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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Fans of the tactical combat/business sim classic X-COM had long awaited a worthy sequel.  After several underwhelming followups in the '90s, Firaxis promised a return to form with 2012's Enemy Unknown.  But did it prove a worthy return of a classic PC franchise, or should it have been kept locked away like a captive alien? 


X-COM as a franchise had been dormant for many years by the early 2010s, with most fans still lamenting the lack of a followup anywhere near as good as its first entry.  So when 2K, still hot off the success of games like Bioshock and Borderlands, announced a reboot, fans got excited.  That excitement largely turned to anger once a trailer was released, showing that the game would be yet another first person shooter with a vague XCOM skin.  They turned things around when Firaxis quickly announced a second game - a proper turn based tactical combat title this time that would serve as a reboot to the series.  The FPS would later be reworked into a tactical third-person shooter called "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" and released to middling reviews and disappointing sales.  (But hey, at least it's better than X-COM: Enforcer...bleuch.)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a blend of old and new elements.  There is still a degree of base building and character and equipment management to the game, though it is considerably more streamlined - you don't get to manually design your bases or choose exactly where to place them on the world map; instead you pick one of five continents to operate from, getting a unique bonus depending on your choice.  Character building also puts less focus on training individual stats now, with each character now align into one of four predetermined classes after gaining their first rank. The Assault class relies on speed to flank enemies, Supports heal and buff allies, Heavies pack massive firepower and tank damage, and Snipers pick off enemies from afar, getting some hilariously game-breaking abilities in their upper ranks.  The Enemy Within expansion also adds a fifth in MEC Troopers - soldiers placed inside heavily armored battlesuits that pack heavy firepower.  After each rank-up you get a choice of one of two upgrades to pick from, but once you pick one the other is closed off permanently, so it's a choice to be considered carefully.  Combat also operates on a somewhat smaller scale - you deploy units in the field in squads of up to four (later upgradeable to five and later still to six) and maps use predetermined points that provide partial or full cover.  Some walls and cover points can be destroyed by powerful attacks like grenades, while others can prove hazardous in their own right (cars have a habit of exploding after taking any amount of damage).  Characters can also climb up ladders and drainpipes to reach rooftops, jump through open windows and, with upgrades, use ziplines to reach new vantage points, so the environments are quite dynamic.  You'll also frequently be forced to choose between nations to help when a Terror Mission gets underway, which will improve relations with one and harm them with the other, so it's a game with a lot of hard choices to make.

Researching new technologies and alien anatomies remains an integral part of the experience - you'll have to capture aliens and their technology to research in order to keep pace with the escalating threat of the aliens (and, in Enemy Within, a terrorist faction called EXALT).  In a twist from the original, alien tech now self-destructs if its wielder dies, so capturing enemies alive via stun grenades (or clubbing them unconscious with a melee attack) becomes a new layer of strategy.  This comes in a variety of forms - new weapons using laser and plasma technology are major ones, but armor upgrades, equipment like SCOPEs and improved medkits, and eventually psychic powers (considerably less game breaking than the original game's though still quite dangerous), all help your team and make surviving later fights considerably easier.  Another resource added in Enemy Within is "Meld", which, after being collected during missions, allows the player to outfit their squad members with genetic and mechanical upgrades - super leaping, a chance to escape death via a second heart, and inflicting backlash damage on psionic attackers to name a few, as well as enabling them to become the aforementioned MEC Troopers.

Enemy Unknown retains the business management element of the original games too.  You'll of course have to acquire resources by going on missions, manage money for new troops equipment and upgrades by selling unneeded resources, and keep XCOM's member nations happy and loyal - if panic from alien attacks rises too high they'll reduce funding or even withdraw from XCOM entirely, while keeping it low and your squads alive and healthy may cause them to increase funds instead.    Base building is still here, albeit mostly focused on placing particular types of rooms adjacent to one another for bonuses, there's less focus on logistics (your troops can get basically anywhere in the world quickly and without trouble right from the start) and the base defense element of the old games is almost entirely absent.  It returns in Enemy Within, albeit in an extremely limited form - the aliens attack your base exactly once near the start of the campaign and then never do so again; it's even said in dialog: "I doubt they'll try that again!". This stands as a pretty baffling contrast to the original games, where defending your bases was a pretty major component of the late game - you'd want their location to stay a secret (and build cloaking fields to that effect), because once the aliens found a base, they'd come after it almost constantly until they managed to capture and destroy it.  Once that happened, you'd have to rely on intercepting alien ships before they could attack, building stationary defense systems for when they did get through or, as a desperate last resort, fending them off in a skirmish battle.  It makes a little more sense in XCOM 2 (wherein you operate out of a cloaked ship that's constantly on the move and therefore much harder to track down), but seems a pretty prominent omission in a remake of the original game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn't have the same level of granular management and meticulous planning as the original game, but it's not trying to slavishly re-create what came before - it's a fresh take on the X-COM format, retaining the familiar premise and most of its points of challenge while bringing a new feel and design philosophy.  Keeping the basic tenets while taking the gameplay and storytelling in new directions also gave them plenty of leeway when it came time to make a sequel, with XCOM 2's much higher stakes and surprisingly dark plotline elevating it to what I consider the best game in the series.  Enemy Unknown of course derves it's share of praise too, particularly maintaining its predecessor's depth and challenge in a time period where "bringing classics to a new audience" mostly meant "dumbing it down to the point of being farcical".  It may not be flawless and it's still somewhat overshadowed by what came before, but Enemy Unknown is easily X-COM's best entry since the first and very worthy of the name.

Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016
Platform: XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, PlayStation Vita
Recommended Version:  As usual I recommend the PC version for the fact that it supports modding - more classes, map types and customization options become available.  One popular choice is a fan mod known as Long War, which adds much more content across the board, larger scale battles and makes the campaign into more of a lengthy, sustained war effort.