Every time gamers discuss the coveted “best game of all time” title, there are a few expected names that pop up. You know, Half-Life 2, Ocarina of Time, Grand Theft Auto IV. But there’s a dark horse that at least one PC fan seems to mention every time. The hidden gem of MicroProse, vastly shadowed by its more successful brothers in Civilization and Pirates! – UFO: Enemy Unknown (that’s X-COM: UFO Defense to you American readers). Featuring a perfect balance of tactics, strategy, horror, and tension, UFO: Enemy Unknown has carved a niche for itself amongst strategy fans, both those who remember its release and those who don’t. In any case, 2K Games must have seen enough of a market to fund XCOM: Enemy Unknown, even if primarily because the MS-DOS release of the original might be enough to put some interested gamers off.
Despite being marketed as a direct remake, XCOM (as I’ll refer to it herein) is more of a love letter to its predecessor. Rather than simply recreating the original game line for line, Firaxis have bravely changed considerably large aspects of the gameplay. All members of the team were required to have played and completed the original Enemy Unknown game to work on this one – an interesting tactic, but it pays off immensely. Sure, UFO:EU has been repeatedly labelled one of the best games of all time, but hindsight can pick holes in even the most beloved game and this is no exception.
Accessibility seems to have been the main motivator for change, but unlike a different remake I’ve recently played, XCOM ensures that all features fans of the original might fondly remember are available as an option. An all-new tutorial mode has been introduced, which I’m sure will be warmly welcomed by those who always tried to get into the original but the lack of any sort of help has scared them away.
More importantly, though, it’s hard. You have four difficulty options – Easy, Normal, Classic, and Impossible. Initially, I tried to play on Classic – hey, I do all right at the original – but nope. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and constantly coming home with just one squad member remaining was actually making me depressed. So I switched to Normal, thinking that it’d be a cakewalk. Well, no, it’s not all that easy either, but at least I’m getting better, I guess. I’ll stick to it until I learn the ins and outs, and hopefully promote myself to Classic soon. In any case, you’ll get the most enjoyment out of XCOM if you play in Ironman mode – this is a mode in which you’re limited to just one save file, intended to be a “classic X-COM experience”. If a soldier dies, he’s dead, no second chances.
But what am I talking about? For those of you unfamiliar with UFO: Enemy Unknown, gameplay consists of two distinct sections. Firstly is the overview stage. In this, you act as the all-seeing commander of the top secret multi-national X-COM alien defence program. It’s your task to keep the world protected from the alien invasion, while ensuring that each member nation doesn’t panic and withdraw support. In this stage, you have to run your ant farm-esque underground military base, performing all sorts of management tasks such as hiring staff, gearing up soldiers, organising research and funding expansion. When you’ve done all you can in your base, you head to the Mission Control room to pass time, watching your pending assignments click over as you anxiously await the news that an alien ship is attacking Melbourne, and if you don’t intervene then the panic level of the entirety of Asia will shoot up.
Then comes the combat stage. It plays out like a cover-reliant turn-based strategy. Well, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. You take four troops into combat (upgraded to six later on), and every turn each soldier gets two moves. These moves can be expended on movement, attacks, special attacks, reloading, etc. Additionally, you can end a soldier’s turn with an ability such as “Overwatch”, which has them shoot at any enemy that enters their line of sight. Clever battlefield tactics make the difference between life and death in combat – if you have a soldier expend all of his action points sprinting forward only to find an enemy beside him, unable to retreat back to cover, you can essentially consider him dead. Flanking, timing, and squadmate cooperation are all essential skills to master if you’re hoping to get anywhere on a difficulty above Normal.
At the start of the game, you’re thrown into a mission with four random soldiers, and have another couple waiting for you in the barracks back at the base. Each soldier has a name and appearance that can be customised, and a nationality and gender that cannot be. After gaining a promotion to Squaddie (as far as I can work out, making one kill), the soldier gains a specific class, such as Sniper, that will determine what role they have in your plans. The more kills they make, the more experience they receive, the higher their rank gets and the more bonuses they receive.
I loved the idea of all of the member nations contributing manpower to the X-COM project, even if the completionist in me wishes that there were far more nations involved, at last more that could contribute soldiers. What confused me a bit, however, is why soldiers from all 20-odd nations spoke with the same three voices. Would accents have been that hard to include? I always find it a bit off-putting when my Australian heavy is lamenting his missed shot with a thick American accent. Despite this, though, you’ll still find yourself getting tupidly attached to your soldiers and their silly nicknames, so much so that losing a Major can be enough to make you start over.
Also, no matter where your missions are around the world, be them Buenos Aries, Liverpool or Guangzhou, there are only a set number of maps that seem to appear randomly, depending on what type of mission it is. I just think it would have been nice even if just textures or something were used to differentiate between cities on opposite sides of the globe – Manchester does not look the same as Sydney, regardless of what XCOM might think.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a brutal strategy game; a true cry to the games of years past. Although it starts off somewhat tame, as the days tick over, managing the alien assault and the panic levels of Earth becomes far more hectic. All of a sudden, aliens will abduct people in three locations, all of which already have 4 star panic ratings. XCOM provides the same fantastic blend of strategy, tactics, and tension as its predecessor, while totally refreshing the entire game to suit contemporary tastes. No fan of the original will go disappointed, nor will any newcomer to the franchise – despite its shortcomings, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is truly one of the greatest strategy games of all time, a fitting successor to the classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, and an experience that any gamer with even the slightest interest in strategy should experience.