XCOM: Enemy Unknown & Enemy Within

Last year saw the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a sequel to a popular gaming franchise from the creators of Civilisation. I didn’t expect to become a fan of this game, but (as with Civilisation) I ended up getting sucked in. This month sees the release of the game’s expansion: Enemy Within, so I thought now was a good time to take a closer look at this game…

What is XCOM

I have to confess that I never played any of the earlier XCOM games, but its an interesting premise. Aliens are attacking the Earth and the XCOM Project is set up to try and stop them. As the XCOM commander, the player has to manage a secret underground base and battle the alien invaders all around the world. You are assisted by a handful of surprisingly fleshed-out characters who work for you, give you advice and, occasionally, even question whether your actions are truly for the greater good of mankind.

Binary Gameplay

The two key gameplay elements of XCOM are base management and squad-based combat. In your base you must build new facilities, choose new research and engineering projects, recruit new soldiers and issue them with equipment and manage your global satellite and interceptor network. You also scan the world looking for signs of alien activity and then dispatch your agents to deal with the invaders.

An XCOM soldier taking aim at the enemy

An XCOM soldier taking aim at the enemy

Then, once your squad is on the ground, you engage in turn-based combat. During your turn you order each member of your squad into position, making use of cover and height advantages, in order to complete your objectives. Your mission could be to kill all the aliens, to rescue civilians or recover technology. Both of these aspects of the game are deep and fun and complement each other. Neither feels superfluous or ‘tacked on’ as they would in some games (like the terrible vehicle sections featured in pretty much every first-person shooter since Halo!).

Randomness

Aside from a few key missions, which always happen in order to tell the overarching story of the invasion, quite a lot of the game is randomised. Even if you re-load a save and restart a mission, you might be presented with a different map or differently positioned enemies. This randomness adds to the replayability and unpredictability of the game, as subsequent playthroughs feel different even though you are essentially reliving the same experience.

Dice-rolls also feature in the combat, but you are told the probability that a shot will connect. This means that an 85% chance shot will sometimes miss, but this adds to the tension and to the excitement when a good shot pays off. This amount of randomness in a game can be frustrating, but, for the most part, XCOM manages to balance it well and it works well as a core part of the game’s design, adding to the tension and feeling of relief and achievement when a manoeuvre pays off.

Acceptable Losses

You WILL lose people. This is a simple fact of the game, and if you are someone who always has to 100% a game, this might not be the game for you. Only one member of your first squad survives the tutorial. You will lose soldiers on the battlefield, you will not be able to rescue every civilian and the alien technology will advance whether you are prepared for it or not.

XCOM HQ, the base management screen

XCOM HQ, the base management screen

There are also moments in the game where you are told about three sets of abductions, but only have the resources to respond to one and have to make a tactical choice. Sure, it’s incredibly frustrating to lose one of your fully trained and equipped Colonels and, yes, there are the occasional cheap deaths, such as enemies shooting through walls and getting critical hits. However, for the most part, death is inevitable and it can usually be accepted as ‘bad luck’ or the result of a poor tactical move.

Enemy Within

The recently released expansion, Enemy Within, adds quite a lot to the game. Its a good, old-fashioned expansion pack, rather than a small piece of over-priced DLC, which seems to have become the more common practice in recent years. The expansion adds two new ways to upgrade your units, through genetic or mechanical modification. It also adds another, human threat into the mix. Battling other humans breaks up the combat with the aliens quite nicely, adding some much-needed variety.

I will say this, however. Without wanting to spoil, there is a point where your base gets attacked by the aliens. This is an unavoidable mission and, if you are not prepared, can be overwhelming and close to impossible. I ended up having to re-load an earlier save to make sure I was ready to take it on. I don’t usually like ‘save-scumming’ and it kinda breaks the experience of the game, but I felt I had no choice. If your top six soldiers aren’t equipped with the best gear when this event triggers, this mission is too difficult.

Apart from that ridiculous difficulty spike, however, I enjoyed the extra content as I felt it mixed up the action nicely.

Final Thoughts

XCOM is It was one of my favourite games of last year, possibly of all time. It is a far from perfect game, with its fair share of little bugs and glitches, but none of these are game-breaking. I’ve clocked up nearly 90 hours and am on my fourth playthrough, so, if nothing else, I can at least say that it is very good value for money!

Recommendation: Buy it!

Without question, even if you are not into strategy games, empire-building or turn based combat, this game is so well-designed and executed that it is definitely worth a try. There is a demo available on Steam, so you can at least give it a go…