XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Review in Brief
Game: A near-future science fiction turn-based strategy game.
Good: Impressive genre-bending twist on the genre; the first technologically contemporary turn-based strategy game in a while; excellent long-game strategy.
Bad: Unbalanced and mismanaged strategy; often tedious; excessive influence of random chance; no plot; clunky interface; glitchy graphics.
Verdict: An impressive superficial update, but merely an average turn-based strategy game underneath.
Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: Only for fans of turn-based strategy games.

“A fresh coat of paint to hide the faults in the foundation.”

After seeing a good number of clips and videos from XCOM: Enemy Unknown (and knowing little about the franchise otherwise), I was actually a little surprised to realize it truly was a turn-based strategy game. The game goes to pretty significant lengths to hide or disguise that fact that it’s a turn-based strategy game through and through. The graphics are far more advanced than any game in the genre that I’ve ever seen, and the game actually uses a legitimate physics engine instead of relying entirely on pre-rendered attack and reaction animations. The setting, weapons, and characters are also uncharacteristic of the genre, and it would not be a stretch to suggest that individual scenes or moments in the game could easily pass for a cover-based shooter or other genres.

Now, when I say that the game “hides” the fact that it’s a turn-based strategy, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that being a turn-based strategy game is a bad thing. Turn-based strategy is one of my favorite genres, and Final Fantasy Tactics remains my all-time favorite game. However, even as a huge fan of the genre, I have to admit that the genre has some fundamental faults and weaknesses that limit its appeal, and to date I’ve found very few games that overcome these weaknesses. I still love the genre, but there are still problems that need to be solved within it.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown dresses up the turn-based strategy genre to the point where it is almost unrecognizable, but this façade is merely cosmetic. At the fundamental level, the game is still a turn-based strategy game, and does little to address some of the most common problems of the genre. Within the genre, the game is pretty good, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown does little to appeal to gamers that do not like turn-based strategy games anyway, and what strengths it has to set it apart from other games in the genre are offset by the game’s significant weaknesses.

The Game
Aliens have attacked earth, and as the commander of the specialized XCOM military organization, you are in charge of mounting the counter-response. From your headquarters, monitor for alien activity and dispatch your troops to deal with alien attacks. As you deal with their attacks, research the alien invaders, find out their weaknesses, and find out their communication methods, with the ultimate goal of finding a way to stop them once and for all.

The gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is divided into two segments. The first is the turn-based strategy short game, comprising individual battles. With up to six troops assigned to four different classes, you’ll enter battlefields with no idea where the aliens might be hiding. Move through the battlefields, staying in cover and picking off the aliens until you’ve destroyed all the foes nearby. The long game between these battles is something of a simulation/management game: use your limited resources to build up XCOM’s command center with new facilities, allowing you to research and develop new weapons and armors to help in the fight against the aliens. While doing so, make sure to keep the sponsoring nations of XCOM happy by responding to alien activity within them: failure to do so will lead to their withdrawal, severely limiting your resources. Lose too many countries and the game is over.

Disclosure of Biases
I never played any of the older X-COM games, so some of the features that are standard in the franchise seem new to me. I’m somewhat certain the game’s notion of fog of war is not so much borrowed from real-time strategy games but rather from the franchise itself, but I’m not totally certain. With how much time has passed since the last real release in the franchise, though, I think it’s somewhat fair to treat it as a full reboot with limited influence from the original games.

The Good
The strength of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that it’s a pretty good turn-based strategy game. If it seems like I’m understating the game’s good qualities, that’s because most of the good parts of the game are just those inherent to the genre. It does little to really set it apart from the genre, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s still a pretty good example of it, despite its weaknesses.

The “fresh coat of paint” I mention in the title of this review is the fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown really does not look like a turn-based strategy game. At different times, it looks like a cover-based shooter, a real-time strategy game, or other genres. For the most part, this does not actually make a practical difference in the way the game is played compared to other turn-based strategy games, but it provides a new view, and occasionally gives some subtle twists on the classic structure.

To look first at the ways in which gameplay is legitimately changed, XCOM: Enemy Unknown borrows two concepts quite closely from other genres: the fog of war of real-time strategy games and the cover-based combat of most recent third-person shooters. First, unlike many turn-based strategy games that let the player see the entire battlefield at any time, XCOM: Enemy Unknown only reveals the portions of the battlefield visible to the actual characters. What this means is that oftentimes the player has to move around in the dark without knowing where an enemy will be found. This fundamentally changes tactics because one must keep in mind all the places enemies could be instead of perpetually knowing exactly where they are. Unfortunately, the benefit here is lost a little bit in that enemies always react and move the first time you see them, meaning that advanced tactics like setting up an ambush are not enabled.

The other major mechanic is cover, as seen in third-person shooter games for several years. Throughout every battle field are things to take cover behind, like branches, buildings, and cars. When in cover, enemies stand a significantly lower chance of hitting you, with cover conferring massive bonuses to evasion. What’s more, when not in cover, enemies prioritize you as a target, which compounds with the lowered evasion to basically guarantee a swift demise. Thus, the entire game ends up being spent in cover, moving around between different pieces of cover and finding ways to gain advantageous locations based on enemies’ cover. This adds a strategic element to the game that is missing from many turn-based strategy games, making the terrain a legitimate pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, I never got the feeling that many of the levels are particularly well-designed to take advantage of this. Most seem like their goal is simply to provide adequate cover rather than using the level design to encourage specific tactics.

Other elements are brought along from other genres, too, that can subtly influence gameplay. For example, many elements of the environments are destructible, which can facilitate certain strategies. For example, if an enemy is hiding behind a destructible piece of cover, it can be advantageous to destroy the cover with one’s first move, letting the rest of your soldiers have greater accuracy to finish the enemy off. Given that the game is based on soldiers and guns, reloading is also a gameplay dynamic as well, forcing the player to take ammunition into consideration when planning out their tactics.

In addition to those changes to the way the game really does play, the game also possesses several cosmetic changes. Attacks that do splash damage, for example, are directed by a free-aim system instead of explicitly selecting a spot on the grid. The effects of those attacks, and other attacks, are rendered in a full physics engine as well. I’ve never, personally, played a turn-based strategy game that used legitimate dynamic physics simulations for the combat actions and reactions. The camera plays into this as well; the battlefield is rendered in full 3D, meaning that the camera can be rather cinematic. For example, when a sniper picks off a foe from across the battlefield, the camera will seemingly rest on the sniper’s shoulder and watch his perspective as he shoots the enemy.

Thus, while the fundamental mechanics of XCOM: Enemy Unknown are unmistakably a turn-based strategy game, the game goes to pretty great lengths to dress it up with a new coat of paint and some nice shutters. The ultimate result is a turn-based strategy game that actually fits as a major console release, eschewing the genre’s tendency to be relegated to portable games over the past few years based on its typically outdated graphical style.

Technologically Contemporary
I alluded to this a little bit in the above section, but it deserves mention here as well. One of the weaknesses in turn-based strategy games over the last couple console generations is that graphically they’re rarely contemporary. Aside from the cutscenes in Fire Emblem: Awakening, for example, that game was still somewhat outdated. That’s part of the reason why turn-based strategy games have been more common on handhelds than consoles in recent generations: the genre typically is not graphically interesting enough to warrant full-console releases.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the first turn-based strategy game that I’ve played that actually is completely contemporary. Rather than pre-rendered animations and sequences, everything is rendered in real time. Battlefields are portrayed in full 3D with an actual camera that moves around to provide first-person views when aiming at enemies, cinematic shots of attack reactions, and cinematic shots of new enemies appearing. The camera could have gone a bit further, of course; it still defaults to isometric views, when really it could have stuck with over-the-shoulder views more often to disguise the genre even more, but it’s still an impressive improvement.

The other technological improvement, as mentioned above, is the inclusion of a full physics engine. Reactions are no longer pre-scripted falls or dodge animations, but rather are dynamically generated. So, for example, if you kill an alien that was hiding behind a wall, they may actually fall back and bounce off that wall. Other times enemies will fall off buildings and react in other more realistic ways. While the frame rate and some other pesky issues mitigate the value of this a bit, it’s still a nice step forward for the genre, and proves that turn-based strategy games can still work as full-priced releases when effort is put into their visual nature. Now, I just hope in the likely sequel, they deal with the animations when your troops are firing at an enemy at point-black range – right now, they fire half off into space.

Excellent Long-Game
One of the interesting parts of turn-based strategy games is the balance between the long game and the short game. The short game is the individual battles, the squad tactics, the configurations, and the attacks. The long game occurs between and across multiple battles and corresponds to leveling up your party members, buying new equipment, unlocking new skills, etc. In this respect, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a better balance between the two than most other turn-based strategy games I’ve played. In most, the long game exists specifically to contextualize and support the short game, but in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the long game is a strategic endeavor on its own.

This starts with XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s very different approach to the long game. In almost every turn-based strategy game I’ve played, the long game is contextualized by a world map that the player moves around. Fights are located at certain locations, shops and towns are scattered about, and random encounters might pop up on the trails. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, on the other hand, the long game takes place in a stationary headquarters. You develop your headquarters by adding new facilities, researching new technologies, and building new weapons for your troops. Then, from your headquarters, you monitor the world for alien activity and respond accordingly.

The long game is excellent for a number of reasons. First, the structure of it makes the world feel legitimately large. Because you’re never actually out moving around the world, it feels like the entire world really is the game world: you don’t need to be able to see every corner of it because you’re monitoring it from above and going where needed. But more importantly than that, this approach to the long game fundamentally changes some of the traditional turn-based strategy elements. You have research facilities to create new weapons and technologies, engineering areas to build new weapons instead of buying them from shops on the world map, and a barracks to train and promote your soldiers. The actual results of these endeavors match pretty closely with traditional games in the genre, but the new flavor is excellent.

Most importantly, what is implemented within that new approach or framework is itself strong as well. The long game is not just to provide equipment and abilities for the short game, but rather it has strategy all its own. You start the game with very scarce resources and have to decide how to best develop your equipment, research, and satellite coverage. There are weaknesses in this strategy, of course, in that there is really only one winning strategy (building satellites first) and resources remain scarce until the moment they suddenly become abundant, but it’s still an impressively strategic long game to complement the strategic short game.

The Bad
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a number of flaws, and while some of them are inherent problems of the turn-based strategy genre that the game doesn’t solve, others detract from the game both within its genre and within the modern gaming library.

Mismanaged Strategy
The first flaw common in turn-based strategy games is that because of the long battles, the flexibility of the equipment system, and the different tactics available, balance is difficult to attain. On the one hand, many turn-based strategy games are subject to strategies that make the game far too easy. On the other hand, many provide the player the opportunity to pursue many strategies that ultimately will lead to failure.

The possibility of failure, of course, isn’t inherently a bad thing. That’s how you learn and improve at the game, you mess up and learn from your mistake. The problem in many turn-based strategy games, however, is the speed with which you pass through that loop. Imagine a feedback loop: play an area, fail, evaluate why you failed, refine your strategy, repeat. You complete that loop until you complete the area. In games like Uncharted, which reload almost instantly, you can pass through that loop once every minute or so. In RPGs, with longer battles, it can take a few minutes to pass through that loop. Turn-based strategy games, though, often have battles that take over half an hour, sometimes even as much as an hour. If you’re going to go through that feedback cycle more than a couple times, the game is going to get extraordinarily tedious, and those failures are going to start to seem more and more petty given the time they require to resolve. Of course, frequent saving can prevent you from getting too far lost in this long cycle, but even frequent saving can’t help when, occasionally, it’s a failure half an hour ago that’s actually responsible for your most recent loss.

The real problem here, however, occurs when it is not obvious before the loss of what exactly you will need to do to avoid the issue. So long as the player has adequate information in advance to know what they may need to do, the fault can reasonably be placed on them for not adequately preparing. I definitely had battles I lost in XCOM: Enemy Unknown where I could say, retrospectively, “Yeah, I was a bit careless there.” However, there were also times when, in my opinion, there was no way to know in advance what you would have needed to do. One instance of this occurs at the very end of the game. In the final battle, you’re confronted with three enemies who each have a certain ultra-strong attack at once. Up until now, you’ve only encountered one enemy with that attack, so you could usually strategize around it – but three? As it turns out, there are a couple items you can equip to resist that attack, but it is impossible to know beforehand. This isn’t something a frequent save can handle because you have to back all the way out to before the mission even started to respond properly.

This issue comes up several times in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, however. In many places, there is only one winning strategy, and the only way to discern it is to have already failed once. Failure in games isn’t a bad thing because it facilitates learning, but mandating failure is bad because it means that the player must relearn each individual battle instead of transferring experience from earlier fights. In several battles in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I found myself restarting after I discovered where the enemies were hiding. Pulling nine enemies into battle all at once was a recipe for failure, but by being more careful I could avoid fighting them all at once. Again, however, there was little way to know how to divide them without having already failed at the battle once before.

However, the feedback cycle within individual battles is minor compared to the much larger feedback cycle in the long game. As referenced above, one of the strengths of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that it balances short-term strategy with long-term strategy very nicely. However, this flaw plagues the long game just as much as the short, with even more dire consequences. The winning strategy in the game is to focus on building satellites first. The game does tell you this during the loading screens, although that fact alone is a bit disappointing: the game ought to support multiple long game strategies, too, but instead there is really only one way to win. Failure in the long game doesn’t mean losing a half an hour of game time, though; it can mean losing two, three, four, or your entire game. It is possible in XCOM: Enemy Unknown to get to a point in the long game where you simply cannot compete. You lose, and not ‘game over, try again’ lose: lose, no recovery, no bouncing back, there is nothing you can do. Some purists might like that, but I do not. Even in other turn-based strategy games, there is very rarely a point of no return like this: you might have to wander around fighting random battles on the world map for a while to level up and buy new equipment, but with enough time you can still recover. Not so in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Time is always ticking away, enemies are always getting stronger, and there are always new challenges to address. It’s part of what makes the game tense, gripping, and engaging, but it does create this undesirable risk of truly losing.

Often Tedious
The other main flaw in XCOM: Enemy Unknown that comes over from the rest of the turn-based strategy genre is that for non-fans of the genre, games can often be tedious. A battle takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete, and there are dozens of battles across the game. The majority of the time spent in battle isn’t overly engaging, challenging, or interesting; there are brief periods of planning out a strategy followed by longer periods of simply executing the strategy, oftentimes followed by even longer periods just moving around and waiting for the next significant event to occur.

This happens in all turn-based strategy games in my experience, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown is particularly guilty of it. You control a squad of six characters and move them each individually on your team’s turn. For large portions of the game, you’re moving around maps without knowing where aliens are. That means a significant chunk of the game is spent very slowly, deliberately moving each troop one at a time from this cover spot to the next cover spot. Deeper strategies can be similarly tedious as well; for example, later in the game I realized that it’s beneficial to first move your troops into attack position, then start attacking in order to know who has the best chance of hitting, etc. That ultimately ends up almost doubling the time taken on the turn because you have to iterate through all your troops twice, a time-consuming process.

The game could have benefited hugely from at least some modicum of squad-based controls. Instead of having to move each soldier individually on every turn, there ought to be a way to point to one location and tell everyone to group up nearby, then let the computer automatically assign the troops to their cover spots. You could then modify the plan, of course, but it would be a shortcut past 95% of the time commitment involved in this slow, deliberate movement. Similarly, a way to apply a command to all troops at once, like reload or overwatch, would have been much appreciated as well.

Even beyond that, though, there are other issues in the game that can make it rather tedious. First, the missions end up very redundant. There are only three real types of missions: vanilla attack missions, civilian rescue missions, and bomb defusing missions. First, the differences don’t actually really make much difference; both civilian and bomb missions boil down to a motivation to finish the mission as quickly as possible. The normal missions could be divided into smaller categories, such as attacking a downed alien ship, invading an alien stronghold, or ambushing an alien craft that just landed, but these categories have very little influence over the strategy involved. Most good turn-based strategy games have an enormous variety of mission types, but that really isn’t the case in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. So, toward the end, the game really starts to feel redundant and mechanical.

Finally, the other major issue that contributes to the tedium of the game is such a major annoyance that it deserves its own section of this review.

Excessive Random Chance
I’ve never played a turn-based strategy game that used random chance as consistently as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Most games I’ve played allow pretty reliable accuracy except for either specific situations or specifically powerful moves. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, however, the influence of random chance is unavoidable. The vast majority of shots you’ll take will hover around the 50% accuracy range, sometimes topping 60% or 70% if your strategy is effective. The only times it really goes any higher than that are with enemies that don’t bother trying to hide from your shots.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it suggests to the player that they are absolved of responsibility for failed tactics. If, for example, you fail to take down an enemy on a turn because four out of your five 50% shots missed, you feel like the fault isn’t your strategy, but rather just your luck. In reality, your strategy ought to change to maximize your luck, but it’s easy to blame the layer of random chance between strategy and execution and miss the flaws in your strategy. Secondly, and relatedly, the random chance layer does render your strategies useless sometimes. I had battles wherein four out of five 80%+ chance shots missed, rendering meaningless my strategy. I ran the numbers on one of those just to make sure I wasn’t guilty of my own first criticism, and sure enough, the odds of failing to take down the enemy I was aiming for were under 2%. However, with so many battles, there’s bound to be one fight like that for everyone, just by random chance.

The problem here gets to an issue in education and design called learned helplessness. As they play, the player starts to feel like they have only limited control of their actual outcome. They learn that regardless of their strategy, the game is going to ultimately decide if they’re successful or not. With that in mind, why try a really complicated, advanced strategy when the game could decide to sabotage it anyway? Why not just attack head-on and restart if it fails the first time, knowing that eventually the dice will fall in your favor? It’s demotivating to feel like your planning is at the whims of the random number generator, even when you know that good strategies will average out to better outcomes over time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that part of this is the fabric of the appeal of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The genre-bending cover-based combat needed an incentive to stay in cover, and this is it. The problem, however, is the all-or-nothing accuracy mechanic. The demotivating element of the random chance isn’t that random chance is involved – random chance is used in every turn-based strategy game. The demotivating part is that random chance can render an attack entirely unsuccessful with startling regularity. In my opinion, the right approach to motivating better tactics and preserving the benefits of cover would have been to increase the variability on the amount of damage done. Instead of, for instance, a 50% chance of doing 8 damage and a 50% chance of doing 0 damage, it would be a 50% chance of doing 4 damage with the likelihood of doing less or more evenly distributed around the mean. Better or worse positions would shift the center of that distribution, but the average mean and mode would stay aligned. Thus, the average damage done from the same position over time would remain the same, but instead of it being assembled by 8s and 0s, it would be assembled by 3s, 4s, and 5s. There are, of course, counterarguments to this, but this is just one way the frustrating influence of the random number generator could have at least been limited visually.

Little to No Plot
For me, having a plot is not an inherent part of a good game; there are plenty of great games out there with weak plots. The plot is an opportunity to make a game better, though, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s biggest missed opportunity is in its weak plot. That’s especially egregious for a turn-based strategy game, the genre that in my opinion has given gaming some of its all-time greatest plots.

The trouble with the plot in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that… well, there just isn’t one, really. The game opens with aliens attacking earth for unknown reason and with unknown objective. Your goal, as the commander of XCOM, is to stop them. You do this by fending off their attacks while also working towards a way to bring the attack to them. The plot, then, is almost entirely defined by technological progress: capture an alien to research its biology, capture another alien to create a new device, use that new device to attack a new location, create a new item, create a new facility, use the new facility, attack the craft that the new facility finds, create a new item, create a new facility, unlock a new ability. That’s, literally, an outline of the game’s entire plot. Every single plot point is nothing but a new technological achievement with little context given for its usefulness beyond that it unlocks the next priority mission.

The game never shows any interesting turning tides in the war against the aliens. There’s no developments among different countries except for those that play as gameplay mechanics. The characters are solely there to serve functions, the engineer and the scientist, and could easily be replaced just by a menu system. Part of this is because the game goes to great lengths to be entirely open to your own direction: soldiers can’t be significant characters because any of them can die, nations can’t take a prominent place because any of them can choose to leave the council at any time, etc. Still, however, the fact that the stakes, motives, or purposes rarely if ever seem to really change within the individual missions adds to the tedium discussed above.

Toward the end of the game, the game does start to allude to a truly fascinating underlying plot. During the final battle, there are several voice clips that echo an incredible storyline. However, even here there is absolutely no pay-off. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but even what little suggested story there is in that final mission remains unresolved in the end. It would have been possible, even without changing the narrative structure mentioned earlier, to tell a radically different and much more engaging story simply by changing the cutscenes to include some allusions to the story suggested during the voice clips in the final battle, but alas, there is no such story.

The ironic part of all of this is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown actually did succeed at partially solving one of the recurrent problems of the turn-based strategy genre, which is a difficulty portraying its plot. The game does a masterful job of working plot progression into seemingly random missions, or building it into other missions under the guise of optional objectives. As a result, the presentation of the plot feels much more natural than the usual turn-based strategy “go here when you want to advance the plot” structure. The optional objectives feel like they’re consistently waiting on you, so you actively have to try to advance the plot rather than just choosing when to do so. It had the potential to tell a remarkable story, but the actual content of the story was entirely underwhelming.

Often-Clunky Interface
Turn-based strategy games are naturally very interface- and information-heavy games. There are so many statistics, battle details, and summaries that you need to play them effectively that it can be very difficult to present all that information to the player in an intuitive way. XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t always non-intuitive, but it definitely has several non-intuitive frustrating moments that can severely slow down gameplay (contributing to that tedium I mentioned earlier) or making the player’s strategy altogether more difficult.

First of all, adding and removing equipment is a pain. Each troop can have four to five pieces of equipment: armor, primary weapon, secondary weapon, and two items. You buy these from your engineering department and equip them either in the barracks or when you’re beginning a mission. If you’ve equipped a certain piece of equipment on one troop and you want to move it to another, you have to go to that troop’s profile, then go to their equipment, then remove each pieces of equipment you want to use elsewhere one-by-one. There is no way to remove all upgraded equipment from all troops in order to collect everything together. There is no way to even remove it all from one troop. If you forget who’s holding the nice new gun you just bought, you have to go through every single troop individually until you find it. If you’re doing this while equipping troops for a mission, you have to individually remove and add them to your squad to check them as well. If, while equipping for a mission, you realize a piece of equipment was held by an injured soldier, you have to back all the way out of the equipment screen, go to the barracks, remove that equipment, and come back to the mission equipment screen. It should never take more than a minute to equip for a mission, yet it regularly takes three or more minutes.

In most turn-based strategy games I’ve played, there’s a way to “preview” or tentatively check on movements before you actually execute them. After all, if some of your troops can see an enemy, one of them could communicate to another whether the enemy will be visible from a certain vantage point. However, in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, there is no such way to do this. On multiple occasions, I found myself moving a soldier to a location where I was certain they would be able to fire on a particular enemy, only to find out the enemy was not in their vantage point. Once finding this out, there is no way to go back and change the movement, either, so there’s no way to know for certain whether a certain movement is correct until risking the mistake by committing to it.

Oftentimes, the camera actually hurts the interface as well. For example, when aiming, the camera sits over the aiming troop’s soldier. Health is display above enemies’ heads. If you’re aiming at an enemy above the troop’s head, then the camera position hides the health meter. When you want to make sure to pick off the weaker of a set of enemies, it’s important to be able to see the health meter, and yet the camera prevents that from happening. Something similar also happens with free-aim; oftentimes, to aim correctly, you need to view the target from different angles, but there is no way to rotate the camera while free-aiming a grenade or rocket. So, you’re forced to guess whether or not the current aim will successfully hit all the targets you want to hit.

The game would have benefited from a way to actually view information about all your squad members on one screen. Oftentimes, I found myself trying to figure out which squad member had taken damage, or which was holding a certain item, or which needed to reload. After a troop’s movement on a certain turn, there is no way to check most of this information about them, and yet knowing that information would influence what the rest of your troops ought to do on that turn. For example, in one instance I wanted to move an injured troop close to one of my medics to be healed on the next turn. Both medics had already moved, however, so I wasn’t sure which one still had a medikit to use. There’s not really any reason that information shouldn’t be known to my squad, but the game’s interface just doesn’t make it accessible. Similarly, it would be nice to be able to look over the entire visible battlefield and check on specific visible enemies for information as well, but the only way to scroll over the battlefield is while under the auspices of moving a troop around.

Outside of battle, the interface is much better in the long-game strategy. However, one persistent point of annoyance for me in that regard was the difficulty levels assigned to each mission. Whenever you’re about to start a mission, the game lets you know how “difficult” the mission will be. However, after about the first five missions, every single mission is rated as either Difficult or Very Difficult. This is while new enemies continue to be introduced frequently throughout the later missions. So, in very short order, the difficulty levels given become entirely meaningless.

Finally, the last frustration I have with XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that it’s surprisingly glitchy. The glitches aren’t game-breaking, fortunately; the game never froze on me or forced me to lose progress. However, they’re still frustrating, and it starts with the frame rate. Turn-based strategy games aren’t usually renowned for their graphics, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown tries to change that by rendering a full 3D world and using a real physics engine for attack animations. That’s great, but unfortunately the developers apparently failed at optimizing it because the frame rate lags throughout the game. Almost every cinematic moment of the game is plagued by a drop in frame rate that severely hampers the appeal that spectacle would have otherwise had. This becomes particularly problematic when there is a lot going on at once, such as several of your troops counterattacking at the same time. At that point, it becomes especially annoying because it’s difficult to even see what the result of all those attacks was. Along that same line, the game for some reason often just pauses or hangs before or after attacks by either your own troops or your enemies. The camera just stays in place for 10 to 15 seconds after an attack, as if trying to focus on something else that is going to happen soon.

Additionally, multiple times pieces of information the game usually provides just disappeared. For example, the game usually illustrates how far a troop can move while trying to move them, but sometimes that line would disappear, forcing the player to guess and check where to move. Similarly, the game usually displays a sphere around splash damage to show the player whether certain enemies will be contained in the blast, but that, too, occasionally disappeared, making it impossible to guess whether an attack would hit a certain enemy. I’m particularly bitter about that last one, too, because it happened during the final battle and forced me to replay it after two enemies were ever so slightly outside a rocket’s blast zone.

The Verdict
The turn-based strategy genre has fallen on relatively tough times in the past several years. Once one of gaming’s eminent genres, it has been relegated to handheld games despite having some strong franchises in its fold. This has mostly been because console technology has leapt forward by such bounds that a turn-based strategy on a console nowadays would look very outdated. The grid-based combat, the pre-rendered sprites, and the turn-based gameplay fly against most trends in gaming over the past couple generations. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, however, shows that the elements of the genre that made it a poor fit for modern consoles are not inherent. A turn-based strategy game can be dressed up with a nice new coat of paint in the form of contemporary graphics, a fully-rendered 3D world, and a dynamic camera.

However, the turn-based strategy genre also had some flaws in it that went beyond the primitive graphics, and unfortunately, XCOM: Enemy Unknown does little to solve these. It does not succeed in striking a proper strategic balance, falling on the side of relying too much on a narrow set of necessary strategies that the player must somehow find on their own, rather than allowing true creativity and improvisation. The game is often tedious, with battles taking an enormous amount of time even when relatively little actually happens. Even among turn-based strategy games, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still merely average when ignoring the window dressing: it relies too heavily on random chance, it doesn’t provide the information the player needs to succeed, and it has no plot at all to speak of. Even that window dressing leaves something to be desired as it creates several glitches and pauses throughout the game. Thus, ultimately, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a solid turn-based strategy game, but despite its best efforts, it doesn’t have any appeal beyond most games in the genre.

My Recommendation
If you like turn-based strategy games, you’ll probably like it. If you don’t, you won’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *