XCOM: Enemy Unknown review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown generates stories like few other games. These are player-made stories, forged in turn-based battle, that you’ll relay breathlessly to the unwitting stars you’ve created the next day. You might tell your girlfriend that she shot your boss in the chest after her best friend was eaten by a four-legged monster from beyond the stars. Or you’ll find yourself informing your co-workers that, sadly, they’ve tested negative for the kind of latent psychic powers that would let them control someone’s mind.

In short, XCOM will make you care. Playing as the titular organisation’s commander, you’re given a small squad of multinational soldiers, an alien menace to repel and a few thousand square feet of hollowed-out rock from which to do so. You’re invited to mine out the latter and to fill it with facilities to aid your war effort, including laboratories that increase research speed and satellite uplinks that allow you to monitor more of the globe for UFO. The soldiers who live there are fully customisable, allowing you to change their hairstyle, armour colour, and their names. It’s thanks to this that you can press-gang your friends, co-workers and even pets (or whatever else your mind can concoct) into service. But it’s thanks to Firaxis’ sterling pacing and combat that you’ll invest in whether they live or die.

As soon as a soldier kills an alien enemy, his or her specialisation is dictated. Heavies wield machine guns, and can lay down blankets of fire; Support soldiers can heal their comrades, or provide smoke grenade cover for a retreat; Assault soldiers carry shotguns and excel when close to their foes; while Snipers fire devastating volleys the length of the screen. At the beginning of the game, facing flimsy, bulbous-headed Sectoids, players can fill their squads with whatever kind of soldier they fancy, but by the halfway point missions require serious tactical consideration, even on Normal difficulty.

XCOM’s combat is consistently tense, and usually thrilling. The right move triggers a spike of euphoria. That move can be as simple as setting up a Heavy in an elevated position, setting them to ‘Overwatch’, and watching as they cut down an alien that moves in their field of vision. It can be as complicated as sending a Sniper in jetpack-equipped Archangel armour to the top of a building, using a Support soldier to toss a critical-hit enhancing smoke grenade, before forcing your hiding Assault class character to fire a shot at an enemy’s position to flush them out into the open.

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