Sunday, November 04, 2012

Tech: XCOM: Enemy Unknown review

Play "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" for any length of time, and you'll bring back some war stories from the battle against the alien invasion:

The rookie was dead. She had charged out of cover to toss a grenade at the corner of the grocery store. Brave, but foolhardy - it had left her exposed to the X-Rays' return fire. Sarge had been shot, too, and was quickly bleeding out against the store's front wall.

The medic who could have helped Sarge was pinned down behind a car. Whether intentionally or not, the E.T.s' suppressing fire had ignited the car's gas tank, and the whole thing was about to go up. If the medic didn't move now, both he and Sarge would be dead.

The sniper raised his rifle, lining up on a shot on the Floater that was suppressing the medic. It wasn't an easy one - right through the windows of the truck the sniper was using for cover - but it was the only chance they had. Hit, and the medic could move and stabilize Sarge. Miss, and...

In the game, you command XCOM, a clandestine organization devoted to stopping the alien menace. Most of the time, that involves sending a team of soldiers to an abduction site or crashed UFO somewhere on the globe to eradicate the visitors. Between missions, you research new technology, build up your secret base, and manage your soldiers.

Firaxis smartly eliminated the annoying aspects of the XCOM series out of "Enemy Unknown," while leaving the core gameplay intact. You're still sending squads of soldiers up against dreadfully powerful aliens, but the game doesn't force you to micromanage fifteen different inventories or spend half an hour searching for the last alien on a level. Instead, the focus is squarely on tactical combat - sending soldiers from cover point to cover point, using skills and abilities effectively, and minimizing your losses when things go wrong.

And things will go spectacularly wrong. Every casualty is a huge blow; once your soldiers die, they're gone for good, and it can take a dozen missions to build up a veteran squad. For maximum pain, you can even play in"Iron Man" mode, which automatically saves your game after every move (thus preventing you from retrying a disastrous mission).

Predictably, "Enemy Unknown" de-emphasizes the global strategy "Geoscape" portion of the original game. You control one XCOM base instead of many, and there's never any question of what you should research or build next to advance the plot. Hardcore XCOM fans may not like how the base portions are now mere prepwork for the ground combat missions, but I think it's worth it when you're getting tense turn-based action in return.

Rating: 85/100


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