March 26, 2023
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Review: ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ shines with permanent gameplay

“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is a modern remake of 1994’s “XCOM: UFO Defense.” While this video game is a streamlined version of its 1994 counterpart, it is still a callback to the ruthless gaming era. The game will build the player up for success only to tear them down. “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is an unforgiving game, but when the player rises from the ashes and achieves success, it leaves the player with a grin and a desire for another challenge.

“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is a strategy game set in the near future at the beginning of an alien invasion. The player manages XCOM, an elite international force funded by various countries tasked with protecting Earth from extraterrestrial threats. The game is separated into two distinct but equally important sections. As the commander of XCOM, the player manages the XCOM base and orders their squad of soldiers to fight enemy combatants at different worldwide stages.

All aspects of what XCOM does are left open to the player. Every choice is a conscious decision, and the consequences to actions are always present. Spending money on satellites may allow the player to find UFOs before they touch Earth, but the funds the player spends on satellites might leave their troops with mediocre equipment. All countries on Earth must be protected or else they may withdraw their support, ultimately leading to failure. The decisions one makes in managing XCOM ultimately determine how his or her soldiers fare on the battlefield. The technology the player researches and the tools their engineers create produce armor and firepower to better arm their soldiers.

The strategic elements of the battlefield are different than the long-term management of XCOM. Players see immediate consequences after each command the player gives their soldiers, followed by a turn by alien forces. The loss of a soldier in combat means their permanent death, and frequently players must make such sacrifices during missions. Some missions feature a goal to spice up the combat, such as protecting civilians or raiding a crashed UFO. New enemies are introduced at a pace that stops combat from ever getting stale.

While the game is fun and compelling, it does little to draw the player into the world of the story. The lackluster plot rests on voiceover segments and text logs shown when players reach certain criteria, such as researching an enemy weapon. Sound elements in the game achieve mixed results; audio cues such as alien cries to alert the presence of an unseen enemy and mood-evoking background music are solid elements to the game, but hearing the same one-liner five times in a battle grows stale quickly.

At times, the number of critical attacks seems to betray the player, with the player’s soldiers missing an almost adjacent enemy. The randomization of the game events can sometimes create difficult scenarios, especially at higher levels.

“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is challenging, even at its normal setting. Adding to the difficulty is the addition of “Iron Man” mode, which saves the game after each action, and choices are set in stone as they are performed. A person’s playing style changes drastically when there is no undo button.

In XCOM, sacrifice must be made, and for reward, there must be risk. Because of its permanent nature, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” creates an excellent balance of challenge and reward.

Overall rating: 3 stars