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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM

There are always casualties in war. Major Sarah ‘Havok’ Cook, a veteran of the Great Invasion with 57 confirmed kills, becomes the latest victim of the alien menace, struck by a plasma cannon round that blew her apart like a possum under an articulated lorry. She will be remembered.

Beloved by veteran gamers worldwide, the venerable XCOM series has been providing turn-based alien obliteration for over twenty years. Actually, although the franchise remains an iconic one, the last game in the series was released in 2001, so it’s been long overdue a revival. Now Firaxis, makers of the excellent Civilization games, have resurrected XCOM, adjusted it for the flighty modern audience and given it a brand new lick of paint.

It’s the year 2015, and against all obvious logic an alien war-fleet has decided to invade Planet Earth, despite the fact that mankind’s greatest achievements remain the stuffed crust pizza and the DVD box-set. In the face of this extraterrestrial threat, you have been appointed to lead the XCOM first response initiative, a world-wide collaboration of military and scientific resources. From your base of operations you’re charged with developing and maintaining the efficiency of your research and construction facilities as well as directing elite squads of soldiers in special operations against the enemy.

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This essentially splits XCOM into two different turn-based modes- one the base-building backdrop, where you make the overarching decisions about what facilities to develop and when to send your troops in to fight, the second a turn-based tactical combat mode in which your combat operations are played out. It’s to the game’s credit that it manages to successfully intertwine these two systems, ensuring that your progress is equally affected by your performances in both arenas. For example, the efficient capture of an alien supply barge in the combat mode will net you vital resources that can be used to upgrade your base back at HQ, while conversely the successful development of new armour technology at the strategic level might mean a grenade blast that should have killed your star sniper outright instead merely wounds him for a few days. The decisions you make always feel like they carry real weight, as they should in a game about the potential destruction of our civilisation.

Base-building is a familiar blend of turn-based research and development that fans of grand strategy games will be used to. There aren’t a huge amount of technologies and buildings to choose between, but really this works in the game’s favour; rather than picking from sixty different options there’s a more limited scope, which means the flow of game-play isn’t bogged down by excessive micromanagement. It might take a couple of abortive campaigns for newcomers to realise the most necessary items to research first, as your combat performance varies wildly depending on the equipment and resources you have at your disposal, but you’ll quickly learn what to prioritise early on. The research and item construction interfaces could be a little clearer, admittedly, and it’s odd that you can’t sell obsolete weapons, considering that you can hawk every other bit of alien crap you get your hands on, but on the whole base development is intuitive and satisfying. You even get a cutaway, ‘ant-hive’ view of your headquarters that updates as you build stuff, complete with scientists studying alien captives and marines exercising and drinking at the bar.

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After you’ve decided where to allocate your precious resources, you’ll jump into XCOM‘s combat mode to take the fight to the aliens. Firefights play out on square-grid maps in a variety of different locations around the world, from abandoned fast-food restaurants in America to wreckage-strewn highways in Japan and eventually the corridors of the aliens own warships. You’ll advance your squad through these environments, taking down any enemies you come across with the arsenal of high-tech weapons at your disposal. This being a tactical game, blindly charging your troopers straight at the enemy is rarely a good idea- instead a well executed combat encounter becomes a series of surges and counter-surges, in which careful use of cover and the occasional all-in gamble of a flanking manoeuvre generally wins the day. You can never feel entirely secure though, even in heavy cover, thanks to the impressively destructible environments, which can throw you if you get too lax with your squad placement. There are plenty of occasions when a seemingly routine mop-up can careen wildly out of control due to a lucky shot or an overlooked weakness in your defence. Oh, and you’ll soon learn to despise grenade-hurling aliens with every fibre of your being.

There’s an impressive amount of tactical options that all feel valid, and differ depending on how you decide to level up your soldier classes. You could, for example, use your Heavy troopers to fling grenades and rockets at the enemy, forcing open gaps in the enemy line for your Snipers to exploit. Alternatively you could decide to focus on pinning the aliens down with suppressing fire, and flanking them with your mobile Assault troops. You can opt to take any mixture of classes along for the mission, as well as an entertainingly deadly robotic weapons platform, so there’s a lot of scope for you to develop your own strategies as you progress. It’s a system that manages to feel both accessible and complex at the same time, and each encounter is a joy to play.

Objectives generally involve hunting down any alien forces in the vicinity, but depending on the situation you may be asked to escort a V.I.P, defuse a bomb, or save innocent civilians from being zombified by particularly nasty bug-like alien critters. The differing objectives largely stop things from getting too stale, but the civilian rescue missions can be a bit of a pain in the arse due to the crippling inability of innocent bystanders to move out of the sodding way. Instead they stand there like shell-shocked cattle while a horde of death-insects swarm over and start pulling their reproductive organs out through their nostrils. Apart from this minor complaint, however, XCOM manages to avoid any sense that the odds are unfairly stacked against you. Even when you face some of the more traumatically devilish enemies late on, you always feel like you’re being given a fighting chance. Ultimately, most of your casualties will come from rash decisions and rookie mistakes on your part, so you’ll want to take stock and think every move through before committing to it if you want to bring your squad back home unharmed.

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And you will want to, because in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, everybody matters. I can’t recall another game that puts such a priority on maintaining the well-being of your virtual troops. Lose a squad member in XCOM, especially one who’s earned a call-sign along with his stripes, and you’ll be devastated. One of the game’s greatest successes is the subtle manner in which it encourages you to care for your team, and it’s not just because they unlock a variety of increasingly powerful abilities with each promotion. The varied customisation options allow you to personalise your squad to an impressive extent, and it’s recommended you take the time to do so; you’ll feel a hundred times more attached to the elegantly moustachioed Major Quentin Fabulous, for example, than your basic jarhead recruits.

This is especially true if you’re playing with Ironman mode switched on. Ironman forces you to use a single save game slot, removing the ever-present temptation of jamming the quick-load button and making every decision you make even more critical. No longer can a Reservoir Dogs style bloodbath be resolved by skipping back a few minutes and trying that tricky corridor encounter again. Now you need to be on top of your game at all times. For hardcore XCOM fans and gamers looking for a real challenge, this is the way to play. There should probably be a health warning, though. It’s brutal.

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It’s never easy resurrecting a beloved franchise after such a long time away. Not only do you have to please a fanbase who’ll expect a huge list of very specific things from the new edition, but you’re also trying to appeal to a new generation of gamers used to all the polish and pizazz of modern big-budget titles. Firaxis have successfully walked that tightrope with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s a title that honours everything that made the original great, but at the same time it remains approachable to a modern audience, with neat visuals, an attractive and colourful art style, and complex yet accessible gameplay. Despite a clear respect for the classics that spawned it, Enemy Unknown is a title that deserves to be judged on its own merits; in a generation dominated by homogeneous run-and-gun shooters, it takes a brave studio to risk releasing a game that asks so much care of its audience, that doesn’t simply treat them as punters on a fairground ride of repetitive, simplistic set pieces. It’s intelligent, rewarding and challenging and with any luck it will find the audience it deserves.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2012.

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