Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

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Title: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (7.6 GB)
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is also available on Xbox 360 and PC.
The PlayStation 3 version was used for this review.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 289 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
A turn based strategy game with heavy resource management, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an update of the PC classic X-COM: UFO Defense. Known for a high level of difficulty, fantastic strategy and the ability to name each of your soldiers, it consistently ranks at or near the top of every list of best PC games ever made.

Firaxis, with a few veterans of the original development team, has updated the game in spectacular fashion. You’ll have several difficulty levels to choose from, Easy, Normal, Classic and Impossible. Unless you’re familiar with the series and really know what you’re doing, or you just love punishment and pain, it’s best to start on Normal or Easy. There’s even a tutorial included which will walk you through your first few missions and help you get up to speed on tactics, research and resource management.

Set in near present day, aliens are invading the Earth bit by bit, landing in countries and abducting people. A group of nations forms XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat) with each pledging resources to help fight the alien attacks. You’ll pick a main base of operations on one of the continents each with their own bonuses. With North America, aircraft & air weapons cost 50% less to buy and maintain. For Europe, labs and workshops cost 50% less to build and maintain. In Asia, the Foundry and officer training is 50% less, South America gives instant autopsies and interrogations while Africa sees your monthly funding increased by 30%. If you play through the tutorial, you’ll only have North America and Europe to choose from, otherwise you’ll be able to start in any of them.

As time progresses, you’ll need to send your soldiers out into the field to respond to any number of situations and time will pass at an accelerated rate as they fly from your base to the mission point. Your soldiers will be deployed to the ground and you’ll have a set of objectives, wipe out all aliens in the area, find someone and escort them back to your ship, capture a live alien and so on.

Movement and combat has been simplified from the complex set of numbers you had to constantly keep track of in the PC game. Now, you simply use the Left Stick to aim the cursor at a spot and press X to move to that spot. The reach of the cursor is dictated by the movement available to a soldier in a given turn. Soldiers can move twice per turn, with an indicator showing you how moves they have left. On screen you’ll see a jagged blue outline showing the farthest soldier can move in one turn. You can move the cursor past that to a jagged orange line which indicates how far your soldier can ‘dash’, effectively using both of their moves to cover a greater distance. I did have some trouble with the cursor snapping to cover spots that I didn’t want until I got the hang of it and it hasn’t been a problem since the second mission or so.

Shield icons will show how much protection you’ll have in cover when deciding where to move. You’ll either see a half shield (decent protection) or a full shield (better protection). It’s critical to get your soldiers into cover and move them in groups because anyone caught out in the open will be torn to shreds in combat.

During that first or second move in a turn, you can also press R2 to bring up tactical choices. Depending on the load out of your soldier, you’ll be able to fire (if any enemies are in sight), throw a grenade, use medical supplies, go into Overwatch which will allow your soldier to fire on any enemy crossing their line of site in the next turn, or you can just Hunker Down, which doubles your cover and provides protection against critical hits but also reduces your sight distance. Other tactical options become available with promotions and upgrades to your soldiers so it’s important to build a squad that has abilities and equipment to compliment each other.

You can use the Right Stick to move the camera around the area but you sight distance is limited by the field of view of your soldiers. The rest of the battlefield is shrouded in the ‘fog of war’. The D-Pad will rotate your view of the area by 90 degrees which can be helpful when deciding how and where to deploy your squad.

Your turn is up when your squad has completed all their moves, then the aliens get a turn. It goes back and forth until one side wipes out the other or all your main objectives have been completed. For something as innocuous as a turn based strategy game, combat can be the most terrifying thing in the game. This is simply because when your soldiers die, they’re dead. No respwaning, no nothing, dead and gone. It makes the tactics and strategy much more important because you need that high ranking soldier with the experience, perks and weapons right in the thick of the battle but that also makes them very susceptible to getting killed. When your soldiers die, and they will die, you’ll need to replace them with new recruits that will need to be taught, promoted and upgraded all over again.

Another hallmark of the original game, naming your soldiers, has returned here. You can leave them with their default names, but part of the fun of XCOM is naming your soldiers and forming a stronger connection with them. Some people use family members, childhood friends, celebrities, or even people they hate. One of the testers named everyone on his squad LeBron James and customized their look to all be the same. It’s one more way of pulling you closer to the action and one more way of making it hurt that much more when they die.

Back at your base, also know as “The Ant Farm”, time is frozen until you move into Mission Control. You’ll see a cutaway side view of your underground base and you’ll be able to move from room to room to perform necessary duties for winning the war. This is where the other layer of strategy comes in. You’ll have opportunities to research captured alien bodies and equipment which will be critical in winning the game. You’ll acquire the materials during you missions automatically (unless you blow everything up with grenades and rocket launchers), and then set your Research department off to see what they can learn. The cost is measured in materials and time to complete, days or weeks.

Your soldiers will need your attention here as well. You’ll be able to view a memorial to the men and women that have died under your watch as well as see the current status of all active soldiers. This is where, post battle, promotions happen. Depending on the (predetermined) soldier class, (Sniper, Support, Assault, etc.) you’ll be able to choose a new perk for each promotion in rank. Whether it’s the ability to carry more medical supplies, to move an extra turn after firing or other special abilities, it’s critical to balance your squads and make sure the soldiers have a good mix of abilities to support and defend each other.

You’ll initially start with a squad of four but you can increase this to six through Officer Training School. You also have the ability to customize a soldier’s first and last name, race, voice, head, skin color, hair and hair color. While the options are somewhat limited, there’s enough there to customize your squad to your liking.

Engineering will fabricate new weapons, armor and more once the Research Team has ‘discovered’ them. It’s limited by cost (in dollars), the number of engineers required and power consumption. As new facilities become available, this is where you’ll go to get them built. You have to be smart when laying out new structures as they can give bonuses based on placement. Labs built adjacently will increase your Research speed by 10% while Power facilities built side by side will increase their output and so on. Each new facility also has monthly maintenance costs and power consumption to take into account.

The Situation Room gives an overview of the panic level in each of the member countries along with a Doom Tracker showing the overall confidence in your abilities. If the panic level gets too high, a country will pull out of the alliance along with their funding. If eight countries leave, your mission is terminated and the game is over. A successful mission in a given country will reduce the panic level there so it becomes important to focus your efforts where they’re needed the most before everything falls apart. There’s also a Grey Market available here to sell captured alien bodies and equipment to XCOM Member Nations but you have to be careful not to give away too much technology to any given nation.

Mission Control is the heart of the operation and it’s where you’ll see a large globe spinning and highlighting alien activity. This is the only room where time passes in the base and selecting the globe will allow you to scan for alien activity and make time pass more quickly. This is important when waiting for Research or Engineering projects to finish up.

You’ll find at times that aliens will be attacking multiple countries and you can only help one. You’ll need to take into account the current Panic Level in the different countries along with the mission difficulty and rewards available. A country you help will donate more money and resources while panic will rise in the population of the others. Rewards can be anything from money to scientists, soldiers and engineers.

As you launch new satellites to cover more countries, funding increases and more resources become available. Satellite coverage becomes critical allowing you to cover more countries and spot more alien activity before they can do damage.

You get a monthly report with a grade and recaps of your activity. You’ll also be given rewards in the form of more personnel or funding increases if you’re doing a good job. There’s also an XCOM Database available which gives you an overview of what you can do within each room from hiring and naming soldiers, their different classes, research, interrogation, engineering etc. It’s a good knowledge base that can be referenced at any time while back at your base.

The game is a fantastic mix of strategy, planning and high risk/reward and definitely worthy of the name XCOM.

Visuals:
Fans of the original will feel right at home in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The isometric perspective feels familiar and the graphical upgrade is appropriately beautiful. Firaxis could have left it at that and players would have been more than satisfied. Instead of taking the easy way out though, they went that extra mile and added greatly to the experience by getting up close and personal with the action at critical moments. When one of your soldiers is about to take a shot, the camera will swing right down next to them for a great view of the fight. This is actually an option (on by default) that can be turned off by veterans of the series who want a more classic experience.

Being able to see your soldiers in such detail changes the game from what the original was but it still feels right at home in the series. I had always imagined the battle from this angle when playing the original and now it’s actually here. With the ability to customize the look of your soldiers to a limited degree, the faces themselves don’t show a ton of differential so it’s easier to change up the hair and hair color to allow you to easily identify your soldiers at a glance once out on the battlefield.

The environments are nicely detailed with lighting effects adding to the creepy vibe. Weather will change at times as I deployed into a really nice looking rain storm at one point. Downed alien ships are a nice nod to the original game with wonderful new detail added and alien bases have a really great otherworldly feel to them.

Back at your own base, the “Ant Farm” is a fantastic addition to the game. You have a wonderful side view of your underground base and you can move around with the Right Stick and zoom in using L2. It’s really cool to be able to fill the screen with any of the rooms in your base, seeing the detail with soldiers or scientists going about their business. It’s a great addition that helps you form a deeper connection to the game and you soldiers, scientists and engineers, putting you right on the ground with them.

I did run across minor graphical glitches when moving in and out of cutscenes at times but they were so few and far between that they’re hardly worth mentioning.

Audio:
The music is moody and follows the tension well, building to a crescendo during intense battles and the background sounds are one of the high points of the game. There’s nothing more unnerving than deploying your troops in an unknown area and hearing the fantastically creepy noises the aliens are making somewhere in the dark.

The voice acting is good but not particularly memorable or great. It serves the story and never really gets in the way. Your soldiers tend to have very limited dialogue choices so expect a lot of repetition while on missions.

Weapons each have their own unique sounds and it just feels so good to hear the alien screams as they’re blown away by your soldiers.

Online/Multiplayer:
The addition of head to head multiplayer is new to the XCOM franchise and Firaxis has done a wonderful job of adding something of value that never feels forced.

You can choose between a Ranked Match, Quick Match or Custom Match. Leaderboards and Invites are available as well. The leaderboard is as simple as Win/Loss/Disconnnect and you can view by Top Players, Your Rank or Friends Ranks.

When setting up a Custom Match, you can make it Public, Private or LAN, select the number of Points available for squad building, (7500, 10,000, 20,000 or Unlimited), the turn time (45, 90, 120 seconds or Unlimited) and the Map, currently limited to five locations. You have the ability to choose from both the human and alien sides when building a squad and it’s these simple things lead to an endless combination of action and fun.

The Point and Time variations will have the most dramatic effect on any given battle. When editing your squad before a match, you’re limited by the number of points available. Soldiers and Sectoids are the cheapest options while the more exotic and tougher aliens will quickly wipe out your budget. There is no real right or wrong here as you never know what you’ll be going up against. A somewhat balanced squad could be just as easily overmatched as a squad filled with Berserkers if your opponent gets lucky and deploys the right combination against you. As expected, you can name every character in your squad, human and alien alike so you’ll feel the sting when they die.

The Time limiter does more than ensure that a match won’t take hours to complete. Unlike the single player campaign where you can pore over your options for as long as you want before making a move, the fact that you’ll have to make your moves with an eye on the clock changes strategy considerably. You won’t have the luxury of planning out every different scenario as the clock winds down on your turn. It can quickly lead to mistakes or serendipitous victories.

The multiplayer component may seem overly simplistic by modern standards but really it’s just the right mix for an XCOM game. This is a series that has always worked best as a single player game but it feels like Firaxis has cooked up the right ingredients to make a nice diversion from the solo campaign.

Conclusion:
As an update to the classic 1994 PC game, X-COM: UFO Defense, Enemy Unknown hits all the right notes. The essence or ‘soul’ of the original X-COM is still there which would be enough to keep fans of the series happy. The updates and tweaks to the gameplay are all for the better and just icing on the cake.

Turn based strategy games tend to be few and far between on the consoles in recent years but if you’ve never played one, there’s no better place to start than with the master.

Score:
9.0

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Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 18 consoles and 4 handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Twinturbo120 Aldo Iglesias

    Wow Josh, great review! I’ve never played a strategy game before but this one seems like the right place to start. I’ll give it a try

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1543933755 Stephen Cascio

    ps3 site, ps3 review, xbox screenshots? what happened there

    • http://psnation.org/ Josh

      This is all that Firaxis had available. The game looks essentially the same between the two platforms so I went with what I had rather than nothing.

  • Scubafinch

    Great review Josh. Looking forward to picking this up!

  • http://twitter.com/CanaryWorf Richard Hancock

    Wow, even for you Josh that’s a long review!

    • http://psnation.org/ Josh

      One of my longest but there’s an awful lot to say about this game.

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