XCOM: Enemy Unknown review
Boots on the ground
Still, in the arena that counts the most—ground combat—Firaxis gets it thigh-slappingly right. It’s here they remind us how good they are at making boardgame-like videogames: they know how to take something static and turn-based and turn it into a sci-fi chess diorama.
Beautiful boards are the foundation for this. Every map in XCOM feels handcrafted and familiar; your skin crawls a bit when a Muton busts open the door of a record store (“Step away from the ABBA, bastard!”) or a Chryssalid crawls across a train track. Tiny, intricate, manmade things populate the game. Fast food counters, beer taps, and bus seats have offered me cover. I’ve shielded a soldier I named Vin Diesel behind a gas pump.
And it all breaks like it’s made of crackers. Almost every weapon is a wrecking ball. A Plasma Rifle’s splurt of radioactive jade cuts a 15-foot hole in anything it touches. Rockets and grenades chomp half-ton bites from brick walls. The fragility of these spaces expresses the aliens’ power, personality, and the urgency of the war you’re waging. And then there are the UFOs, which flip the script—they’re foreign, cavernous, and bottlenecky in a way that impedes flanking tactics.
40 hours in, I’m still occasionally encountering new maps. The only shortcoming of the levels is that they don’t express Earth’s diversity. If you’re saving civilians in Egypt or China, you’ll probably do it in a vaguely Western convenience store. A desert, Arctic, farm, or jungle tileset would’ve been welcome.
Most of the missions you’re sent to these places to complete are standard, satisfying kill-’em-alls. The others introduce twists that—hilariously—endanger your soldiers even more: VIP escort, bomb defusal, civilian rescue. The latter are called Terror missions, and they unapologetically stack the deck: a dozen AI civilians are spread across the map, and how many you save reduces the panic level of the hosting nation. Innocents die in one shot, and aliens don’t consider it unsporting to kill ones that you haven’t even seen yet. Oh, and there are probably some Chryssalids running around. You know, that alien that converts anything it kills into a durable super-zombie. Good luck!
Terror missions are XCOM’s magnum opus of helplessness. Few games can prompt the player to make heavy decisions without making a big, narrative show of it, but XCOM does here. Do I put my star soldier in guaranteed danger to rescue a doomed lady? Halfway through my campaign, two Chryssalids were inches away from pouncing on a civilian inside a British pub. My Heavy had a clear shot. I put a rocket between them, bursting human and caustic alien blood in all directions. It was the only choice. She was a goner, right? Killing her saved lives, right? No one appeared to reassure me I made the right call.
The emotional thud of death—friendly, collateral, and enemy—is partly owed to Firaxis’ animators. In defiance of the game’s unnecessarily short-leashed camera zoom, its characters articulate like stage actors playing to the back row. Aliens and humans turn to face new threats the moment they’re flanked. An explosive kill activates generous, gravity-defying ragdolling, long enough to drop a xenophobic slur before the corpse hits the ground. Mutons—XCOM’s green-armored linebackers—chest-thump when they score a kill. Cyberdiscs fold open like Swiss Army frisbees to reveal their arsenal. Sectoids scamper like evil toddlers, with a gait that conveys the weight of their Roswellian brains.
The alien AI inside those heads is generally great, too. The alien playbook is consistent: get spotted, run the hell away into cover, then exploit your weapons’ greater range and power. If those tactics weren’t so effective, I’d call it predictable; a sprinkle more behavioral variance, or even mistake-making, would have been welcome. But they’re plenty brutal. Psychic enemies are incredible jerks, stealing the free will of your squadmates and making them shoot one another or commit suicide. When this happens, you have a turn to snuff the psychic. I tend to pull everyone out of cover, spending every active ability and explosive ordinance available to dump damage into the mind-controller. Moments like this are when all of XCOM’s strengths are laid out: a life, an asset you’ve developed, is on the line, and there’s a measurably small chance that they’ll live. Every shot fired trying to save this soldier is a held breath.
Beyond the restricted zoom, a couple of other camera-related issues did annoy me. The isometric camera tends to fight you when you’re trying to aim grenades and rockets at their maximum range. And the cinematic camera occasionally points itself at walls or leaps away during a death animation you want to see. Worst are the moments when XCOM can't seem to intuit what elevation level of the environment you're trying to examine, and renders the wrong slice.
When you end the campaign, which took me 23 hours on Normal, multiplayer awaits as a battleground to test your XCOM skills against friends or random people on the internet. With only five maps, the mode is probably too content-light to become a mainstay, but I’m glad it’s in here, and that it gives a chance to have a go as the aliens, or even field a strange interspecies team of up to six units. Any alien or customizable human you choose to send in has a point price attached to them, with a per-team point ceiling specified during pre-match. A bug frustrated in a few of my matches, preventing me from moving troops.
XCOM is a style of game that arguably hasn’t existed since original creator Julian Gollop released Laser Squad Nemesis in 2002; much of its appeal comes from the fact that it’s filling a long-standing void. That makes it easier to shrug off its flawed presentation of your base and other key elements. That includes inexplicably limited soldier customization, which has fewer haircuts than the actual military and offers a diverse selection of 15 nearly-indistinguishable American voices in a game where you command soldiers from 16 different countries.
Mostly, it’s a game that understands that loss can be leveraged in parallel with rewards to tell a great story. It paints from a unique emotional palette: doom, sacrifice, luck, surprise, revenge. It uses death like most of us use mayonnaise, and Impossible difficulty practically makes XCOM into a Mourning Simulator.
But this is where imagination fills in the gaps of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s purposefully lightweight script. The tale we tell ourselves of Captain William Wonka and his untimely death by an exploding forklift is much more personal and permanent than a pre-cooked narrative about alien invasion. Hemingway would’ve appreciated this approach. “All stories, if continued far enough,” he said, “end in death, and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you.”
Brutal, beautiful, emotion-wringing turn-based storytelling muffled by flat base design.