XCOM: Enemy Unknown review
“‘Tis a vile thing to die,” Shakespeare wrote, “when men are unprepared and look not for it.” This is precisely XCOM’s favorite way to kill you. Enemy Unknown has just unexpectedly murdered my best soldier. Not with a jetpacking alien-cyborg. Not with a lucky grenade. Not with a plasma gun.
An exploding forklift has just eaten the life of my most decorated alien-killer.
I’m heartbroken. Embarrassed. Over his 22-mission career, Captain William Wonka became my brave combat medic. He rescued several French civilians. He defied low-percentage rifle shots to save his comrades. Now he’s face-down in a truck stop, flatlined by a forklift that—as vehicles occasionally do in XCOM—became a slow-burning bomb two turns ago when an alien accidentally shot it.
I hold a tiny funeral in my mind. Bagpipes. Last rites whispered over a chocolate grave: "...Good day, sir."
He’s permadead, but I have to carry on. This is XCOM’s unique expectation: soldier on in the face of loss, grit your teeth when they’ve just been broken. Aliens are invading, and the multinational military organization you run is the underdog. Only good science, good strategy, and good luck will level the playing field.
In taking on the series, Civilization creator Firaxis has shown reverence and understanding for what makes it special. XCOM’s ingredients are hard to recombine: strategy with consequences. A technology metagame where you use the enemy’s weapons against them. Emotional attachment to player-created soldiers and a feeling of meaningful death when you lose them. High-fidelity destructibility.
Firaxis keeps these spiritual details intact, but it also has the guts to melt down and modernize some of the series’ mechanical details. The old action-points system has been recast in a less arithmetical form: in combat, any soldier can move once and take an action, or they can make a single, longer move instead. Firaxis also has a clever approach to the fog of war. Every grid of movement steadily pulls back a curtain on things that want to kill you; unseen enemies, however, will occasionally indicate their general direction. This change eliminates the impatience that arises when you can’t figure out what rock the final alien’s hiding under. Combing the map is now less a frustrating hide-and-seek and more a murderous Marco Polo.
Not all of Firaxis’s new ideas are this successful. They’ve oversimplified the aerospace metagame to get you to focus on the great ground combat, and your base is visualized with all the detail of a screensaver. But overall XCOM's turn-based campaign is more coherent and elegant than anything the genre has granted us in years. Managing and developing a relationship with a team of soldiers resurrects the childlike joy of commanding a squad of action figures, and sending them on dangerous missions to your kitchen.
XCOM’s secret underground base is where your action squad lives. Between ground missions, time in this bunker is spent allocating resources to research, air assets, and toys for your soldiers (who, I like to imagine, are putting their ear to your office door, listening with crossed fingers, hoping to catch word that you’re investing in barracks upgrades that boost their survivability or experience gain rate).
There are plenty of plates to spin. On Classic and Impossible difficulties especially, almost every investment is a chin-stroker: your commitment to a long-term strategy is regularly called into question as opportunities to unlock something that’ll help you immediately present themselves. To fully outfit my team with Carapace Armor, I sold my only UFO Flight Computer on the gray market. My soldiers had more HP, but I’d sacrificed the opportunity to let my scientists tinker with the device and discover new technology. Until I could pull one out of another downed UFO, at least.
Managing your scientists and engineers is the nucleus of the metagame. They’ll notify you of new projects, and you’ll say “Laser shotguns sound scary, please go invent them.” Research and production is mostly a linear progression (plasma guns are a flat-out upgrade over lasers, which beat your initial ballistic weapons), but stellar mission performance or having an eye for efficient resource spending can create shortcuts to endgame tech.
But as you spend more time in these areas, it sinks in that your base does a pretty poor job of evolving with you. Your base resembles an ant farm—a clever template that had the opportunity to provide a constant sense of activity while granting an all-at-once glance at your paramilitary bunker. New rooms appear as you erect more workshops or satellite uplink facilities, but you can never really put your nose up against the glass. As you revisit your base’s layers, you start to notice that nothing changes; if I’m producing a medkit or a cannon, if I have five scientists or fifty, the facilities look identical. “The new engineers arrived this morning, Commander,” my technician reports. Well, where the hell are they?
It’s baffling that bases didn’t get more love. Given the cross-section design, it’s a missed opportunity that none of the ants in your farm express themselves—it’s like buying a plastic hamster mansion but owning fabulously boring pets. Having a few tokens of your discoveries (and conquests) pop up around the base would’ve made a huge difference.
The decision to represent soldier injury almost identically to how it was done in 1994 is especially disappointing. When soldiers are wounded, they go on medical leave. Mechanically, I love this: it encourages you to cultivate your bench, and it gives tactical mistakes more gradients. But when a soldier returns home hurt or dead, your base conveys this in the least interesting way: a few words of automatically generated text.
Losing a character you’ve invested 10 or 20 hours in is one of XCOM’s most significant events, but it may be more tragic that XCOM is so unenthusiastic about reflecting or preserving this history. I would’ve loved to see injuries actually visualized: why not create a sickbay where I can check up on Sergeant Mal Reynolds, who I dumbly put in the crosshairs of a Sectoid Commander in Mexico? My Christmas wish would’ve been for a system where the moment of death is somehow recorded, letting you relive and reevaluate your mistake or martyr’s sacrifice.