Too often, death is little more than an irksome impediment in gaming. Amidst the coin-op era, the manacles of mortality could be undone by an additional quarter or token. At home, a visit by the grim reaper is often remedied by the press of a start button, save for the tendency of Rogue-likes and the oft-overlooked Fire Emblem series. Adhering to the tenets of MicroProse Software and Mythos Games’ 1994 classic, X-COM: UFO Defense, the recent release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC is poised to promote the conversation of ‘permadeath’.
Here, the loss of life suitably stings. Aside from the specter of permanence, Enemy Unknown tasks players with the protracted cultivation of each squadmate. We initially meet each combatant as a rookie- and if they persevere, they’ll be assigned a specialty class- ranging from Assault, Heavy, Sniper, or Support. With each battle bestowing experience, soldiers periodically choose indispensible perks which prove to be critical contributions for their team. Organically, fireteams are formed, each reliant on the ability of their personnel.
Yet, even for the most meticulous strategist who remains steadfast on the safety of their squad, death is inevitable. After a string of decisive victories, my veteran sniper was overcome by an enraged foe, sending teammates into panic and triggered a defeat that claimed the lives of two additional soldiers. After spending a few moments reflecting on the contributions of the fallen at the in-game memorial, it was evident that XCOM: Enemy Unknown had demoralized me. Unlike most titles which dishearten players with duplicitous AI or the lack of foreshadowing, the game’s only gambit was to exploit a sense of emerging overconfidence. Brilliantly played, Firaxis.
Undeniably, loss lingers throughout Enemy Unknown. Beyond defeated personnel, players can also trigger an endgame by failing to control the escalating tide of global hysteria, allowing the game’s assaulting aliens to win by economic default. Complementing XCOM’s engaging combat is a meta-game which tasks players with reverse-engineering alien technologies, managing resources, and prohibiting the spread of panic- all against an ever-advancing timer. During these phases, players receive bits of exposition which offer a bit of solace for the unavoidable setbacks. Wisely, Enemy Unknown fosters a sense of urgency and an involving tone by forcing players to minimize losses, rather than positioning players as the dominant aggressor, through the majority of the twenty-five hour campaign.
On the battlefield, XCOM is equally adept. Although the game’s 80+ venues will randomly repeat, each is brimming with tactical possibility. Like the open-ended nature of Enemy Unknown’s management component, the game’s turn-based combat feels magnificently organic. From placing a sniper in an elevated position to pick off cajoled enemies to using rocket launchers to blast open buildings or shower foes with collateral shrapnel, options abound. Pleasingly, arenas require improvisation as well, prodding players along with destructible cover points and volatile vehicles. Credit should be given to the game’s AI, which functions realistically, whether antagonists are slowly scouting for players through the fog of war or attempting to outflank the opposition.
Although UFO Defense pedants may bemoan XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s efforts to streamline the complexity of combat, the majority of player will appreciate the overhaul. In execution, the hunt-and-exterminate intensity of the original game has been replaced with more straightforward clashes. Also, the trans-elevation battles have been thankfully trimmed while the ability to fire on apparent enemy locations has been removed. Now, each round is briskly placed, with each soldier typically obtaining the ability to perform two functions during their turn. While seemingly simple, vicissitudes are vast. Players may bound between two cover points or travel greater distances with a single dash. Actions such as weapon reloads and overwatch status (where a soldier forgoes part of their own turn to ambush spotted aliens during the enemy movement phase) compete with taking defensive positions, ensuring thorny decisions.
Visually, XCOM: Enemy Unknown shirks the grids and hexes habitually associated with turn-based tussles, deliver a visually stimulating perspective. Flaunting an amazingly polished and intuitive user interface, the title’s makes good use of the Unreal Engine, exhibiting engaging camera angles and as well as dropping in low to show off the animations used for cover dashes and window breaches. Arguably, the game’s best visual aesthetic is the transformation of battleground with venues markedly devastated by each battle.
The sole blemish in Enemy Unknown’s experience is the game’s lackluster multiplayer component. Although taking control of alien technology is a pleasant privilege for online competitors, the game’s paltry selection of five maps, absence of statistic breakdown, and lack of any persistence can make skirmishes feel a bit vacant. Hopefully, these failings are fixed when 2K brings out the game’s obligatory downloadable content.
Regretfully, console players have been hesitant to embrace turn-based strategy titles, preferring the indulging thrills of twitch-type games. Potentially, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has the ability to remedy that omission. By distilling tactics to their essentials and refusing to dilute the breadth of battlefield and overworld options, Firaxis’ title is able to engage a wide audience. Whether you’re a novice to the genre or a hardened armchair general, Enemy Unknown is a must-play experience, offering a scenario where Earth is saved by rationality rather than mere reflexes.
Xbox 360 review code was provided by the publisher.