– By Jay Krieger
The most accessible and enjoyable entry of the X-COM Franchise, to date.
Never had I ever played nor heard of the original 1994 “X-COM: Enemy Unknown” computer game until five years ago. My first time with the game left me unsatisfied. I could appreciate the mechanics and depth of strategy options available to players, but the lack of tutorials and slow pacing of gameplay made it difficult for me to delve much deeper than the initial surface.
Still, for a title made in the mid-90’s, the games mechanics made playing a memorable experience, despite it not ageing well.
The game spawned several sequels that slightly adapted the original’s core mechanics, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 when developer “Firaxis Games” would take a crack at remaking the PC cult classic, making “X-COM” accessible and simplistic enough for all to enjoy.
Whenever a developer approaches a cult-classic franchise and wishes to remake it for a modern pallet, fans tend to grow wary of such attempts, afraid that the finalized product won’t resemble the franchise they’ve grown to love. Thankfully, the changes Firaxis made to this sci-fi purist strategy game haven’t changed the key fundamentals . The game still feels, and more importantly, plays like classic X-com.
Players take the role of the nameless commander of the X-COM initiative, a government organization that monitors Earth for signs of alien activity and eliminating them accordingly. The commander’s job is twofold, as players both manage the X-COM’s underground base facility and issue orders to soldiers on missions.
Players spend a majority of their time engaging in skirmishes with alien forces, either on story missions, responding to periodic UFO crashes, and abductions sites.
Story missions have objectives that aid the player in understanding the true motives of the alien invasion, thus moving the story along though it doesn’t get in the way of the game’s true forte: killing aliens.
Periodically the commander will receive notifications of alien activity around the globe. After selecting a squad of soldiers and deploying them to a location of alien activity, the player will then systematically move units between different types of environmental cover (abandoned cars, trashcans, buildings) and engage enemy soldiers they discover along the way.
Soldiers have a limited number of steps they can take before their turn is over (think of the game map as a chess board with guns) so utilizing cover in the environment can be the deciding factor of how long your soldiers are likely to survive (typically, not very long).
And keeping your squad alive is of the utmost importance: if a soldier is killed in combat, they’re dead for the remainder of the game. This sense of permanent mortality will cause players to struggle with any risk reward mentality, of either sending a soldier into dangerous situation or deciding which units are worth sacrificing for the good of the squad.
For the first couple of missions, squad members are a dime-a-dozen as they all relatively have the same skills. But after several missions, soldiers will earn promotions alongside new abilities and roles, thus players will be hard-pressed not to grow attached to individual soldiers as they’ll grow from recruits to Majors, seeing their growth in abilities is satisfying and rewarding.
If a commander doesn’t methodically plan a squads preparation for each mission, as well as every movement of the squad, they’ll quickly succumb to the games punishingly difficult AI. Even on a normal difficulty play though, I encountered formidable AI that flanked my squads, utilized special skills and abilities, and weren’t afraid to rush my squad.
This is by far some of the best AI I’ve experience in a strategy title. It not only makes players have to consider every tactical option but also delivers a strong incentive for replay on even harder settings. And while a commander must be ready for any situation, if players haven’t properly researched and created a proper arsenal of weapons, they’re damned to fall later on in the game.
In between missions, you’ll return to your X-COM base and expand by building new facilities, hire replacement troops, research and build new equipment, as well as conduct autopsies on captured enemies to analyze their alien technology (and anatomy).
Sloppy base management will ensure certain failure during missions as a result of your soldiers having inadequate equipment. It’s here that players will receive messages about enemy activity, monitor the worlds panic level (if a certain country’s panic level is too high, they will leave the X-COM initiative and take their support and benefits with them), as well as tweaking squad load outs.
The player’s enjoyment of the single player campaign will stem purely from their interest in difficult turn based strategy games. There’s a steep learning curve but once players discover the fundamentals of gameplay, X-COM goes from punishingly difficult to punishingly awesome. The last few skirmishes of the game , if not planned properly, will result in countless deaths of your soldiers. Though, in the end, a players failure is a reflection of their not mastering a particular element of gameplay.
Going back and attempting to play older X-COM titles is difficult due to the archaic and slow pacing of combat but Firaxis has now made the gameplay flow in a way in which the player is never bored. There’s very little downtime during skirmishes, making combat engaging as well as a pristine example of perfected turn-based combat. Though what would turn based combat be, if not challenging?
Players have nothing to worry about as even on the normal difficulty X-COM Enemy Unknown is a hell of a fun game. It would be an understatement to say that Firaxis hit the mark with revisiting such a cherished franchise and leaving the core gameplay relatively untouched while breaking down and improving upon elements of combat, squad and base management, as well as creating a more streamlined and accessible addition to the X-COM Franchise.