Hubris sets in after around 20 hours of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. We thought we saw the worst the aliens could throw at us, that the best of our veteran soldiers were invincible, and, worse, it occurred to us that this was Firaxis in 2012, not MicroProse in 1994. Reboot or not, we just couldn’t imagine that the Civ V developer would make a turn-based strategy game as cruel or as punishing as a hardcore mid-Nineties PC classic. So like every proud empire, our fall was hard, delivered by successive waves of Mutons, armoured Floaters, Cyberdiscs, and their kin as the aliens turned their efforts to taking advantage of our poor research choices and inefficient use of government funding, overwhelming every squad we could throw at them and pushing mankind into oblivion… and we saw that it was good.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hard, then, as long as you want it to be. Stick the ‘Ironman’ option on (one save only, no option to leave the game without saving first), play on the classic difficulty setting and be warned: XCOM veterans will be faced with increasingly tough challenges. The only reason we didn’t play the crushingly difficult top tier was because we remember Superhuman mode in the original and we don’t want to end up crying again. We’ll say this much now, though: we’re hooked. It’s a turn-based strategy game by Firaxis, which is almost a byword for addictiveness these days, but this is a potent time sink even by the studio’s own high standards. So we suppose the burning question is whether or not it can really fill the shoes of UFO: Enemy Unknown.
Superficially, it could be a totally different game. There are still three parts to XCOM – the base, the geoscape and the tactical screen – but the single base you control has taken an ‘ant farm’ perspective, the geoscape bears some resemblance to the original, and missions could easily be an entirely new strategy game, thanks to Unreal Engine 3. Firaxis has also been playing with the XCOM formula, taking some ingredients out and adding others like a baker trying to make a classic fruit cake their own: multiple bases are gone, replaced with a single base and a satellite grid; time units have been swapped out for a simper double-turn system; procedurally generated terrain has been replaced with a set number of maps; and large squads have been reduced to a six-man team. It sounds like a nightmare of dumbing down. But it’s not.
In XCOM’s defence, squeezing your resources in this way has made it a more interesting game. There’s no expanding into other territories with multiple bases if you live to regret your choice of layout, the limited squad size means you’re more protective about your team, set maps mean tactically interesting terrain, and the locations are so numerous anyway that you can play through again without seeing the same one twice. And time units? You won’t miss those.
We remember the old time unit system – you had to take a ledger with you each time you played to budget for every turn. We loved it, but we’re utterly converted to the new one that, without accounting for any special abilities, allows every unit to take an action, move then take an action, or move twice. You can’t kneel or go prone for a better shot, but cover is attributed a simple value (half or full cover) and you can ‘hunker down’ behind it for an even bigger defensive bonus. There’s no ammunition, though you do need to reload, and no inventory, so most soldiers can only carry one main weapon and one backpack item like a medkit or frag grenade. Many aspects of XCOM have been stripped down, simplified, and as a result you spend only a little time deliberating over kit or budgeting for your next move, and more time in the field, deciding the tactics that you hope will keep your team alive.
On Classic mode that’s a tough ask, because the game escalates fast. The aliens nearly always seem one step ahead; the respite you get when plasma rifles have been researched, your men get the protection they need from Titan armour, or your Interceptors are finally a match for alien vessels is brief enough to be rewarding before the ante is upped. Veterans will have an idea of what they’re facing and the challenges to come, but you’re still not prepared for your first encounter with a Cyberdisc or the alien ship that you discover is full of Mutons.
We have only one real gripe with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and as we are massive fans of the original, that’s to be expected. We’re cool with the fixed maps and even the way your squad starts outside the dropship, but the maps tend to be quite linear and the Skyranger always sets down at the edge of them, so you already have a good idea of the direction the aliens are in – there are never any surprises waiting in the dark for you when you land. The aliens only seem to be ‘triggered’ in batches whenever they come into sight, so once you’ve cleared a batch and as long as no one can see an alien, your men have all the time in the world to regroup and recover with no fear of an enemy advance. Both of these things take some of the unknown out of it; there was nothing quite like making that tentative walk off the Skyranger into the unknown, or the terror of exploring an alien base in the knowledge that Chryssalids and Mutons could burst through the room at the end of your turn.
Yet here we are, nearly 48 hours of playtime later, the end nowhere in sight, and enjoying XCOM: Enemy Unknown even more than we did at the beginning. It’s a worthy and far more appropriate reboot of the franchise, easily the most addictive game this year, and one of our favourite Firaxis games ever.