Guest Author - James Shea
A remake of an early-90s classic, 2k and Fireaxis's "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" certainly does its predecessor proud, innovating and refining the series' classic gameplay.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown is, in short, a game where you run an organization defending the earth from alien invasion. The game's single-player mode is in essence a long-term campaign of survival consisting of two major aspects. The first aspect is "strategy": you develop a base, research technology, recruit and equip soldiers, and monitor goings-on in the world.
Compared to the original game, the remake is somewhat lackluster in this field - for example, the original game allowed you to build your base bit by bit, and aliens would periodically invade the base (thus making layout an important game concept). However, most of that aspect is done very well. Choosing which projects to research and how to allocate your funding are important decisions, because while there isn't a hard time limit, the longer you take accomplishing objectives, the worse things will get. There are even some more personal touches - you can see your soldiers exercising and chatting in the base when not on a mission, and there's a memorial for any fallen soldiers as well.
When an incident pops up - a UFO is spotted, or alien abductions are reported - then the game switches to the "tactics" mode. Tactics mode is a grid-based, turn-based system wherein you command up to six soldiers (taken from a larger pool, as replacements will become necessary as soldiers die or are wounded). Most missions are simply "kill all enemies", but periodically scenarios will arise with other goals, such as protecting a VIP, defusing a bomb, or rescuing civilians. Combat is fluid and well-executed: units have two actions per turn, and once an action is taken it can't be undone. Line of sight is very important, as there could be hostiles around every corner. Therefore, every move must be executed with care.
The wide variety of enemies also means that you must be prepared for anything, and losing at least a few soldiers over the course of the game is inevitable. It's a uniquely tense experience, especially on the longer missions. It's more than just a tactical military game - in its own way, it's also sort of survival horror.
One of the most interesting parts of the game is the optional "Ironman mode", wherein there is one auto-updating save file for that particular runthrough. This means that it's impossible to save and load manually, preventing someone from saving before a mission and then loading the save file if things go south. Whatever happens, you have to deal with it. It's a great concept and turns the game into one big, long survivalist exercise. Every decision you make affects that playthrough. If you lose a bunch of your troops, you have to either tough it out or start over. It's certainly not for everyone, but I really appreciate the option being there.
The game's graphics and sound are a compromise between the overt cartoonishness of the old X-COM and a more realistic, futuristic aesthetic. The sound design is underplayed yet memorable, with unsettling tracks that you might not overtly notice but still do an excellent job of setting the stage. From a technical standpoint, the game's problems lie not in design or concept, but rather the abundance of minor bugs that exist - cinematic scenes that last just a bit too long, or glitchy cursors making it difficult to select a different space. However, these are relatively minor, and can be patched - as a whole, the game is just about perfect. X-COM: Enemy Unknown totally deserves a 10/10.
We purchased this game with our own funds in order to do this review.
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