Game Review: 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown'


“I’m a white male, age 18 to 49.  Everyone listens to me…”

--Homer Simpson

Publishers resurrecting a popular franchise from the past will use any number of marketing friendly quotes to justify digging up an old icon to parade on the market again. 

“We’re introducing it to a new generation of gamers!”

“It’s x like you’ve never seen it before!”

In all reality, there’s really only one reason that they pull the Lazarus routine on old gaming icons: to make a generation of old gamers wax nostalgic and open their wallets to relive the fond memories of their gaming past, when we were scrounging our allowances to hit up an arcade as opposed to balancing the family budget to make the mortgage payment.  These were the carefree days of summer vacations, only having to clean our bedroom as opposed to a whole house, and having a weekly income that wasn’t subject to taxes or insurance premiums.

I’m thirty-one, so XCOM falls firmly into that nostalgic niche for me.  Released back in 1993, it came out in the heyday of PC gaming, when a cardboard box the size of a midsize sedan would hold a single floppy disk that somehow held more hours of entertainment than the Blu Ray bound monsters of today, and even came with a manual, and a color one at that.  It came onto the scene right before Command & Conquer and Warcraft (not World of Warcraft) made every strategy game that followed into a real-time affair, and it was unrivaled for its scope and hair-pulling intensity, in spite of its slower, turn-based tactics.  This was a game that fed on your doubt, making you question every maneuver that you executed during your turn, watching as the enemy descended upon you and quickly tore your tactics to bloody shreds.  Despite its now-chunky sprite based graphics, the game was actually pretty damn scary by making you bear witness to your squad either being cut to ribbons or—hopefully—defeating the extraterrestrial invaders.

XCOM’s initial resurrection was revealed as a 1950’s-set first person shooter, where your group of G-men wearing homogeneous suits from the Robert McNamara collection faced off against abstract aliens in an Eisenhower-era America.  That game has since gone into hiding, but that didn’t stop Firaxis (Civilization) from returning to XCOM’s strategic roots in their own XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  While it may not have the high-concept flash of the 2K Marin title, its expert execution of nostalgia, flavored with enough modern sensibilities to make it fresh, make it an even more compelling title.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown once again puts you in command of a paramilitary organization called XCOM, who protects the world from alien threats with the funding of countries around the globe like an intergalactic U.N.  The gameplay is split into two separate styles: a resource-management sim set in an underground facility where you research new technologies, secure funding from the countries you protect, and accept missions from around the world.  Accepting these missions leads into the second type of gameplay, the tactical strategy portion.  This is the real meat of XCOM where you take command of the squad in battle against the various ETs, where your objective vary from killing or capturing the aliens, rescuing abductees, or disabling bombs before they can decimate populated areas.  The game plays almost exactly like its predecessors, right down to its top-down viewpoint, although this camera view will go dynamic for certain moments, such as when you open fire on your alien enemies.  While the tile-based movement of the almost twenty-year-old XCOM has been replaced with a more flexible vector-based map, series vets and newcomers alike should be able to dive right in with little confusion.  The interface is almost perfect, balancing eye-candy with usability and control without making any major concessions to any of the three aspects.  Strategy is a tough sell on a console controller (I played the game on my trusty Xbox 360), but XCOM thumbs its nose at the relative lack of buttons compared to a mouse and keyboard by giving you everything you need on the controller.  It really is a thing of beauty.

This simple interface allows you to focus on your tactics, which are positively nerve-wracking.  Despite the more cerebral approach that the turn-based gameplay allows you to take, the adrenaline rush that you get is almost as strong as a fast action game.  Plotting out your moves and watching them either succeed  or fail miserably is an intense affair, especially with the brutal perma-death that the game employs.  The units that you carry from mission to mission, upgrades and all, can easily be cut down in battle, taking all of their upgraded skills and stats with them.  In a genre that’s usually populated by nameless, faceless grunts that can be replaced with the right amount of resources, having a distinct soldier that you groom over the course of several missions fall to the enemy is a refreshingly demoralizing experience.  The gut-churning fear for your units is enhanced by some deliciously gruesome creature designs that twist familiar archetypes (like the iconic big-headed Greys) into frightening new forms. 

Nostalgia may be an easy emotion to exploit, relying on name recognition in lieu of quality to keep product moving off of the shelves.  Thankfully, the team at Firaxis didn’t adhere to this sensibility and created not only one of the best strategy games of the year, but one of the best games of the year.