Available on Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
The odds seem stacked against XCOM: Enemy Unknown. First, it’s a remake of a much-loved nineties classic, and we all know how those usually work out. Secondly, it’s a turn-based strategy game at a time when any strategy game that’s not StarCraft is a pretty hard sell. Thirdly, it’s a turn-based strategy game that’s been designed to work as well on console as on PC – a fool’s errand that all too often spells disaster.
All of which makes it a pleasure to report that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remarkable remake, which does justice to the Microprose original without either aping it or wrecking it with stupid modernisations. It’s also a turn-based strategy game that reminds you what’s so great about turn-based strategy, and one that works superbly on a TV screen with a console controller. In fact, we’ll stick our necks out and say it’s one of the best console strategy games ever made. Maybe even the best.
Perhaps that’s because there’s something about turn-based strategy that’s so much more conducive to a console controller than real-time strategy, where – without rapid, precise control of the pointer – players tend to struggle.
In the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as in the old XCOM and Laser Squad before it, you control a team of four to six XCOM troopers as they battle alien forces invading Earth. On city streets, in shops, bars and restaurants, or in forests and swamps you fight it out, each side taking turns to move and shoot, until objectives are met or one side has been destroyed. Different members of the squad have different weapons and capabilities, functioning as assault troops, support troops, snipers and heavy gunners, and the key to success is in how you move your units, how you take advantage of the available cover, and how you use those capabilities to take down the enemy while keeping your team safe.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t really doing anything that different, but there is a bit more sophistication to the action. Each troop has, in effect, two actions per turn, allowing them to move and fire, move and ‘overwatch’ so that they can fire if chance arises in the enemy’s turn, or simply sprint for a further point. It’s all very neatly handled on the Xbox 360 controller, through an elegant combination of the analogue pad, the shoulder bumpers and the right trigger, and it’s surprising how fast and intuitive it all becomes with time. You really need to be aware of cover, and of enemies doing their best to flank you, and the more the game goes on, the more you need to think about how you move forwards, and how you deal with fast-moving, melee-focused enemies, sharpshooters and serious threats. XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t the most cerebral or slow-moving strategy game, but that doesn’t mean you can leave your brain at the loading screen.
Part of XCOM’s success comes down to presentation. The graphics are slightly dated and a bit cartoony, but there’s clever use of camera angles, action cut-aways and sudden changes of point-of-view to make what’s still a turn-based game feel more like an action-game. Reveal a team of fifties-style alien sectoids, and you’ll get a close-up of them being startled and preparing to fight back. Send an assault troop in on a high-speed dash for cover, and the view changes to a Gears of War 3 style roadie run. Put a character on overwatch, and when an alien comes into view you’ll see the action freeze, them take their shot and (hopefully) one extra-terrestrial terror bite the dust. Even targeting is done from a close-up, third-person view rather than the standard-issue isometric view. The gameplay hasn’t changed, but it’s all freshened up by a more dynamic, exciting approach to the action.
What’s more, XCOM: Enemy Unknown makes you care. Troops that survive one mission rise in rank, allowing you to select new perks and capabilities and unlocking Officer upgrades that allow you to field more troops or recruit better new troops. As a result, when one of your team goes down you feel it, to the extent that it’s always tempting to hold your veterans back so that they don’t get hurt.