit point restoration. The passage of time is paused while I make these decisions, and once all the money is gone I return to scanning for activity.

An uneventful (meaning every soldier gets wounded but nobody dies) mission passes while the research continues, getting my squaddies some more experience and enough cash to fabricate a couple of scopes to replace the frag grenades in two of my soldiers’ accessory slots. The grenades – the basic accessory that XCOM has an unlimited supply of – are powerful, but Dr. Vahlen complained during the last outing about excessive use of explosives, which prevent the collection of the corpses and weapon fragments she needs to fuel her research. I keep one grenade equipped, though, because sometimes the choice is between getting squaddies killed and wrecking the salvage. In those cases, the doctor will just have to wait.

The handy scopes finished, I let Dr. Vahlen proceed with her stun gun research. This lets me capture aliens, but the guns need to be manufactured at non-trivial expense, equipped in a squaddie’s accessory slot, and most importantly applied to a lethally dangerous live alien at close range. Sectoids are the weakest alien in the galaxy, but capturing even one of those grunt troops is tricky.

Commanding the alien menace

2K recently revealed XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s multiplayer offerings, and I’ve experienced both sides of the swift beatdowns that players can inflict on each other in the game’s only mode: one-on-one deathmatches between fully customized squads of XCOM soldiers, aliens, or both. Multiplayer works just like a regular mission, with teams alternating turns and highly lethal attacks quickly cutting down any exposed unit.

Before the match starts, each player builds their squad from any mix of units that they can fit into the point budget set for the round. A high budget makes for a long game with multiple elite units on each side, while a lower value constrains players to a few moderate-to-weak units.

The fog of war is as integral to multiplayer as it is to single-player. You have no idea how your opponent has configured her squad, and flanking and lines of sight are more important when facing a human mind. Scouting and making sure your squad is covering each other are paramount, even more so than when playing against the AI in the campaign.

Multiplayer is noteworthy solely for being able to control the aliens for once. With no real -persistence or -structure beyond standalone deathmatches, and the propensity for a single wrong move or bad roll of the dice to determine the outcome, XCOM’s multiplayer looks like a neat diversion, not a destination mode.


A month of game time has passed, and the international Funding Council summons me to an ominous teleconference where they grade XCOM’s performance. I haven’t lost a mission yet, and the Council “couldn’t be more pleased” with the results. That said, Australia has reached panic level three (at five the country pulls out of the XCOM project, permanently taking its funding, engineers, and scientists with it). XCOM is broke, and our best soldiers are laid up in sickbay with nasty wounds. The influx of cash the Council sends our way is immediately dumped into building out the efficiency-boosting workshops I had previously excavated space for – all the best equipment needs extraterrestrial alloys to create, and the workshops will stretch our dwindling supplies further.

The timed bomb defusal scenario in the next -randomly generated mission presents a new look.
I only have three rounds to get across an alien-infested Russian train platform and power down the bomb, but switching off alien power cells scattered across the map buys extra turns. Prioritizing those side objectives gives me plenty of time to get to the bomb, but spreading out to do so gets second-string squadmember Reiner killed. My second-best soldier gets herself killed in an ill-fated attempt to capture the last sectoid on the map, but another squaddie takes it alive and we are victorious once again.

Capturing aliens is relatively easy for now, with the stun gun’s success rate based on hit points. Sectoids only have three HP to start with, which gives a 70 percent chance. Any more health drastically reduces the odds. As painful as losing Sgt. Wallace was, her sacrifice didn’t just complete a -priority objective – interrogating the sectoid gives our scientists new insights that permanently double the speed of all beam weapon research. Each alien species holds the secrets of a branch of the tech tree, so capturing one of each should be a top -priority for any XCOM commander.

* * *

R.I.P. Game Informer Editors

Though XCOM soldiers don’t have any personalities of their own, renaming them as friends, family, and co-workers makes for great -stories – even if the player’s imagination has to supply some of the flavor for their adventures. Here are the notable battlefield performances of Game Informer editors in the Great Invasion:

Andrew Reiner
Survived first two engagements with minimal combat distinction. Directly after being promoted to heavy -specialization after being wounded in the second, Reiner badly flubbed an open shot on a flanked sectoid. Turning around, said sectoid scattered bits of Reiner across multiple square meters of a Russian train platform.

Ben "Big Guy" Reeves
Carried XCOM squad through initial contact with alien forces through commendable bravery and exceptional marksmanship. Promoted to heavy specialization, Reeves attained the rank of major while leading every major XCOM ground operation. Notable actions include scoring a quad-kill with his personal rocket launcher, sustaining fire through multiple plasma burns to buy Capt. Miller time to pick off enemies from cover, and generally inserting his boot into the nearest alien orifice no matter the consequences.

Jim "Stacks" Reilly
Promoted to support role following early engagement with sectoid hostiles in which Reilly saved Maj. Reeves and Sgt. Wallace by braving enemy fire to throw a grenade between three sectoids. Reilly’s expertise with the standard-issue XCOM medikit saved several squaddies from lethal injury, notably Pvt. Kato and Sgt. Hilliard each on multiple occasions, throughout XCOM operations.

Kimberly Wallace
Held down the front line from day one of XCOM’s -existence with unquestioned bravery in the face of certain death. Said death eventually came in Sgt. -Wallace’s fifth mission, when she stoically followed orders to hold fire on a nearby enemy pursuant to an XCOM directive to capture the hostile alive. She is missed by her commander and squadmates alike.

Matthew "Longshot" Miller
Along with Maj. Reeves, Capt. Miller is responsible for the most confirmed fatalities out of all XCOM operatives. When Dr. Vahlen offered the opportunity to pursue multiple options for applying laser technology to handheld human weaponry, Capt. Miller’s growing expertise with sniper rifles made the decision simple.

Jeff Cork
Cpl. Cork’s contributions to the XCOM effort upon being recruited to fill the deceased Sgt. Wallace’s spot on the front line are not to be minimized, but his efforts remain a pale shadow of Sgt. Wallace’s heroism. Cpl. Cork’s unquestioning application of stunning electrical discharges to alien bodies at close range will be viewed favorably in his annual review.

Matthew Kato
Suspected of embellishing complications from wounds sustained in action, Pvt. Kato is still considered a rookie despite taking part in several XCOM operations. While Maj. Reeves shrugged off multiple plasma burns while maintaining position, Pvt. Kato fled to heavy cover after being winged by a single shot on three separate occasions. His complaining about Reeves’ heavy carapace armor and nanoweave vest were deemed “unsatisfactory” by command. Pvt. Kato has spent nearly four full weeks in sickbay as of this writing.

Kyle Hilliard
Recently promoted to the rank of sergeant, Hilliard made the most of his many opportunities on the battlefield while Pvt. Kato lay in sickbay. Despite seemingly suffering the majority of the wounds dealt to XCOM soldiers in every operation he has taken part in, Sgt. Hilliard has never complained about the undeniably painful application of XCOM medikit field remedies he so often requires. Hilliard has more than once eliminated an enemy that had just badly wounded him.

* * *

The interrogation complete (abstracted as a short research project), my priority becomes the capture of an outsider – the dangerous enemy type I have so far only encountered aboard the UFO I shot down. My scientists are now free to start the long -process of developing laser weapons, though, which should prove to be huge upgrades over our conventional firearms. I choose to pursue precision lasers, which can be adapted to sniper rifles and shotguns.

Harder is better

You don’t need to be a glutton for -punishment to appreciate that XCOM’s best qualities shine through most when it’s more difficult. Cranking up the -difficulty (thankfully adjustable in either direction on the fly) ratcheted the tension up by an order of magnitude, and the fun factor skyrocketed along with it. Permanent death for soldiers lies at the heart of XCOM. The knowledge that every action could lead to disaster turns this from an amusing sci-fi tactical RPG into something much greater. As much fun as flawlessly completing moderately tough missions is, pulling through- -impossible odds with two KIAs and two soldiers wounded so badly they won’t be out of sickbay for three weeks makes the accomplishment all the sweeter.

Clearing the next UFO I shoot down does not go according to plan. Head engineer Dr. Chen’s advice lets me avoid getting anyone blown up by a stray shot hitting the alien power core, but Capt. Reeves’ critical success on a reaction shot taken while on overwatch frags the outsider I was hoping to capture. That priority will just have to wait.

Another alien species makes its debut in the next mission, a week or so of game time later: the floater. XCOM’s sniper extraordinaire, Capt. Miller, connects with a headshot despite its unnatural agility. Capturing one of these flying foes is not happening any time soon; our primitive stun guns are no use when they’re floating 20 meters above ground level.

Eventually, another UFO makes an appearance – except that this one has already landed, presumably with its entire crew intact. The resistance is predictably stiffer, but a good plan on my part (and the first laser weapons to hit the battlefield for the good guys) makes all the difference. Splitting my squad into two fireteams of three soldiers apiece proves effective, as bravo team counter-ambushes a troop of sectoids as they try to flank the point squad. The ranking XCOM support specialist, Sgt. Reilly, carries the day with his ability to get three uses out of his medkit instead of the standard one. Even a perfectly executed textbook UFO infiltration entails a fair amount of plasma burns for frontline personnel. The 2K Games representative cuts my playtime off as Dr. Vahlen is explaining the odd crystalline structure of the shard at the outsider’s core, which apparently resembles some kind of antenna. Delving deeper into the aliens’ secrets will have to wait.

* * *

Looking to the future

XCOM has many facets. We already knew that some of them worked well from previous showings of the game – 
the tactical combat, the interface for XCOM’s secret base, and the presentation were all on display at E3 in June. A few open questions remain, like how terror missions and narrative-driven “tentpole” scenarios are handled, but this session answered several of my concerns.

Above all, the one thing that stands out from my playtime is the constant drumbeat of hard choices facing the player both in and out of combat. The huge rewards for capturing aliens pushes you to take risks you otherwise wouldn’t, as evidenced by Sgt. Wallace’s brave sacrifice. Many of the alien incursions force a choice between helping one country or another, and those decisions have ripple effects hours down the road as you fight to keep nations from dropping out of the XCOM project. Deploying satellites and filling hangars around the world with interceptors is extremely expensive and does nothing to help out your soldiers on the ground, but can be the best investment of all as fewer and fewer aliens slip by to terrorize the world’s population. The research tree is amazingly broad, offering several techs with drastically different effects at any time.

I didn’t get far into the game, but I was already being pulled in several directions and had a fraction of the resources necessary to undertake every project that caught my eye. Choosing what to invest in has a huge effect on how a playthrough shapes up, and if Firaxis can make it so there are few if any “right” answers to any given situation, I can easily see losing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of hours in XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it comes out on October 9.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknowncover

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita, PC, iOS, Android
Release Date:
October 9, 2012 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC), 
June 20, 2013 (iOS), 
April 23, 2014 (Android), 
March 22, 2016 (PlayStation Vita)