XCOM: Enemy Unknown review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown sees a PC classic re-imagined in mouth-watering style

T3 Platinum Award
Reasons to buy
  • +

    Classic turn-based strategy

  • +

    Deep and lengthy campaign

  • +

    Atmospheric soundtrack

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Being on the back foot

  • -

    Losing favourite soldiers

  • -

    Merciless difficulty

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown heralds the return of one the best and most engaging turn-based strategy games on both PC and consoles

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a re-imagining of one of the most revered PC strategy games of the mid-nineties, which may explain so gloriously out of time with current trends in gaming.

Here's a game that rewards patience and restraint over simply steaming into a firefight and hoping for the best. Like Starcraft and Total War, players succeed in XCOM through cunning resource management and tactical awareness.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: Plot

The set-up for XCOM is dead simple: evil aliens have invaded planet earth and it['s up to the player to confound their efforts. To that end, they're put in charge of XCOM, an international defence initiative charged with repelling the alien invasion.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: Gameplay

One half of the player's duties concern the day-to-day running of XCOM's resources. It's up to them to decide what projects to assign the Research Department (alien autopsies, armour construction, weapon blueprints), what equipment and base add-ons the Engineering Corp should busy themselves with and which instances of alien sightings the XCOM troops should respond to.

They're given a budget to pay for new equipment, weapons and vehicles from countries that form part of the XCOM funding group. Not only do they have to keep an eye on how they're spending their funds, they need to pick which distress calls they respond to carefully.

If they allow a series of abductions or terror attacks to occur too frequently in a country, that nation will withdraw from the XCOM initiative and take their precious funding with them.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: Mechanics

Once players respond to a distress call or an alien sighting, a squad of XCOM troops are dispatched and the ground battle begins. All the action takes place from a top-down view at a slight angle and players can use the D-Pad to swivel the map at right angles to explore the terrain.

Typically, maps contain numerous raised positions, instances of cover and, at the start of each battle, much of the map is shrouded in a fog. It's only as players send their troops into the map that the overall layout is revealed – along with the positions of the enemy alien troops.

Battles play out like an elaborate game of chess with moving pieces. The player moves their squad about the map and then the AI controlling the aliens takes its turn. It's here that players need to take a firm grip on any impulse to drive ahead into the map without making sure their troops are covering each other.

The urge to explore has to be reigned in, because that's how one loses at XCOM; push forward too quickly and before you know it, the aliens will have you outflanked and outmanoeuvred. Once this happens, you're in for a world of hurt.

Make no mistake: XOM is utterly cold-hearted in its treatment of the player and their soldiers. It'll storm them with armoured four-legged killers, buff up its own troops with psychic powers and position mammoth shock troops above them to rain down grenades and laser fire.

To make matters worse, XCOM allows players to customise troops and put their personal stamp on them. Furthermore, any troops that survive a series of missions gain new abilities, weapons and even nicknames. Every time an XCOM troop dies, the player feels the loss personally.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: Verdict

For a game whose natural home is on PC, XCOM's console variants scrub up very nicely indeed. It may face stiff competition in its release window, but XCOM deserves to sell by the bucketload. Whether this is a classic re-imagined or a reboot for the entire series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of 2102's best releases, provided you have the patience, restraint and tactical know-how to play it.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown availability: Available now

XCOM: Enemy Unknown price: £39.99

Nick Cowen

Nick Cowen studied Classical Civilisations and English at the University of Witwatersrand and joined T3 as Editor at Large, writing about subjects including video games, gaming hardware, gadgets and consoles. You'll also find plenty of content by Nick on T3.com about video game industry events and shows.