An XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review in 2020 because I feel like writing one

On the very last mission, very near the end, everyone was a bit banged up. It wasn’t their fault. It was mine. I knew – knew – that there was a sectopod somewhere close. I could hear the little shit clanking around. I wasn’t expecting him to have a friend. On their first turn, arrogance and bad positioning meant that my team ate a couple of explosive lasers that they really didn’t need to. But they did. I backed off, healed. And with a little patience and a lot of rockets, I blew up sectopod and co.

A quick scan of the map told me that there was one room left. No one was at full health. I had no more medkits. I was either going to win the thing or die horribly. Business as usual in XCOM, then.

Slowly, steadily, I made my way into the final room. The approach was a narrow corridor, about three – maybe four – tiles wide. I had an assault and a heavy in the front. My two snipers behind them. One heavy and my plot-relevant operative bringing up the rear.

And just as my team inched into the room, my assault caught a glimpse of the game’s final boss. Combat began. It was my turn. And I started to chuckle.

See, I ran with two snipers in my squad almost from the beginning of the game. Aiden ‘Zed’ Wallace was my very first sniper and he made it with me all the way to the very end of the game. Zed’s protege was Tariq ‘Emo’ Dunn. Both of them were extraordinary snipers. They hit the shots I needed them to, whenever I needed them to do it. And I never needed them to hit a shot more than I did now.

Zed went first. He had double tap – which I highly recommend in sniper builds because it’s hilariously fun – so he put two bullets neatly into alien brain, one after another. The final boss went down to a little under half health. Emo went next. And he crit for 19 damage. The boss dropped, I was giggling like a lunatic, and the end cutscenes started to play.

Eight years later, XCOM is still incredible

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based, tactical game in which you command a squad of up to six soldiers and are tasked with defending the world from an alien invasion. The story is bog-standard fare in a lot of ways, but it’s elevated by the relationships that you’ll form with the soldiers you command in each mission.

Soldiers join XCOM as rookies and, as they get kills, level up and earn specializations in one of four classes – Sniper, Assault, Heavy, and Support. (There’s also a subclass that any soldier can earn once you unlock the ability to test them for it, that allows you to expand a soldier’s skillset with telepathic abilities.)

These rookies are largely blank templates. They’re randomized character models, with randomized names and have no real personality to speak of. But the fact that they can be killed permanently, the fact that they can go out on a mission with you and not come back home, fosters an attachment to them that I haven’t really felt for a set of videogame characters since NPCs in the Witcher.

Every rookie is yours. Your to command, yours to guide. And every death, every point of damage, every mistake that costs them something feels like a personal failure. On the other hand, every success is theirs. Every clutch shot they make. Every unexpected crit. Every alien they stop.

This, combined with the fact that they’re blank templates let you put your own stories into them.

Zed was my quiet, reliable one. He made Colonel after an assault on an alien battleship and then elected to stay in HQ to train other snipers. That was when Emo took on a protege of his own, who earned the nickname Witchy soon after. For a while, it was just Witchy and Emo. But as the aliens ramped up their assault, Zed decided he couldn’t sit things out any longer. After a couple of months on the sidelines, he returned to active duty and was by his protege’s side when Emo made the most important shot of their lives.

XCOM invites engagement by design, by allowing you to get attached to your soldiers. By letting them grow when you command them well, and taking them away from you when you don’t.

It’s a game when the decisions you make have consequences that legitimately impact your gameplay experience, where a string of bad decisions can lead to total failure. It never feels unfair, but it does feel meaningful.

Every decision feels like it matters

You report to a council of Earth’s nations that fund the XCOM project. Aliens will routinely attack these countries and, when they do, you’ll need to defend them. But XCOM doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere so, when attacks happen, you’ll be presented with three options – and you need to pick one.

When you defend a country, its panic level goes down. And, conversely, panic goes up in countries that you don’t help. Ignore a country for too long and it will withdraw from the XCOM project, costing you in monthly funding and moving you closer to total failure. If you lose enough countries, the XCOM project fails entirely and earth falls to the aliens.

In between defending countries, you’ll also need to shoot down UFOs and investigate the crash sites, extract VIPs, defuse bombs, stop alien abductions, and push aliens back from their landing sites.

At the same time, you’ll also be running R&D projects on alien tech that you recover from missions, and performing autopsies on alien corpses. But since you can only run one project at a time, you’ll need to decide what to prioritize: armour, weapons, autopsies, or plot-critical research. And once research is done, you’ll have to decide what to build with your limited funds. Another flashbang? A couple of extra medkits? Laser rifles? Carapace armour?

It’s entirely possible to spend too much time on the wrong research, for example, and find that you don’t have better weapons or armour until much later in the game – which in turn makes things more difficult and presents new challenges that need to be overcome. Or, conversely, to prioritize weapon research to the point that armour isn’t strong enough to tank more than a single shot, making each of your soldiers a glass cannon in the field.

XCOM feels tense without ever really being frantic – it’s actually a very measured game, and speed comes from how quickly and aggressively you play through it. It’s entirely possible to be hyper-aggressive, wade through reams of soldiers, and eventually win the game. But it’s also possible to start with a squad of four and have those four make it to the very last mission of the game. Both are equally valid ways to play and most people who play XCOM will likely find themselves somewhere between the two.

But that’s part of the joy. XCOM feels like a framework for something bigger. A backdrop against which you get to tell your own stories, in which the decisions you make actually matter. And for it to feel as powerful an experience now as it probably did 8 years ago when it first came out, is a beautiful thing indeed.

So, to sum this up …

If you haven’t played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and any of what I’ve said sounds interesting to you, play it. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but that’s true of most games. If you like turn-based, tactical combat, if you want to save the world from an alien invasion, or if you want to command a squad of confused, frightened rookies and watch them grow into heroes, XCOM just might be the game for you.

Trevor Coelho

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