Rental Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I’m a grown man, with not a lot of time on my hands and important bills that need to be paid. That means I have neither the money to buy a lot of $60 games nor the time to play them enough to write a “real” review. Thankfully, in my area, there’s a true rarity: an independently owned rental place that rents video games and isn’t Redbox, called Media Wave Entertainment, in Fairfield, CT. My mission: rent a video game, play it for my normal rental period of five days and four nights, and write a review based off of that time.

Upgrading old classics for the modern gamer is always a touchy subject. Make it too much like the old days, and new gamers will get scared off. Make it too easy to give the game some sort of mainstream appeal, and you risk turning off the fans who played the game when it was new and who would be the day-one purchasers of the title. It’s a delicate balancing act that many companies try to maintain, many of who end up failing. It’s even more perilous for a game such as XCOM, which has had a small yet fever-pitched fanbase of dedicated gamers who still play the game, either via the Steam rereleases, via DOSBox or, if they’re truly hardcore, on rigs still running Windows 98 with the original CD installers, in which case hopefully they’re listening to Beck’s Mellow Gold album while Pinky and the Brain plays on their TV.

Firaxis, the developer that hosted Sid Meyer’s games and who are now the last vestige remaining from Microprose’s corpse, took on the task of doing the tactical game reboot of the XCOM name (with 2K Marin of Bioshock fame taking on the tactical shooter). In terms of taking care of a treasured name, it doesn’t get much better than Firaxis, as they created more of them than I can remember without a Wikipedia search. So how did they do with the game that put MicroProse on the map?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Systems: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), XBox 360, Microsoft Windows
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: October 9, 2012
MSRP: $59.99 (360, PS3), $49.99 (WIN)

The story for XCOM couldn’t be simpler: aliens have touched down on Earth, and they are not here for a friendly chat, or even a quizzical anal probing. Players take the role as the commander of XCOM, a global collective of nations with the primary goal of defending Earth from alien invasion (leading to believe that alien invasion was at least prepared for; if this was realistic, we’d have XCOM “truthers”, much like we do for 9/11 and Pearl Harbor), which involves leading a medical research team, an engineering team, and sending soldiers into battle when aliens either touch down or when a UFO is shot down by planes. Players can also send satelites into orbit to keep an eye out for incoming aliens over various continents. Occasionally, players will have to choose between one of multiple areas being invaded; whatever isn’t chosen, their panic level rises, and if a country’s panic level if all the way up to five by the end of a month, they withdraw their support – and money – for the XCOM project; if half the countries drop out, the game is over.

The first thing I noticed, once the “tutorial” part of the game was over, is that resources are at a premium, even on normal. Money is particularly tight, as funding only comes in at the end of each month and there’s a lot that has to be researched, built out, and outfitted onto soldiers, and the gains to be made on the “grey market” never seem to be enough. Furthermore, just building out the “ant farm” of home base requires time; time to excavate the ground, and time (and increasingly precious money) to build out, neither of which are really available before yet another alien attack occurs.

Combat itself involves an isometric playfield and a turn-based system, all of which are sponsored by the word “cover”. Gaining and keeping cover are of prime importance, because unlike a first person shooter where it’s possible to shoot your way out of problems, if a soldier ends up in a bad spot, either through poor decisions or actions in battle (most objects are destructible), they can be picked off very quickly. Most human soldiers, on normal, have six HP, where aliens have varying strengths based on their class. One shot that succeeds takes off one HP, though headshots score twice, so it’s possible for someone on either team to get a lucky shot and take our a soldier or alien. When lining up a shot, players are given the percentage of a hit and a critical, Fire Emblem style. Each participant gets two “turns”; they can use both of them to sprint to cover beyond their initial field of action, they can move and then shoot, they can simply shoot or, if they have the proper class and skill, they can shoot and then move. One thing of note is that fog of war is active on all maps, and enemies won’t move until they are “found”; even when they do, they get a free move to cover, which could put careless scout units into danger.

Soldiers on the XCOM team are equally disposable and priceless. Everyone starts out as a rookie, unless a perk is purchased at XCOM headquarters, and even that doesn’t happen until someone’s promoted to a certain class. Getting someone there is the problem. On the one hand, soldiers can become overpowered with the right skills and usage, but that just makes using them in that way riskier, because one careless move can get them taken out. There is no revival; if someone dies, they’re gone for good, and while it’s possible to purchase new soldiers inexpensively, they all begin as rookies so the process begins anew. Further, even if someone is shot and loses a bit of their life, there is a convalescence period before they’ll go back out, depending on how much life they lost. When things are really tight, even having your best soldier laid up in sick bay can be particularly painful. At the very least, soldiers level up quickly, and rookies still have use before they rank up into whichever rank they specialize in, be it heavy weapons, sniping or others. The problem with rookies is that there’s no way to tell which discipline a soldier will grow into until they rank up, so it’s not possible to put a particular rookie into action with the intention of making them a specific class; this could have been better handled by Firaxis. When they do level up, they’re given one skill per rank to level up in. Once this is selected, there’s no way to go back to the other skill. In actuality, these limitations work out well for the sake of balancing the game, as anyone using soldiers properly will be able to gain a well balanced team in no time.

The notable thing to mention about XCOM is that it’s hard. While it’s easier than the 1994 original, it’s by no means a walk in the park, even on normal difficulty. The learning curve is about the game-time month of the game; after that, the difficulty spikes hard, much harder enemies show up, and the demands of maintaining a proper force start to strain monetary and time budgets. In my brief playtime, I was unable to finish a game, but when I brought the game back, I was in a pickle, with two countries very close to high panic, and my team up against the wall in some more challenging stages, underpowered and under-ranked with my Major laid-up in sick bay. While I could eventually gut my way out of it, it wouldn’t be easy. I wasn’t very good at the original XCOM so I’m not exactly looking forward to the higher difficulties, but there’s something here for anyone, no matter their skill level.

BASED OFF OF A RENTAL, WOULD I BUY THIS GAME? – I already did… for the PC. While the PS3 version is great, it’s still vanilla compared to the much more robust PC edition, which is $10 cheaper at retail, more likely to be discounted with Steam sales coming (mine was 50% off, thanks Amazon!), and able to run on older gaming rigs with little problem. Furthermore, with Steam Workshop virtually guaranteed to be coming along sooner rather than later, it’s going to be an even more powerful gaming experience that a console just can’t compete with, especially with a $10 higher MSRP.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, in four days of playing, is an engrossing, well balanced game encorporating multiple styles of stratgegy together in a way very similar to the original which this game reboots. While not ahead of its time like the original PC game, and with some of the more hardcore players pooh-poohing a few design decisions meant to make the game more accessible to 2012’s gamers, this is as effective a reboot of a beloved property as one can get, and continues Firaxis’s winning ways. It’s a recommended purchase for anyone, especially for the PC gamer that this is a love letter to.

RENTAL SCORE: B+

EDIT: I was reminded that despite such modest stats, XCOM: Enemy Unknown does not run on XP; it requires Vista and up. Frankly, this is stunning considering the kind of rig this will run on, but it’s true.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.