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Game Review Hub: XCOM Enemy Unknown
Genre: Turn based strategy
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Estimated length: 25+ hours
Rating: 5 out of 5
Fans of the original X-COM game will tell you that it is a game that takes difficulty seriously. One minute you are exploring a UFO crash site, the next half of your team is dead and the other half has panicked. With dozens of different systems and resources to manage, it is also a very complicated game. That is why I was very concerned when I heard that Firaxis was working on a remake. While Firaxis is a great developer, I was afraid that the desire to garner main-stream appeal might cause them to dumb-down the game and take away all of the things that we loved about the series. Well good news; my concerns were almost completely unfounded.
I say almost completely unfounded because I was correct in one assumption. The new XCOM is simplified a bit compared to it's predecessors, though not to the damaging extent that I feared. For example, the first X-COM game has no tutorial, and the player is left to discover the complicated mechanics of researching technology and buying and equipping gear for themselves. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a fairly lengthy tutorial, but rather than having a separate place that you go to learn about the game before you start playing, the tutorial is folded into the campaign. New game mechanics are introduced as you play through the first few months of the game, which gives you a good chance to get used to each system before a new one is introduced.
XCOM is a game that is played in two different settings; one is management and consists of upgrading your tech and expanding your base, and the other is the combat. The base is viewed from the side and looks like an ant farm. Many of the classic systems make a return, such as the ability to study captured technology to improve your own, the ability to recruit and equip soldiers, and the ability to outfit fighters for shooting down alien ships. Most of these systems have been streamlined and require less micromanagement than in previous games. For example, you no longer need to buy equipment, then equip it in the craft carrying your soldiers, then equip it to a soldier before a mission. Now you can purchase any equipment and it will be available to any soldier as they are loading up before a mission. While there are a few problems with equipment being unavailable because it is equipped to a soldier who is injured, overall it is a much easier way to handle equipment.
Ship to ship combat is perhaps the only thing that has been oversimplified. In this game, there are only two ships available, and a few weapons that ca be equipped to them. Encounters consist to your ships trading blows until one is shot down, or the decide to retreat. There are no options to alter your tactics or implement any new strategy. You can, however produce a few one time use items that can be used to boost either your aim, evasion or pursuit speed during such an encounter. Because of these changes every encounter with an alien craft feels like it is determined by luck, however it is a minor part of the game and does not have much effect on the overall experience.
The combat is also a bit more streamlined than previous iterations. Rather than having a bunch of time units that must be split between moving, actions and equipment management, XCOM gives you two actions per turn. Actions such as moving and using some abilities can be performed twice per turn. Shooting, reloading, or hunkering down will end your turn and should be done as the second action. This helps make the combat move faster than it did in the original because your choices in combat are more obvious.
In spite of these changes, the combat is really where this game shines. There are four character classes; sniper, heavy, support and assault. Each has it's own role on the battlefield and a set of abilities that are unlocked as you level up. They did a great job differentiating the classes through these abilities. In addition, some levels will give the choice between two abilities, of which only one may be accessed per character. This leads to some really interesting decisions because the trade offs can be tough. For example, the sniper can either unlock the ability to shoot after moving, but with reduced accuracy, or the ability to see anything that any other squad member can see. The former makes the sniper a more versatile soldier, but the latter gives you the ability to take shots while staying far away from the danger.
Naturally you have the ability to research new weapons and equipment, which can really change the way you fight. Weapon upgrades allow you to do more damage and be more accurate, and armor upgrades allow you to take more damage. Some armor has additional characteristics, such as the ability to grapple up walls, or the ability to go invisible. Then there is an extra item slot, which can be used for grenades or a whole bunch of other items which can be unlocked. This is where the real strategy comes in, because these items all provide useful buffs but only one can be equipped per soldier. For example, there are medikits for healing, a stun gun which allows you to capture aliens, a scope which increases accuracy and extra armor for your front-line soldiers. Between the equipment and abilities that you unlock, your late game soldier will be incredibly powerful and customized to your play style.
That is not to say that it will be easy. This game is still very, very hard. During any mission, your soldiers are in constant peril, and any deaths are permanent. Remember that soldier who you leveled up and got that cool new ability for? He just took a critical hit and is gone forever. You have a few soldiers huddled around the same piece of cover? A grenade just killed two of them and the third is panicking and shooting at his allies. Even the most routine of missions can go bad in a single turn and have you running back to the transport to abort the mission.
For every new ability or weapon that you unlock, there is a new alien type that will make your life more miserable. From cannon fodder types like the sectoid, to the devilish chryssalids that turn your soldiers into zombies that attack their former allies, the aliens will always keep you guessing, and a bit scared. The good news is that every new alien type presents a new opportunity to capture and experiment on, leading to new gadgets and technology for future missions.
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The original X-COM is a great game, but is very inaccessible to casual players because of it's steep learning curve and crazy difficulty. XCOM: Enemy Unknown delivers the same great experience, but tweaks it to make it easier for new players to get used to. There is still great opportunity for masochists; four different difficulty levels as well as ironman mode, which does not allow you to load saved games, ensure that anyone looking for a challenge will not be disappointed. There is also a competitive multiplayer mode, but it is very limited and only serves as good practice to hone your combat abilities. Firaxis recently announced that there is DLC coming that will include a new character class and some new scripted missions. Hopefully that means that they will continue to support the game, and I am excited by the idea of a sequel. Let me know how you think this game stands up to the original in the comments below.