Many games that have been created for both console and PC's are usually biased towards one side, especially with strategy games; consoles just can't beat the classic keyboard and mouse layout. Well now us console gamers are no longer left out, with XCOM Enemy Unknown striking a perfect balance and creating an amazing and deep strategy game that we can all enjoy.
Set in the near future, Earth is in the infancy of an alien invasion with sporadic attacks across the globe sending the world into panic and causing enough concern for the Council of Nations, a group of world leaders to pool their resources together to authorise a crack team of multinational alien killers called XCOM to research and destroy the galactic threat.
XCOM Enemy Unknown, just like its original release is played like a turn based strategy game, though when I say turn based you normally conjure up games like Final Fantasy or Disgaea, here it plays more like an action game, with the board game, die rolling ideals snuck under loads of full on fire fights. Basic gameplay is very simple; each soldier has two moves to carry out before it is the turn of the alien invaders. These moves can be simple movements from cover to cover, firing and reloading to the more unit specific special moves. XCOM is split into two distinctive areas of gameplay, the field operations and the research and development side.
Whenever there is a problem planet side, be it abductions to general attacks, our team of up to six soldiers are ready for anything, risking life and limb to stop these invaders, no matter what the cost. Where most of the levels end up being a kill-all-aliens approach, there is some variety in how you get to that final result, such as the ability to investigate downed UFO's that you are trying to gather important technology from; capturing the various aliens without getting your own squad killed; diffusing bombs or the quite difficult evacuation missions, where you need to save as many civilians as possible, which is no easy feat as the aliens are turning them into zombies that pack a real punch. Something that many of these top down strategy games skips is the inevitable cost of war, human casualties. Usually you can just send wave after wave of nameless grunts to their death, but here every death hits you hard, not only making mission success a little harder but also emotionally taxing. Initially the XCOM team is full of green grunts; inexperience will have them fall in quick succession to alien fire or even panic, causing more than a few instances of friendly fire. Gradually a few start to survive; becoming battle hardened and even gaining nicknames, slowly earning promotions with every return to base. This is when it hits hardest, when they inevitably fall, be it by chance attack or mismanagement by their commander (you), leaving not only a gap in the troops but one in your heart after becoming so attached to them.
There are five types of troops, the first being a rookie, with no skills to fall back on other than an assault rifle, handgun and a grenade, it's these first few battles that will make or break them. A few kills under their belt and they will gain their first promotion and with that have one of four classes granted to them. With Snipers, Heavy, Support and Assault classes, there are plenty of tactical situations you can use when under the threat of alien attack. As these guys and gals survive even more battles they slowly work up the ranks, from Squaddie to Colonel, earning new skills along the way with suppressive fire, better healing, using allies line of sight to see far off targets naming a few.
Though it's just you and the troops when on the battlefield, back at home base there is a whole underground complex ready to assist, with scientists able to carry out research on captured aliens and from this devise new weapons and armour which is then passed onto the engineers who will build said weaponry and also create new rooms in this vast underground network of caves. Initially, Earth's defenders XCOM are massively under managed in getting to grips with the alien technology but as you progress the game your troops will gradually be able to use these extra-terrestrial weapons with laser and pulse weapons becoming easier to use later in the game. Of course all these services do not come free, with parts collected from downed enemies used for research and also selling items on the "Grey Market"; most of the real cash is earned via the Council of Nations, a group of world leaders who have pledged to support XCOM as long as their countries are protected. Via the Situation Room you are able to see the current panic status of each country, your aim is to make sure they do not go in to the red as if so, they leave the Council of Nations and even pull their funding. As commander of XCOM there are plenty of tough decisions to make, who to supply with satellites and Interceptors and at times there are two or three attacks at the same time but you only enough resources for one mission, where do you go? USA and gain an experienced sniper; Japan for a fresh supply of Scientists or Germany for Engineers and cash. It's never an easy choice, with you at times being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice in risking a country dropping their funding just so you can keep a more favourable country on your side.
With all of this limited funding there is a juggling aspect to the game, making sure everything has some attention paid to it, otherwise the aliens will just steamroll you on the battlefield. Of course a major commodity to the XCOM cause is new recruits, with the Barracks you are able to hire new rookies, customise load outs and visual appearances of your troops and also visit the Officer Training School which unlocks some vital assistance, be it upping your team of four up to six, faster squad healing, a higher entry level of new recruits and most crucial, with the death of a highly ranked officer, they may have a chance to be critically wounded instead, taking them out of the game for a few days but at least not another face on the memorial wall.
With a solid single player mode full of different difficulties to test your skills there are also a few multiplayer maps to try out. With five available on disc, you have your choice to battle in a bar; cemetery; police station; train yard and a boulevard. Team selections are open from the start, allowing you to mix and match alien and human troopers to fight alongside each other, using their strengths to make a devastating team, as long as you have enough points to spare on each unit.
Where lots of console games of this genre fail is in the graphics, keeping things simple or using hard to decipher camera angles, XCOM shows how it is done, with the action able to be zoomed in and viewed from almost any angle with plenty of detail whatever the view you choose. There has also been a lot of attention to the overall presentation with a superb soundtrack ramming up the tension at the right moments and plenty of squad chatter. The maps are also well created, offering plenty of tactical decisions, be it general cover or ambush points, some areas collapse through heavy weapons fire, some explode. All this is managed without a hard install on the PS3 and even the loading screens between each area are seamlessly integrated, with you never feeling like you are sitting and watching a dead screen.
With many production companies raiding the back catalogue for inspiration there has always been a cynical approach when looking at these "new" releases. Games like Syndicate had potential and EA blew it, instead providing us with a third person shooter. XCOM stuck to its roots and reminded us just how good games were back in the day. It does not matter what format you go for, XCOM Enemy Unknown is yet another reason to raid the wallets this weekend.
Words by Ash Buchanan.
Review Policy?(Version tested: PS3)