XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review – R.I.P. Captain Thunderpants

2012 was the year of Blockbuster rentals for me and keeping current with the sprinting gaming trends. That was just before their corporate beheading at the hands of Netflix and Father Time and when I was too lazy to start a Gamefly subscription. Anyways, I’d heard good things about XCOM: Enemy Unknown and picked it up without an ounce of insight into the game style.

I’ll always remember the losses I suffered in the six days I had with that game. Among the names of the fallen etched into my Xbox 360 is Captain Thunderpants: one of the bravest soldiers the Earth has ever known. Here’s a link to his funeral proceedings if you want to feel the feels.

This was one of the first turn-based fighting systems I’d ever played, and it was the first where the position of each character mattered so immensely. Current day me picked up this alien shooter again on PC and chipped much more slowly away at the campaign, adding to a naturally much less confusing and more interesting experience.

Needless to say, I’ve never touched the original XCOM games and wouldn’t have known there were any if the internet weren’t the know-it-all jerk in every classroom ever. The aspects that I did see appeared pretty cool and ingenious for the time, and it served Enemy Unknown well to have so many brought over by developer Firaxis Games. The few that either don’t make it over completely or really could’ve shined here are a base defense where your infrastructure becomes to struggle point and the airborne combat, which is…weirdly barren here.

X-COM Enemy Unknown
And it’s….heads! The shot misses!

The basic premise of the series is that you are a multinational organization tasked with repelling an alien invasion with limited government funds. As I found out, you have to juggle money with might, building your needed facilities in a correct order while sending your militia to vital missions across the globe. There’s a big, unwinnable balancing act to keep behind the scenes with keeping every nation in the world happy and protected or they’ll…leave? As idle threats go, this is a pretty great one to let happen over and over again with your own version of events unfolding like this:

France: “You’ve not been protecting us! We’re pulling our funding out!”

XCOM: “And the aliens…?”

France: “We’ll fight them ourselves!”

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Snap to reality, I’m not one to ever be fully on board with the inherent coin flips of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I get why they’re around and the weighty drama imposed by their presence, especially when permadeath is in every edition of the morning paper, but the angles just don’t add up for me. Asinine misses can happen with nothing but air and hope between you and the target, or situations where you have the complete drop on the enemy will somehow only come up to a 55 percent chance of hitting with a sniper specialist. I could never find a consistent rhyme or reason on some angles, so I’d have to take more risks and inevitably say goodbye to a lot more soldiers than desired.

A lot of my love pours over the brim with the alien designs as they take to our streets and buildings. There’s a logical flow to them that works the same way the officers in Stratego would. You have the scouts up front, the spies, the brutes, the specialists, the gnashers (I’m sure they have real names) and so forth to where it feels like this is the legitimate first wave of an incoming army. Your soldiers can be upgraded and reconfigured to match with more points and levels going to those that survive the alien onslaught the longest. The soldier-to-soldier comparisons and respective power gradients is a beautifully balanced system that stands as a game highlight.

And that’s exactly where the highlights of XCOM: Enemy Unknown radiate, those soldier battles. The other areas have some variously-sized holes that don’t make a fully satisfying experience, but inside the square grid lines of battle, you won’t find a more tense strategy game out there.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Score

8/10

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