XCOM: Enemy Unknown

9.5 Overall Score

Excellent HUD | Great Story | Engaging Gameplay

Minor Terrain Issues | Occasional Performance Issues

Written by on November 5, 2012 in [, , , , ]

Note: This review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was preceded by a four part series on the original game, XCOM: UFO Defense. If you are curious of my thoughts of the original game and how it compares to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, please consider reading them. You can find all four pieces here at The Married Gamers: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Eleven years. Eleven years ago I was a sophomore in college, falling for the girl who would eventually become my wife and figuring out what the difference was between variable scope and polymorphism in my programming classes. Eleven years ago many of the gamers now spending hours a day on their XBoxes, PlayStations, portables and PC’s were still in diapers, and the youngest gamers hadn’t been born yet. Eleven years ago seems like an eternity to me. Eleven years ago also marked the last release of a video game bearing the title “XCOM.”

Fans of the series have been clamoring for a new entry into the XCOM universe and at long last, on October 9 2012, 2K Games released the Firaxis developed sequel to the XCOM games of old with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Was it worth the wait? Does the XCOM still defend a world worth saving, or is the Enemy Unknown better left an Enemy Forgotten?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is two games in one: a turn-based tactical strategy game and a global resource allocation game.

XCOM derives its name from “eXtraterrestrial COMbat,” and much of the game is spent engaging in these turn-based tactical battles against the invading alien force. You control a team of soldiers (beginning with four, upgradable to six) that are deployed to drop sites to accomplish various types of missions. While the end goals vary from extracting assets to simple alien extermination, the core mechanics generally remain the same: drop, hide in cover, take out the enemies, advance. Since tactical decision making is much more relevant when your troops are being shot at, more care and time will be spent with your soldiers in the Battlescape than in managing the finances, research, asset building, and military building in the HQ.

The Battlescape HUD was easily the weakest part of XCOM: UFO Defense. In Enemy Unknown, the screen is packed with useful information – cover is obvious at a glance, available actions are clear, even the movement capabilities of each squad member is laid out when selected. Most critically, every button is at least labeled by hovering over it with the mouse or highlighting it with the thumbstick. The team at Firaxis focused on providing as much screen space as possible by eschewing an overhead map and making the ability display at the bottom of the screen dynamic, changing between characters depending on their class and ability set. A small cluster of buttons on the left holds the remaining squad-wide commands (end turn, etc). Each solider has their own information-filled overlay and the HUD is minimal yet highly informative.

XCOM Squad Battle

Each squad member has two time units. These units can be taken in sequence or one at a time, allowing you to move your entire squad closer to the battle before anyone takes a shot if you wish – but movement must precede actions.

The shield icons on any available piece of cover make it far more obvious the benefits of hiding behind anything you can find. This fact alone made the game feel like a cover based shooter, even though it is not.

Soldier In Cover

After a few battles the commands come naturally – I played XCOM on the PC but with mouse and keyboard AND controller and it was easy with either setup. There are two significant issues with the Battlescape view, both dealing with cursor placement. The screen panned much faster and made targeting very difficult when using the mouse and keyboard controls to free-aim with explosive projectiles. Cursor placement was also difficult to perceive when dealing with different heights on the map. A number of times moving a character to what seemed to be the top of one side of a hill positioned the soldier on the other side where there was no cover. Rotating the camera angle helped but seemed necessary more often than it should have been.

XCOM Combat Topography

As your squad members fight and succeed they gain experience which leads to promotions in rank. The soldier’s first promotion garners them an assigned class (Sniper, Heavy, Assault, Support) which opens up class specific ability trees. Your choices in these trees make each of your fighters unique even if they’re the same class. There are eight ranks each solider can progress through (from Rookie to Colonel) and different abilities can be unlocked at each promotion. These different features make class balance a near necessity when building a strong squad. My standard squad features two heavies, two snipers, a support, and an assault soldier.

XCOM Combat Squad

XCOM HQ is a careful balance of managing the expectations of nations with the necessities of war. The XCOM Council of Nations contributes funds to support a unified defense force which protects Earth from attacks by alien invaders. Monthly check-ins with the council provide you with income and give the council the opportunity to grade your progress.

While some of this grade is dependent on your performance in battle, most of it is based on your balanced approach when managing everything else. Whenever you aren’t in battle you’re tasked with carefully allocating your resources to maximize impact across a number of disciplines. The XCOM HQ mode makes this possible by consolidating all of these features in one place. Everything in the HQ is filtered under five headings – Research, Engineering, Barracks, Hangar, and Situation Room.

Throughout the game you come upon new alien technologies in the battles. This technology comes with you when you successfully complete the mission and the crack research team at the base does whatever they can to get as much information out of it as possible. Research on this tech (whether studying corpses, interrogating live alien subjects, or studying actual technological artifacts brought back) yields advancements that can be put to use by the engineering team and is sometimes used to advance the plot.

Once research has completed their study, the engineering team is afforded the opportunity to leverage the newfound knowledge in building better weapons, armor, facilities, and ships. These developments come at a cost (in items and credits) and have to be carefully managed, but the enhanced firepower and defense may be critical to the success of your squad. Of course, it is also necessary to balance developing these personnel items with the development of ships for global defense and satellites for scanning the skies.

XCOM Headquarters Cut Away View

The barracks contains all of your troop level options. It is here you will go to view your troops, edit their loadouts (if you prefer to do it outside of battle prep), customize your characters, hire new troops, and promote the troops that have earned it. Later in the game this is also where you will go to determine whether or not your soldiers have innate psionic abilities.
The hangar shows all of the ships at your disposal across the world. It is here you can order new interceptors (basic fighting planes), change armaments or transfer ships from one base to another.
Perhaps the densest section of the XCOM HQ is the Situation Room. Here the panic level of all of the council member nations is available. It is in the Situation Room that you realize the danger of focusing too much of your energies on one part of the globe, as forgotten countries will eventually withdraw their support during a council report, shrinking your monthly capital intake and making everything more difficult. Satellites are also deployed from this screen – they help scan for alien ships (which can be shot down by your interceptors) and the presence of these satellites help quell the fears of these nations.

Your XCOM finances are also accessed from the Situation Room and the Gray Market can be used to sell surplus technology to boost your credit reserves.

XCOM Situation Room

While the Battlescape controls are the most notable upgrade in Enemy Unknown over UFO Defense, the immense improvement to the plot and its presence throughout the HQ and battles cannot go unnoticed. I wrote an entire article in my preview series lamenting the lack of a cohesive direction in UFO Defense – gamers were presented with the Geoscape view of planet Earth and expected to go to town.

XCOM Mission Control

Enemy Unknown turns this formula on its head and starts you in combat. The eerie tone is present from the get-go as you work through your first few missions learning some of the disturbing traits of this alien menace. As pieces of the picture begin to unlock you start to understand what your place is in defending the planet. Though the game is largely open to your tinkering the structure remains, and there is definitely a plot that moves you through – recommending research on certain items or alien corpses, building certain facilities within your base, etcetera. The game does an excellent job recognizing first feats as well – the first time one of my interceptors shot down an alien craft I was treated to a standing ovation by the command center staff, complete with cheering and fist bumps. It was a little reminiscent of the recent SpaceX or NASA control rooms after their successful missions. The touch was small but it was excellently crafted to give a clear sense of accomplishment.

There is no co-op multiplayer in XCOM, but the competitive multiplayer is incredibly flexible. Each player has a set number of points they can allocate as they wish. All alien and human units are available, and everything (including weapon selection) has a cost. When I played I chose to equip a full six man human squad with differing abilities. I wasn’t able to fully equip my soldiers (though they all have standard weapons at least, by default). My opponent chose to play as aliens, and the battle commenced much like a battle would in the single player. The battle setup itself was highly configurable, allowing you to choose the amount of time each turn takes, what map you use, and even the point value of the squads.

XCOM Multiplayer Setup Screen

I should note there seem to be some minor programming issues in the game itself. I experienced the occasional crash while playing, and though it was infrequent, there was some fairly regular sluggishness in the animations. With a quad-core i7, 8 GB of RAM, a GTX550 video card and an SSD, there is no reason I should experience any hesitation from the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, despite its very small issues, is truly an excellent game. I began to fall in love with the IP after playing through UFO Defense, and Enemy Unknown clearly takes the DNA from its predecessors and improves upon it. Every aspect of the game has improved and the care with which Firaxis crafted this game is evident. The masters of strategy have once again delivered. Enemy Unknown is a game that will keep you coming back. The “Just One More Turn” trait of a truly good strategy game is on display in full force, and if you like this style of game, it will pull you in, guaranteed. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to boot up the game, turn on some Rage Against the Machine, and see if I can Know My Enemy.


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Author: Andrew Smith View all posts by

3 Comments on "XCOM: Enemy Unknown"

  1. Daniel R. Robichaud November 5, 2012 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Sounds like a blast! Thanks for the insightful review, Andrew!

  2. BatMan November 8, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Game is awesome hopefully people go out and buy it. Support this game so we can see more and not the same ole FPS every single week. Need me some good strat games.

  3. Domenic Datti February 28, 2014 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Awesome! Now I have to pick up a copy!

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