Game review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

In the battle between turn-based and real-time strategy games, I am on the side that gives me at least a minute to decide how to move forward. Turn-based it is then!

XCOM is only the second strategy game I’ve played on the PS3, the other was the real-time WWII themed R.U.S.E. which had a lot of potential but was too fast paced for my liking. On normal difficulty my forces would be overwhelmed by those pesky Nazis in minutes not giving me enough time to do anything. It was too hectic and did not feel ‘realistic’. As in, if I were really a commander, surely I’d have more than thirty seconds to decide where to move a battalion.

XCOM is not afraid of overwhelming your ground forces with alien Nazis but once they’ve shown up you’ve got all the time in the world to think about how you’re going to deal with them. Likewise outside of the battlefield, you can think all you want about whether you should pump funds into researching a weapon or direct the science lab’s efforts into an autopsy, to build a workshop or a laboratory, to spend money on training soldiers in how to heal faster from their wounds, or to perhaps buy more fighter jets to fend off invading UFOs.

"Let's pump these aliens for info. Haha! I said pump and we're in a gas sta- ARGGH, fire! Fire everywhere!"

“Let’s pump these aliens for info. Haha! I said pump and we’re in a gas sta- ARGGH, fire! Fire everywhere!”

There are choices aplenty in this game, and though it can feel overwhelming for my OCD-lite self, the fact that there’s no timer counting down putting me on the spot, gives me time to breathe and almost relish the predicament I’m in, the joy in figuring out how to get out of it.

So your battle against a cheekily-designed alien menace is on two fronts, from a literal turn-based 6-man battle in various Earth-bound locales, and from the XCOM headquarters, managing your funds in powering up your force with better weapons and equipment, and progressing the story. One plot point might require you to capture a live alien in the field, another expects you to get the science labs to research a special item, etc.

All the while, the 16 countries that take part in the XCOM initiative are suffering attacks, which raises their panic levels. If a country’s level reaches high enough, they’ll leave, so you’re constantly having to appease them. It’s the most annoying part of the game, as if I see a country going into the red there’s nothing I can really do about it unless I get a request to deal with aliens there. The only way I can alleviate the situation is to send up a satellite above the country, but that’s easier said than done, if I don’t have enough money, and the monthly pay check is still a while away.

"I didn't sign up for this man, game over, game over!"

“I didn’t sign up for this man, game over, game over!”

The ground battles are addictive stuff, and very well thought-out. You end up ‘leap-frogging’ your soldiers in a realistic manner, move one dude to cover, then his team mate to another slightly ahead. If you run too far ahead by ‘dashing’ you may alert aliens too soon. The more battles your soldiers survive, the higher they level up in rank and ability, and you end up mentally assigning personalties to them. Life histories. When they fall in the battle field, it’s forever. You grieve, and then move on.

I played this game on easy mode as I’m new to the franchise, and my first loss occurred midway through the game, when after an intense alien base assault, I lost one of my guys who’d only been on a handful of missions, and who I’d only brought along because the rest of the veterans were recovering from previous wounds, and also because he was South African. I saw poignancy that he should be in the team to vanquish this particular base which was in his country.

Well, the dude got killed by an insect variant of the alien race, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he then turned into an evil zombie, so I had to kill him again. The easy thing would have been to simply load up an earlier save, but other than the fact that that would be cheating, I think it made the game more ‘cinematic’, that this rookie didn’t make it from this mission, and it keeps the game tense and entertaining.

There is a lack of psychiatric help in this game unfortunately.

There is a lack of psychiatric help in this game unfortunately.

I’ll try the game on a higher difficulty one day, but I can already foresee the panicking countries giving me headaches. I know that the priority should be to send up satellites over countries as soon as possible, but it’s always easier said than done!

So I’m probably not cut out to be a leader of nations, that’s fine. But I know that most of my soldiers will always have my back, I’ve kept nearly all of them alive during this war and they know a leader is not the same as a gamer. Hoorah.

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