In 1994, Microprose published the Mythos Games title, UFO: Enemy Unknown or, as it was more commonly known in the US, X-Com: UFO Defense. A game that blended a strategic management simulation with a turn-based tactical core, the game is now widely regarded as one of the classics of PC gaming. Over the years, sequels and spin-offs were produced with varying levels of success.
Now, Firaxis brings us a true spiritual successor to the original, in the form of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In many ways, the title is a direct port of the original title, using modern (Unreal Engine 3) technology to bring the game to modern hardware.
XCOM takes place in the near future, and follows the exploits of a multinational force of researchers, engineers, and military who must determine the nature of alien incursions and ultimately stop the invaders’ plan.
You play the part of XCOM’s commander, whose job it is to allocate resources and direct the military personnel in combat. Aiding you are the directors of the research and engineering teams, who advise you on which technologies you should investigate or items you should manufacture. There is a shadowy council which evaluates your performance on a monthly basis and rewards you accordingly.
As the alien menace spreads across the globe, you must be sure that each country’s terror meter doesn’t reach the top of the scale, or you will lose the country’s resources toward the war effort.
Ultimately, it becomes a race to develop technology from combat salvage sufficient to defeat the next wave of attackers, while simultaneously trying to determine the purpose of the invasion.
There are to modes to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
First, the strategic view, which gives you a cutaway view of the base buried deep underground. In this mode, you can control all the resources of the war effort, train troops, monitor global panic levels, arm interceptors, and more. The user interface here is very slick. While it presents itself initially as a 2D view, you realize by clicking on a cutaway room, such as the engineering section, that you zoom seamlessly into the room into a full 3D, animated scene. It adds nicely to the feeling of depth and immersion, and keeps the interface visually interesting in between combat missions.
The tactical mode occurs when you send your troops into combat. This is a 3D isometric view, fully-rendered in UE3 graphics tech. It is a nice update to the classic 320x200 resolution graphics of the original, and allows for some nice cinematic touches. For example, when one of your soldiers takes a shot, it drops into a dramatic over-the-shoulder view to catch the kill (or miss) as it happens. (Note, for the fan of a more classic style, these cinematic camera tricks can be turned off in the options menu.) These camera views are also used when one of your troops goes down, adding drama to the scene.
Tactical mode allows you to go up and down in “layers” of the world, like floors on a building, like the original. In theory, this is great. The problem comes in at the execution. Interaction with the environment for moving or shooting comes with left or right clicking in the game world. When the camera is set above elevation zero, the game must guess whether you are trying to click on (or see) something at or below the current level. The higher above zero, the more tricky this gets for the game, and cursor interaction can get twitchy, especially when one of your soldiers is on top of a hollow structure. In addition, this problem can be magnified when the game cannot determine which pieces of the environment to draw at your level, making it particularly hard to walk on the roof of some downed UFOs for example.
One other UI bug I ran into to be aware of: If you are a serial game-saver, you may run into an issue once you have a large number of save games where they no longer appear in the correct order in the load game UI. Moving older saves to a different folder (outside the game) will remedy this.
Issues aside, the gameplay is extremely solid, taking all the best elements of the original game and refining them based on all the things we’ve learned about game design in the last 18 years.
As mentioned above, the game utilizes Unreal Engine 3, and the game’s art team used the tech well. While the art is not as elaborate as a game like Gears of War, it has been polished to a perfect level of detail for this style of game. All characters, both friend and foe, have a distinct look and style from each other. Level design and art is solid, with good use of lighting and environmental details.
Cutscenes are fully rendered in a few places and serve well to move the story along, and in-game cinematics also blend perfectly into gameplay.
Sound is always tricky in strategy games, as you have a tendency for sounds to become repetitive quickly, but I rarely found that to be the case here. Pacing was handled well for dialog barks, and aliens didn’t make the same sounds every round of gameplay. In general, the sounds were designed well enough that no sound became obtrusive, and some of the alien effects were perfect in giving the player the sense that something really, really bad was about to happen.
There is an adversarial multiplayer mode in this game. I will be honest, I did not review it, because no one I talked to was interested in non-cooperative play. It was a universal hope that Firaxis will patch in co-op multiplayer scenarios.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that delivers on the rare promise of making you feel like you’re playing a classic game with new tech, and not feel that something integral was lost in the transition.
If you love turn-based tactical play, and never played the original XCOM, you need to take the time to pick this game up and find out why people still play the original game after nearly 20 years.