With XCOM: Enemy Unknown a classic game is resurrected and recreated to provide players with multiple facets of gameplay, each of them requiring precise execution in order to succeed. One misstep, one incorrect decision and your entire plan can become a maelstrom of defeat under a flurry of gunfire. That level of difficulty is what makes the game such a unique experience though, giving players a heightened sense of victory when a mission goes according to plan. With multiple levels of difficulty to choose from, even the easy setting is unforgiving and will cause players unfamiliar with proper strategy to restart again and again.
With aliens invading earth, the major countries of the world have joined together to fight off the threat. The joining, named “XCOM”, helps funnel money to the organization in order to complete research, build facilities, and engineer new, useful gear that can be used in head-to-head battles with the aliens. Each country has a panic meter that gauges just how close to mass panic they are and if they sit at level five for too long, kiss their monthly cash contributions goodbye. Run out of money and you’re left at a severe disadvantage, going into battle with armor akin to rolled-up newspaper and firearms that are weaker than spitballs. Maintain a generally low level of panic though and the game becomes much more forgiving. This is accomplished by monitoring which countries are more exposed than others, keeping track of scientists and engineers, and responding to missions that give better rewards or help a panicked nation. It’s a tightrope act to maintain calm across the world, ensuring that players be skilled at managing tense public situations as well as the required combat skills you’ll need to overcome some of the meanest creatures you’ve ever seen.
Another layer that goes beyond simple combat is maintaining your squad of soldiers and seeing that their progress helps the team as much as it helps them individually. As you recruit new soldiers and they get a taste of combat, their levels begin to build and they’re giving combat roles, though the roles are assigned seemingly at random with no rhyme or reason -- at least, none easily noticed. Certain soldiers will become “Heavies” and will wield RPG’s and an LMG, while others may become Snipers, Assault, or Support, each with their own particular benefits and drawbacks. As they see more combat and gain more experience, multiple skill options present themselves that force the players to choose how each soldier will advance in their particular class. Each of those characters is customized further by editing their particular loadouts with upgraded weapons, increased armor or particular items like grenades or medkits. Additionally, you can customize the name and appearance of each soldier, but resist the urge to name them after someone close to you. You see, if the soldier dies in the field, they’re gone. For good. No resurrection. Though in moments of troubled remembrance players can visit “The Wall” to see the names of those fallen heroes.
And finally, after gushing about the gameplay elements that are sure to surprise you, the combat itself requires as much, if not more, tactical implementation to succeed. Standing out in the open is sure to get you a face-full of alien blaster, so ensure your characters are in cover at the end of each turn. Using a burning car as cover may not be the best of choices either, as we’ve seen action movies and we understand that even the slightest shot can turn it into a lethal explosive. Strangely aliens get a “free move” when you find them on the map; each map is covered by a fog-of-war, reducing your visibility unless your character has direct line-of-sight. As you move tactically from cover to cover, you’ll inevitably run across a group of aliens. As they see you, they immediately scatter into a defensible position, a luxury not afforded to players if an alien happens upon a soldier standing out in the open. That simple design element turns a difficult game into a lopsided affair that weighs heavily in the favor of the invaders and leads to a wall full of memories.
It’s strange that such a difficult game would rate so highly, especially a game that’s unforgiving and may cause players to guiltily play the “load game” dance, reverting to previous saves over and over again after scenarios play out and your high level soldier ends up face down in a puddle that used to be his face. But as you finish mission upon mission and understand the level of difficulty you’re up against, players will gain a feeling of absolute victory and start to develop an actual relationship with their soldiers. Nothing as deep or connected as a real relationship mind you, but players will discover tactics that are key to surviving each encounter. When a soldier is lost and those tactics are no longer viable, a sense of panic and loss sets in that leaves you confused and frantically attempting to regain control of a dangerous situation. The game-within-a-game mechanic creates a brilliant meld of difficulty, fun, and tension, making XCOM: Enemy Unknown one of the best games of 2012.
Overall score: 9 out of 10