If you’re a fan of the original XCOM – the cult 1994 hit most commonly known as UFO: Enemy Unknown – then rest assured that the surprises offered up by this redux will only be good ones. If you’re a newcomer, it’s well worth knowing one thing about XCOM Enemy Unknown before playing it: to put it very delicately indeed, it’s no picnic. Tasking you with taking full control of the titular para-military outfit, it’s quite some way away from being the straightforward, turn-based actioner that it initially appears to be. A great deal of your time is spent actually managing XCOM; deciding which pieces of alien intel to research, which disillusioned countries to assist (and when) and which upgrades to apply to your own facilities… all the while keeping strict tabs on the ebb and flow of your own finances. It’s involved, complicated and defiantly not about finding simple, quick-fix solutions to every problem that you encounter. The fact that you can fail altogether after several hours worth of gameplay should alert you to the fact that this is definitely not a proposition for the easily intimidated.
Once you understand how everything actually works – a process which shouldn’t take much longer than an hour – the experience starts to exert an exceedingly powerful grip. Some smart streamlining means that, unlike in the occasionally confusing original, you’re always presented with a concrete set of objectives to fulfil when you’re actually in the field. The primary goals are often straightforward – clear an area, defuse a bomb, escort a hostage to safety – but if you want to build your XCOM into a tenacious military behemoth (and soften the path ahead of you in the process) then always keep an eye on your secondary targets too. These side-quests almost always net you additional finances and/or intel, and once the game’s generally ferocious pace reveals itself (at around the 2-hour mark) you’ll be hustling to secure as many secondary objectives as possible anyway. Our advice? Don’t wait for that moment to roll around. Start early.
Enemy Unknown’s tough approach is alleviated by some ever-so-slightly daft cutscenes, along with the fact that you’re given the ability to physically tailor your troops. This customisation suite is far from extensive – you’re only ever choosing from a set of pre-loaded options – but it allows you to do just enough. And why do battle alongside a bunch of faceless peons when close friends and celebrity lookalikes can help you romp home to victory instead? Missions are randomised so replay value is absolutely through the roof, and the package is rounded out by the surprise appearance of a multiplayer mode. Multiplayer isn’t tokenistic enough to offend or compelling enough to feel like an organic part of the main game, but it’s definitely not bad. You’re given a fixed resource budget and then let loose against an opponent on one of several surprisingly tiny maps. You can play as aliens if you wish – quite a nice touch – but otherwise the multiplayer is likely to be precisely what you’re expecting it to be.
There are a couple of very minor technical hitches (largely camera-related) but if there’s anything explicitly wrong with XCOM Enemy Unknown – and this hinges entirely on your personal gaming preferences – it’s that the resource management systems demand a formidable degree of patience. Enemy Unknown is a full-on, apology-free PC game, and this is precisely as it should be. It’s complex and unforgiving but also mature and confident in your ability to progress alongside it, and it never waits around for anybody who can’t keep up. Technically speaking the two console ports are essentially faultless but console games, by and large, don’t tend to make these kinds of demands on players. Consequently, if you aren’t accustomed to that (or aren’t prepared to learn) then there’s a very real chance that it’ll leave you choking on its dust in no time. XCOM Enemy Unknown will either make you bemused or infatuated, but that patently isn’t the game’s fault. This is war. Do your graft.