I’d heard of XCOM before Enemy Unknown, but I had never played it back in the day. It was, from what I understand, a series of intense turn-based tactical strategy games, set on an Earth in the throes of an alien invasion. It was up to the multinational XCOM Project to eliminate the extraterrestrial threat.
Surprisingly, not much has changed since 1994, when the series started. Bucking the trend of everything turning into a grey and brown military shooter despite its past history, XCOM: Enemy Unknown remains a proud turn-based affair, with bags of complexity and permanent, often lethal consequences for your actions. Your small squad of four to six soldiers is deployed somewhere on earth, facing the alien threat in fairly varied circumstances: defending the populace from alien terror missions, retrieving a VIP from a hotspot or investigating a crash-landed alien UFO.
However, while XCOM is demanding it is also (mostly) fair. While your soldiers can easily be flanked and killed, lost and gone forever after one bad move, the rules of the game are made clear to you early on – in the very first mission, your initial squad of four is almost extinguished, with just one man making it back alive. The secret is positioning and timely use of your soldier’s abilities – with these tools, your soft and squishy force can defeat an enemy much greater in number and stronger in armaments.
Thankfully, the enemy is also aware of these facts. While on Normal they aren’t brilliant tacticians, it never feels like the game is giving you an easy fight. While the constant challenge of avoiding flanks and getting ambushed by the enemy is draining, it is also exhilarating – with no magical revive button back at home base, your actions have lasting meaning. Making it home with everyone alive is an impressive and satisfying victory.
Ultimately, that’s why I’ve kept going back to XCOM – I’m up to 22 hours played now and it feels like I’ve still got some way to go in the game. With meaningful tactical deployments (and a full strategic side to the game, managing your base, researching new tech and upgrading your soldiers), Enemy Unknown is a constantly engaging video game, unafraid to handle adult themes and demand excellence in every mission. It’s brilliant.
This article was written by William Judd. When he’s not playing video games for fun and profit, William writes for Mobile Fun, the UK’s largest online retailer of Kindle Paperwhite accessories.