Hailed as a welcome return to form, XCOM: Enemy Unknown inspired numerous new strategy games over the past decade. Mario + Rabbids and Mutant Year Zero, in particular, are well received titles that may never have existed without the XCOM comeback. But the road to rebirth wasn’t as smooth as you might expect.

Back in 2012, it was no secret that 2K Games bungled the announcement of XCOM’s rebirth. Having taken an extended vacation that lasted over a decade (discounting the Game Boy Advance’s Rebelstar: Tactical Command, as many do) the return to consoles of one of the most overlooked genres in recent years would surely have been met with great enthusiasm. Instead however, 2K Games decided to reveal their new FPS project, then simply known as XCOM, ahead of their full blow re-imagining of the cult classic UFO: Enemy Unknown. It was an odd decision. But thankfully not one which has had too much of an impact on the development it would seem. XCOM: Enemy Unknown delivered every bit the strategy experience that long-time fans have been hoping for.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot

Classic XCOM is Good XCOM

As a ‘reimagining’ of the original title XCOM: Enemy Unknown plays much the same as the 1994 classic. The gameplay takes place across two fronts which alternate in execution; a tactical action sequence and the management strategy element. The action is turn based, with the player controlling a small unit of XCOM soldiers on a top-down map. Each soldier has a set number of action points which can be divided between actions such as movement, shooting and interacting with the environment. For example, a soldier may move into cover then fire upon an enemy, or they may dash to more distant cover forgoing their option to follow-up with a second command. The formula may sound basic, and that’s because it is. However, there’s a great deal of dressing on top of this that gives XCOM: Enemy Unknown its addictive qualities.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot

An Unknown Enemy Requires You to Know Your Team

Each soldier in your unit is unique. Not just by appearance or class, but in the fact that successful missions are rewarded with a promotion. Conversely, unsuccessful attempts are rewarded with death. Lose a soldier in battle and he or she is gone for good. This inevitably means that no two soldiers will ever be the same. No matter how good you may become at XCOM: Enemy Unknown it’s unlikely you’ll be able to make it through the entire experience without ever losing a single soldier. So purely by point of retention, some of your soldiers will excel beyond a newcomer of the same class.

Each class can utilise different weaponry and learn different abilities. Therefore it’s wise to develop a combination of different class types in your squad. Using the Overwatch function (which allows soldiers to fire during the opponents turn should an enemy in their line of sight move) is an invaluable resource, especially when stretched across the map. But also researching and manufacturing new equipment can make one hell of a difference.

Gameplay Outside of the Gameplay

Once a skirmish has been completed the player will return to their base of operations. Here, you have a full staff providing various activations. You have a direct advisor that informs you of immediate issues or changes in your situation, but by-and-large it’s up to you to determine the best path. Developing new rooms for your base infers bonuses to all activities, be it researching new equipment or earning additional finance, and the constant desire to develop yet greater resources is what keeps XCOM: Enemy Unknown moving.

Every new element of progression leads into something else. Researching new equipment will allow manufacturing to produce the item for your soldiers on the battlefield, but this costs time and money which is earned by winning skirmishes and bringing back salvage. It’s a circle of affect that means you are always keenly aware of what is needed to make your forces stronger, more efficient or generally better. And the desire to achieve it is a strong and personalised drive.

The campaign gameplay mode is nothing if not lengthy. Rightfully so, as it provides such a compelling experience that most will continue playing right through to the end. There’s no denying that this remake is easier than the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s a real weight involved in the loss of one of your experienced soldiers.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot

The Enemy of My Enemy…

In addition to the single-player campaign, XCOM: Enemy Unknown includes a two-player multiplayer modes. Here, you create a small squad from a limited allocation of points and engage in a one-off skirmish. It’s a pleasant addition to the formula that does expand the life of the videogame, but only marginally. The single-player experience is far more compelling despite the team’s best efforts, and as such the multiplayer gameplay will be relegated to an afterthought by most players.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hardly a stunning videogame from a technical standpoint, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s most certainly of a quality that respects the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era. The character models and environments are comfortable but never exceptional. But in contrast, the voice acting is fantastic. The in-game narration and interaction with your base is of a top notch standard. Nearly every character is believable in their passion for your goals.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown 11 Years On

11 years ago, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was offered as a brand new entry in an oft forgotten genre. It stood alone in the market in offering an strategy-action experience unlike anything else available at the time. However, in the years since much competition has entered in its wake. Even now though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be seen as pushing the envelope of what is to be expected from such experiences. Every aspect of the videogame, from control scheme to progression system, is designed with a fervent attention to detail. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a pioneer for a genre that deserved a comeback, and even 11 years later it stands as a landmark for a unique style of gameplay.

Categories: Games