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Critical Consensus: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Firaxis hits a sweet spot between fan service and innovation

You know how it is when you bump into an old friend who you've not seen for a while: it can be awkward. Often, it's just a forced reflection on your own existence, knowing that you share their every wrinkle and receding hairline, that the person you once knew as an edgy young buck, rippling with style and youthful energy, has fallen foul of exactly the same temporal tragedies as you have. You look at each other, realise how old you both are, and shuffle off into the night, trying not to think too much about it.

Sometimes, though, you bump into someone who makes you feel the exact opposite, someone who reminds you of how it felt to be that young and enthused, someone who has aged gracefully yet retained those qualities which made you like them so much in the first place. You chat, you rekindle your friendship and you wonder what you were ever doing spending time relaxing with any other people at all.

It turns out that XCOM is that friend - unashamedly unchanged: wearing a familiar smile and still dressed in the baggy hoodie of your alma mater, suffused with enough dependable charm and friendly familiarity to make you feel as young as when you first met.

Which, by way of questionable metaphorical extension, is a roundabout way of saying that 2K's reboot of this 1994 classic is a peach - managing to allay the fears of core strategy fans whilst doing enough to entice the unconverted with a Metacritic which lurks painfully close behind the 90 per cent mark at 89.

"Buy XCOM, it's a belter."

Rich Stanton, Eurogamer.

It's been a fairly tortuous journey for the IP, from the original release limping out of a troubled publisher on the verge of canning it, two unreleased games, the rise of a trio of "homage"UFO titles, and the most recent travails of 2K.

Originally, the publisher planned relaunch the series as an FPS, but eventually downgraded that project to a downloadable third-person event. This Firaxas remastering, initially posited to keep the original's noisy fanbase placated, has since taken centre stage - and rightly so. Around the web, reviewers are finding XCOM to be a game of elegant simplicities governed by proven mechanics of a deceptive depth.

Rich Stanton's review at Eurogamer, is a typically effusive piece, clearly written by someone with fond memories of the Gollop twins' original. Awarding a solid nine, Stanton discovers a game which pulls the player into a "universe of Tonka toy soldiers and B-movie science-fiction, a rich and smartly streamlined strategy experience that's a hell of a credit to the design of the 1994 original."

That original was something of an oddity, with its combination of turn-based strategy and base-management, but Stanton finds the genre synergy achieved there is untarnished by time, with the potential disconnection between the game's two worlds overcome by enough points of contact, "the most obvious and irresistible through-line being how the XCOM troops evolve over time, from standard-issue grunts to plasma-wielding psychic warriors in cloaking suits, depending on how research and manufacturing are juggled."

Creepy and frail, Sectoids can use psychic abilities to boost allies.

Those squadmates, offered relatively little in the way of visual customisation, are capable of a surprising level of emotional resonance, which Stanton points out is a close consequence of the combination of exponentially increasing value and fragility imposed by an unforgiving combat system. Lose a soldier and you leave a big hole in the team which can take several missions to repair, all whilst under constant pressure from the stream of alerts and demands flowing through your base's command centre.

By the time you've pulled a squaddie up through the ranks to become a fearsome colonel, commanding avenues of fire from a sniping position at the rear or bursting through doors with a close-ranged shotgun, you'll be oddly attached.

Stanton praises the tactical nuances and emergent strategy which the four well-balanced classes on offer here provide, enabling a toolset "perfectly pitched against the innate skills of the aliens," which he sees great application for in a multiplayer mode which has been the game's one weakpoint for many other reviewers.

Over at Polygon, where XCOM receives 8.5, Russ Pitts is especially keen on the battlefield sections of the game, confessing to prioritising the research and building tasks in the base view which specifically enhance the combat encounters, resulting in "the best part of the game, and the most fun I've had playing any strategy game in a good, long while."

"The beautiful art and UI design of XCOM, like a well-designed cocktail dress, obscures just enough of the complicated architecture underneath while revealing a tantalizing amount of detail at first glance."

Russ Pitts, Polygon

Whilst Pitts finds this half of the action to be well paced and offering consistent challenge alongside a rewarding learning curve, he has his reservations over the way that base-management, research and building are handled. "The tactical, squad-based combat is definitely the star of that show," writes Pitts. "The strategic game, while an integral part of the experience, throws a slight wrench into the works."

"The kink with XCOM's strategic game is that it's never immediately obvious what goes where or how to make it go. Worse, as a strategy game, XCOM takes liberal advantage of the expectation for a variety of open-ended play options, but as a game with a scripted beginning and end, it relies on you to find your way through this sea of choice to one specific point at one specific time to ensure the scripted ending goes off as planned. It's a weird dichotomy that falls just shy of seamless."

In fact, Pitts seems positively disappointed by management side of XCOM's offering, which he sees as being a stark contrast to the enjoyment of the meat of the gameplay.

"While it's easy to spend an hour or more playing through a single squad encounter with the alien forces, these harrowing engagements serve to remind how less fun the rest of the game feels."

While Game Informer's Adam Biessener doesn't quite share Pitt's active dislike of the base-construction mechanic, he does acknowledge that it's on the battlefield that the game really excels, calling the strategy layer "more of an interstitial break between the randomly generated tactical missions, where the true heart of the game lies."

Biessener is in the upper echelons in terms of score awarded, plumbing for a 9.5 thanks to "Firaxis' outstanding design," which "strips away every last vestige of tedium from combat while maintaining the agency that makes the original such a classic." This slick and responsive system means that the very real arms race occurring in the laboratories and workshops of your home base is not the be all and end all of winning battles, which instead relies on an understanding of the proper use of tactics, classes and weapon specialisations.

Late game enemies become intensely dangerous, with the capacity to devastate even the most experienced squads.

Knowing how to utilise cover, flanking and suppression is essential, but even a lifelong fan of strategy games will find a challenge here, whether thanks to the fact that the AI makes canny, realistic decisions or the well-judged difficulty levels which terminate in the roguelike single-save mechanic of Ironman mode.

"XCOM maintains its difficulty throughout," wirtes Biessener. "More and tougher aliens appear, terror missions push you out of your tactical box by forcing you to save civilians, and a few setpiece missions at certain points in the narrative present unique challenges. Even with a demigod of a sniper who guns down two enemies per turn from across the map and mind controls anything that dares to get close, a single sloppy turn is all that stands between success and failure. Nobody is ever truly safe in XCOM."

For Biessener, there's a little work to be done on the variety of maps (which are repeated relatively often, albeit with different cover and spawn layouts.) and the tame gun catalogue but he still recommends the game almost unreservedly, even to those who are happier with Call of Duty than Space Hulk.

"Both of XCOM's layers present life-or-death conundrums to which there is no right answer. No matter what you pick, something or someone is going to suffer for it. This kind of tension and terror rarely occurs within mainstream gaming, and almost never with this level of skill in the execution. Don't let the 'turn-based strategy' moniker scare you off; XCOM is a singular achievement that every gamer deserves to experience."

Sometimes, you wonder why you ever stopped hanging out with that old friend in the first place.

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