I'll admit to rooting for XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be a hit ever since I got a speeding ticket coming home from a press preview event for it over the summer. Sure, I deserved it, but I wanted that embarrassment (and money) at least to be worth something.
So did XCOM deliver on its promise of a take-no-prisoners (except alien ones) battle to save humanity? Do fans of the original 1994 strategy classic have much to complain about? And is it accessible to newbies while remaining faithful to its core? The reviewers say "yes," so unanimously that I hope it's not an artifact of alien mind control.
Buy XCOM, it's a belter. I know it's Big Game season, but this is so good I've chalked up 43 hours in four days and want more in the near future. XCOM absorbs you into a universe of Tonka toy soldiers and B-movie science-fiction, a rich and smartly streamlined strategy experience that's a hell of a credit to the design of the 1994 original. Re-imagining? Remake? Whatever it is, XCOM brings back and revitalises a classic.
Don't be too concerned by the minor drawbacks, however. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a wonderful and worthy strategy game with a layer of campy charm that makes the stone-faced seriousness of the game's characters all the more endearing. It's also remarkably accessible, thanks to a great interface that feels comfortable whether you're using a keyboard and mouse or have a controller in your hand. Enemy Unknown packs dense amounts of dramatic tension into each turn. And so it's time to eliminate the alien threat, commander. Select a location, build your base…and save humanity.
You've seen me nitpick quite a few things in this review, including several things I think could be better and a couple of issues I'd consider major that absolutely need to be fixed (Firaxis is already working on a few of them), but I don't want to leave you with the impression that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is anything less than an amazing, triumphant game right down to its core. It's XCOM's Batman Begins, in effect — it does a magnificent job of rebooting the series with its soul intact, delivering an awesome modern experience and paving the way for a future that doesn't just recreate the tense tactical battles and global strategy of the 18-year-old original, but builds on them. (By the way, this is one of the few times I'm actually thrilled at the prospect of DLC.) I implore you to play it if you have any interest in turn-based tactics whatsoever — it is indisputably the best of its genre made in at least a decade. I leave the title of Best Game Ever with the original, but playing this one has done this old X-COM fan's heart good, and I believe it will make a whole lot of new fans, too.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown charges you with what amounts to a challenging dream job. Because you're put in direct control of how the game progresses, you'll experience the bracing feeling of being in charge. The game performs and controls almost equally well on consoles as it does on a PC, and a range of difficulty levels makes it reasonably accessible regardless of your mettle, adjusting the way aliens engage you on the battlefield in addition to tweaking costs and damage values. It all amounts to a great victory. XCOM makes a complicated design feel smoother and more elegant without losing the feel and nuance of the original work.
XCOM is the classic video game reboot I've been waiting for. As a longtime fan of the series, I'm delighted by the streamlined execution and cinematic flourishes. The fact that your character can die at any moment makes every battle both exhilarating and terrifying. Some of the deaths in this game are the kind of heartbreaking that movies are based on. That kind of emotion is rare in a video game, especially a turn-based strategy game. But that's what makes XCOM one of the best games of the year.
But for those of you who were fans of the original, you should know the remake shares many of the themes and mechanics of the original but it's still not as deep, tactically speaking. The streamlining certainly makes for a more convenient overall experience, but some of the finer details and sense of control have been lost.
Recently Firaxis has been very willing to try new things with its franchises, and it's great to see both the revival of the XCOM franchise and the extension of strategy games on the consoles. You're still likely to want a bit more depth and surprise in the tactical game, but the campaign is full of tense moments that are sure to keep you coming back for more.
XCOM is one of the most important strategy games in years. It's a great remake, sure, and that's enough for most longtime fans, but for everyone else, know that this is a truly accessible strategy game. To the point where, if you own a 360 or PS3, you can play this with a controller and not miss a thing.
In the end, long after veteran XCOM players have appreciated the effort and moved on, that will hopefully be this game's lasting achievement. That it took a project that only noisy, hardcore PC gamers should have cared about and, through window dressing, interface tweaks and some combat changes, turned it into a game that everyone can enjoy.