Of course, you can save and reload when someone goes down, but it’s a tenser experience if you avoid that route, and there’s even a special ‘Ironman’ mode that handles saving for you, so that bad decisions are locked down and can’t just be undone. What’s more, there are random elements to the gameplay, so simply reloading won’t mean you can predict where the next attack will come from and adjust accordingly – the situation might change with the reload. (As a word of caution, we’d advise saving regularly or clicking ‘autosave’ on in the options menu. The alternative could be several hours of lost play.)
All of this makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown hugely compelling, but we’re actually only talking about half of the game. The other half takes place at XCOM HQ, as you research the alien bodies and technologies you bring back from the battlefield, send up satellites to watch the nations of the Earth, build new weapons, armour and equipment, and add useful new facilities to your base. It’s also here where you can keep track of the world map, and of the changing panic levels of the different countries and continents. Action in the HQ will determine additional objectives, like bringing a specific alien back alive or halting an abduction attempt in a certain country. There are nicely-done cut-scenes to signal major plot developments, and it’s all nicely structured and animated, with menus disguised as locations or displays wherever possible. It’s the glue that binds the short missions together.
Except it’s more than that. The more you play XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the more you realise that the HQ isn’t just a framework. If you’re not researching the right projects, building the right facilities, sending up satellites and protecting all the nations of the Earth, then you’re going to struggle as the game goes on. You’ll find yourself losing support from South America or Asia; you’ll find that you haven’t got the interceptors you need to attack incoming alien ships, or that you haven’t got the weapons to deal with new, more terrifying alien creatures.
If we have any complaint about XCOM: Enemy Unknown it’s this: that there isn’t an awful lot of guidance on what you should be doing, or even how to do it, beyond the basic screens. It’s not hard to discover all this for yourself, but the fact that you can easily spend the first eight hours playing the game only to discover you’ve made fundamental errors might come as a shock to some modern gamers. You have to make difficult choices, and there’s no way to get everything right. On the other hand, the fact that you can go through this and still come back for more goes to show how much gameplay there is, and how addictive that gameplay can be.
That’s because XCOM: Enemy Unknown is at heart – like Diablo III, Civilization IV or Shogun 2 (note: all derivatives of nineties classics) – a fiendish time sink. There’s no real sense of development from mission to mission bar the introduction of new aliens and your own troops’ new skills and weapons, but if anything that just keeps you going. Playing it at night, as we’ve been doing, is lethal for good sleeping habits. The clock might read 2.30am, but a voice is whispering ‘just one more mission.’ It ought to ship with a health warning.
Even if you tire of finishing the title's single-player campaign, there’s always the XCOM: Enemy Unknown multiplayer options to keep coming back to. Here you can field mixed teams of humans and aliens against another player, with two-minute time limits per turn to keep the action moving fast. It pays to be experienced with different troop types and the more advanced areas of the game, but it’s tense, well-paced and entertaining.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was always going to be a hit with PC gamers, but it’s a hugely impressive console game as well. It might not have the best graphics or the biggest stars, but it has got slick controls, masses of personality and some of the most compelling and addictive gameplay around. If you played and loved the original XCOM games then you’re going to do the same with this, but even if XCOM means nothing to you, you really should give this game a go