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Video Game Review: ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ is an Addictive Experience

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CHICAGO – Hi, my name is Paul Meekin, and I’m an “XCOM”-aholic. Firaxis, has brewed an almost perfect concoction; mixing the bitters of hardcore strategy gaming and punishing difficulty with the sweetness of character customization, resource management, plus a dash of ’50s camp as the proverbial sugar on the rim.

HollywoodChicago.com Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0

For the disappointingly sober, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is a sci-fi strategy game that puts you in control of XCOM, an international peacekeeping force charged with fighting off an alien invasion. You’re in charge of every aspect of the operation from research to buying fighter jets to customizing the facial hair on the troops in your barracks. You’re also controlling these troops during battle, ordering them around the combat zone; telling them to take cover or shoot at little green men hidden behind rocks and buildings. If your soldiers are lucky enough to survive, you can promote them for stat bonuses and do it all again on the next mission.

XCOM” is broken into two halves. There’s the resource management, customization, researching new technologies side, and the strategic turn-based combat side. Both are well executed and inform each other. Much of the research you end up doing on the management side translates into on-the-field combat bonuses, whether it be upgrading armor, weapons, or giving some troops psychic abilities. Conversely, in combat, if you can capture an alien alive, or avoid using explosives, you’ll gather more materials for the research teams to use and study. It’s an interesting balance that brings an extra layer of strategy to both parts of the game

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Photo credit: 2K Games

On the combat side of things, the game is essentially a game of chess… with guns. You’re given 4 soldiers (but you can upgrade to six) and are given an objective. Oftentimes, it’s kill all the aliens, but sometimes you need to diffuse a bomb, save civilians, or rescue a VIP from enemy clutches. Once you’re given control of your troops you have the option to move them a short distance then make another command such as firing at an enemy or activating “Overwatch,” which will lay down suppressive fire to any alien that comes in that character’s sight line. You can also cover a larger distance by dashing, but you’ll forgo your chance to make any sort of action following your move. The addition of “action cam” moments keeps things visually exciting, and the camera used for kill shots is strangely reminiscent of “Fallout”’s V.A.T.S System. After your first battle, your surviving troops can be upgraded with new weapons, armor, and abilities. A heavy gets a rocket launcher, a sniper gets a Sniper-rifle, a support class character gets to use extra med packs, and so on. The varied objectives keep things fresh, and while a lot of the maps tend to repeat and look the same, the gameplay itself is thoroughly entertaining.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Photo credit: 2K Games

There are a couple of issues with combat. For some reason when a soldier is shot and killed by an alien, often times his or her hair will suddenly disappear, as if the alien weapon, in addition to being deadly, contains a virus to instantly cause male pattern baldness. Similarly, soldiers will shoot in the exact opposite direction of the enemy and still connect, and it’s entirely possible to shoot through walls and cover if the game gives you a high enough hit percentage chance. Also annoying is that despite the game’s globe-trotting nature, a lot of maps are samey and generic. If I’m in Paris, I want to fight on a little street with cafes and bikes littered about. If I’m in Japan, I want to see the wasteland of technology that has surely been created. If I’m in Africa, Bono should be there, damn it! But, those are all errors on the graphical side of things. The gameplay itself is totally solid and absolutely addicting.

On the resource management side, you’ll be in the presence of three characters - a sultry Russian Scientist, an old and wise Engineer, and an American Commander, who rocks a green sweater better than anyone I’ve ever seen. While ultimately paper-thin characters with little in the way of depth, having faces (and voices) associated with the different aspects of your XCOM base goes a long way to endearing yourself to the setting. These characters will give you objectives, offer hints, and in general be the main people who push the story forward. Outside of their helpful nudging, everything else is ultimately up to you, which can be daunting.

The game’s research and building mechanics are largely obtuse features, where the benefits are sometimes hidden. For example dissecting a corpse of a specific alien yields you a one-time-use upgrade that can be equipped to fighter jets, allowing them to target flying saucers easier which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense when you think about it. During the course of gameplay spending untold hours researching ultimately futile items can be annoying, but in the course of the game’s fiction, it makes sense. You’re dealing with items and species that have never been seen before - who knows what will be useful? Typically vague goals in a game are annoying and unwanted but in “XCOM,” it works.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Photo credit: 2K Games

Firaxis has been at the forefront of strategy games for what seems like forever, being the studio primarily responsible for the “Sid Meier’s” games including “Civilization”, “Railroads”, “Pirates”, and cult-favorite “Sim Golf,” but has always had trouble reaching the masses. The majority of strategy gaming involves sitting, planning, waiting, then adjusting that plan and then waiting to see how it plays out - certainly rewarding, but not really the most exciting gaming experience.

However, from “XCOM: Enemy Unknown”’s first moments, it’s apparent you’re in a heavyweight fight for the fate of the Earth against aliens who are smarter than you, outnumber you, and have more resources than you do, too. This isn’t going to be some leisurely resource gathering excursion - it’s an all out war for the fate of the universe and you’ve got to fight, ready or not.

By the time you read this, the epic strategery of “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” has taken me; consuming my life with reckless abandon. The couch beneath me screeches, yearning for relief from my big, wide, ever-expanding duff, the Xbox 360, the vessel through which I have been transformed into this state starts to wonder if I should wander outside - for a few minutes, at least - just to remember what the sky looks like. I refuse, claiming that I’ll move my sore and atrophied legs from the recliner in one or two more missions…I can quit anytime I want, really.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown” was released by 2K Games and developed by Firaxis. It was reviewed for the Xbox 360 but is also available for the PS3 and PC.

By Paul Meekin
Staff Writer

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