A remake of the classic XCom PC strategy game makes its way to consoles. How does it hold up?
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you're tasked with fending off a global alien invasion. From your underground base you'll manage research and development, build new facilities, and shoot down enemy UFOs. You'll also send your soldiers into turn based tactical combat with aliens on the ground. The campaign progresses over several in-game months as you develop your base and combat the aliens, eventually securing victory for earth. A typical campaign on Classic difficulty lasts about 20-25 hours and 25-30 missions.
Base management is XCOM's most unique feature and helps it stand out from other turn based tactics games. You're expected to do a lot more to keep your organization running than rearrange the gear on your soldiers. With limited resources you must decide what to research and build, where to deploy fighter jets and satellites, and which countries to focus on lest they panic and leave the XCOM project. It's a delicate balancing act as allied nations tend to panic and bail out on even if you're successful during combat missions on Classic difficulty.
XCOM's combat is similar to other tactical turn based cover shooters like the Front Mission series, Jagged Alliance series, Operation Darkness, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, or Battle Academy. It's a simple, balanced cover shooter with a relatively limited amount of depth and variety. Depth is limited to a small number of classes, weapon types, skills, and enemy varieties. Mission objectives are almost always to kill all aliens, with the rare bomb diffusion or civilian rescue mission. You'll usually employ the same basic cover shooter strategies throughout the entire game.
Environmental destruction is rarely seen in tactics games, and XCOM does it pretty well. It's fun destroying cover and then picking off exposed aliens, or blowing up vehicles that aliens are hiding behind. The cover system meshes fairly well with the level layouts, although there are occasional line of sight glitches, door glitches, and firing through solid walls.
XCOM's combat encourages camping and defensive play. The most reliable strategy is almost always to move to the edge of the map, hide behind cover and wait for the aliens to approach you. Ranged fire fights behind cover are very risky due to RNG and the potential for injury. If your soldiers take any damage at all, they'll be undeployable for several in-game days after the mission ends, and if they die they are gone for good. Ideally you don't want to give the aliens a chance to shoot at your soldiers at all. You're given several very powerful defensive tools like Overwatch and very few offensive tools. Even on bomb diffuse or civilian rescue missions, you're still given ample time to camp out and take enemies as they approach.
On all difficulty modes, groups of enemies will typically wander aimlessly around the map until they spot one of your units. Once you're spotted, the enemy group is forced to run and hide regardless of whether it's player or enemy phase. This is good if the enemy stumbles on your units during enemy turn because they won't be able to attack on that phase.If you run into the enemy during your turn, your units may be exposed and unprepared. Trying to flank an enemy risks alerting further enemy groups.
In most of the large outdoor maps, I had to spend 1-2 turns dashing ahead before I ran into any enemy resistance at all. Since dashing ahead is quite risky, you may end up spending several turns doing nothing but moving slowly and carefully under cover with no aliens in sight, which can be very boring. If you like camping and taking out aliens as they approach, you'll probably like XCOM's combat, otherwise you'll probably get bored. It is unreasonable to call XCOM fast paced when the best and most reliable strategy involves hiding from aliens until they move close enough to be ambushed by Overwatch.
XCOM can be played on 4 difficulty modes with an optional Ironman selection. Normal difficulty is suitable for new players with little tactics or XCOM experience. I had little trouble clearing Classic difficulty with a few reloads. On Impossible difficulty, the slightest mistake or poor dice roll will consign most or all of your soldiers to an early grave.
On an Ironman game you can't reload from a previous save, so any choices you make are permanent. Ironman is an interesting idea as it cements all of the randomness and mistakes you make in stone. In addition to bad luck, bugs can creep up and ruin an ironman run, such as game hangs during enemy turn, or enemy groups spawning or teleporting on top of the player. Ironman tends to exacerbate camping strategies as you can't reload if things go badly.
Combat speed is relatively slow for a tactics game. Animations can't be sped up or skipped, and common animations like firing a weapon takes 4-5 seconds. Overwatch shots are particularly slow, because the game game animates in slow motion while they occur. I get that the developers wanted slower players to understand what was happening, but it's irritating that there's no way to skip or speed anything up.
I had several issues with the console controls and camera of XCOM, especially compared to the PC version. Console XCOM treats the fact that it's a grid based game like a dirty secret. First, there is no typical grid sized cursor used to highlight and move units, nor are there any visible grid lines. Instead, movement is accomplished with a slow, inertia laden dot that slides along the ground from the position of the unit. Second, instead of clearly displaying movement range limits along grid lines, range limits are deformed to seem like the player can move their units in a freeform manner when they cannot. All this manages to do is confuse the player as to which grid tile their unit will actually move to.
The combat camera often has issues in areas where your units are underneath a visible roof or overhead, constantly resetting your view. I also ran into distracting flickering and transparency issues when ceilings or tall buildings were involved. The 3rd person camera angle during attacks reduces visibility and slows down the combat speed. The camera always resets to a default view when targeting, making it difficult to aim at targets when height levels are involved. There is a noticable delay between switching to a unit and being able to direct their movement, which slows down combat speed and feels unresponsive.
The PC version of XCOM provides better controls in comparison. The grid is clearly visible and selectable. The mouse can be moved around the screen to issue movement commands more quickly than the sluggish analog dot. The camera scroll speed can be adjusted for faster target switching and movement commands. 3rd person camera angles during attacks can be turned off. A wide range of keyboard hotkeys make selecting abilities and targets quicker. It's a fact that the PC controls allow a player to perform their combat actions more quickly and precisely. If you just want to mess around with XCOM you should be ok with the console version, but serious tactics gamers will want the PC version.
If there's anything XCOM does really well, it's in the graphics and atmosphere. Levels are detailed and realistic, aliens look menacing and animate very well, and the environmental destruction looks great. The CG looks somewhat dated, but it does the job. Often 3D tactics games suffer in the graphics department, but it seems there was enough budget to go around for XCOM. While XCOM is obviously no Crysis, I can't think of any better looking 3D turn based tactics games out there.
XCOM's sound effects and music are fairly average. Voice acting is strictly B grade. The two accented scientists that make up the bulk of the voiced dialogue through the game can be irritating. They're either waxing philosophical about the alien invasion or delivering flat lines during combat when you run into a new alien or alien artefact. The plot is bare bones and kitschy with a predictable ending. I found the long, droning descriptions of the sci-fi aliens and technology to be uninspired. Thankfully you can skip over most of it and get back into the game.
XCom: Enemy Unknown is a decent strategy title with some unfortunate control issues on consoles. XCom's tactical combat is well balanced but encourages camping and lacks depth and variety.
+Solid turn based cover shooting
+Wide range of difficulty levels
-Poor console controls
-Most tactical missions encourage camping
-Tactical combat lacks variety and depth
-Relatively slow combat speed
-Numerous bugs and graphical glitches