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We Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s been a decent few years for reboots of old gaming franchises, from Syndicate to Duke Nukem to just about anything in-between. The latest game to receive this sort of treatment is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a reboot of the 90s game series, XCOM. The original series was an amazing tour-de-force of strategy gaming, and set an incredible bar for other games in the genre. Let’s see if the reboot is worthy of its ancestors.

It’s worth noting that Enemy Unknown is one of two games in the reboot of the franchise, the other being a first-person third-person shooter, XCOM Declassified. Enemy Unknown tells the tale of an alien invasion, and the eXtraterrestrial COMbat team tasked with eradicating the threat to humanity. You are directly addressed as the commander of the XCOM forces, and you direct your team of scientists, soldiers, and engineers into whichever direction you think it best to deal with the invasion.

Enemy Unknown is actually three very cleverly-crafted layers of strategic management. On the most basic level, you directly control combat on the isometric grid, laying out where the soldiers go, what to do, and how to act on the battlefield against the aliens. On a slightly more removed level, you also control the XCOM base, directing research and fabrication, hearing reports from your seconds-in-command, and directing how the base expands and is built. On an even more removed level, you manage the entire world, after a fashion. For each alien threat across the globe, nations are assigned a “panic level” that essentially lets you know how close you are to losing that nation’s funding as part of the XCOM project. Dealing with alien threats lowers the panic level, as does fulfilling requests for aid. The game makes things intentionally bleak for you, however: often enough, multiple threats are posed in different parts of the world, and naturally, you can only respond to one. The one place you deal with has its panic level lowered, and the other, ignored threats raise the panic level. It’s truly a game of insane skill. Knowing when to make a sacrifice and cut your losses is just as important as knowing when to push forward to make a win.

Within a few minutes of me plugging the game in, I must admit I was enthralled, ensorcelled, and completely enjoying myself. “One more quick round” or “one more quick mission” can very easily turn into four or five hours of missions. The game is that addictive, in both the good and bad senses of the word. I found myself thinking about battle strategies when the game was turned off, and it can very quickly become an obsession. This is about the highest praise a game can get. It’s “tetris-level” addictive. What makes it even more addictive is the fact that the game has an amazing amount of replayability. No two battles will ever be the same, given the random nature of it. What’s more, the game draws you in emotionally, and you keenly feel the loss when one of your best soldiers die. The thing is, you’re forced to invest in them, take them on missions, direct their actions. Losing a soldier can be tough on the feels. The game recognises this to the point of having a damned memorial area for those who died in service to you. Make no mistake: this game is not going to go soft on you. You are forced to make both moral and strategic choices. It’s not going to let you off easy, and yes, you will struggle.

Enemy Unknown features a multiplayer mode wherein two players can battle it out online in a single, customizable battle. Obviously, one side takes the part of the alien scum invaders. My short experiences with the multiplayer mode showed no big problems or lop-sidedness in the matching. It was brief fun to be had pitting my wits against another online player, instead of the AI. Frankly? I’d take the online player any time. The game’s AI is BRUTAL.

My gripes with Enemy Unknown are very few. The graphics look a little dated and old, but given the nature of the game, looks aren’t the big priority here. The sound is fairly good, and the voices are some you’ll recognize from other titles. My hugest annoyance about the voices is this: if they made such an effort to represent a world united, with many of the XCOM soldiers coming from other countries, why is it that all I hear are damned American voices? I’m sick of hearing American voices! Come on, developers! You CAN do better!

I loved playing the original UFO and XCOM games, and I feel that Enemy Unknown is a better, more successful reboot of the series than any of the other reboots I’ve seen. I remain impressed by the sheer level of detail, fun, and replayability. So kudos to 2K and Firaxis Games for not failing my childhood, but instead renewing my faith in the current generation. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. And my message to you, my dear reader: buy this game. Seriously. It is THAT good, and that worth playing.

Final score: 9.5 fookin alien prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Distributor: Megarom
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Windows
Age Rating: 18
RRP: R599
Website: http://www.xcom.com/enemyunknown/