XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:2K Games
Developer:Firaxis Games
Release Date:2012-10-09
  • Role-Playing,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Presentation & Technical

The original X-COM is well known for its comic book-like visual style and B-movie leanings. Firaxis' XCOM remake is a bit different, instead evoking the look and feel of action figures, with soldiers sporting exaggerated proportions and a plasticy look. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the game plays very smoothly and is technically accomplished enough, featuring detailed and highly destructible environments, but it can be hard to appreciate the detail from a zoomed-out perspective, and low-resolution textures make appearances when the camera comes in close. Visibility of units can also be a little poor - it would have been nice if the lighting was tweaked a bit to help your soldiers stick out from the environment more. The game looks alright, no question, but it's definitely a lot blander than Firaxis' recent Civilization V, and doesn't have much personality as either that game or the original X-COM.

Sound effects, music and voice acting are all in a similar vein - decent, but nothing to write home about. Deus Ex: Human Revolution composer Michael McCann appears to have used a lot of leftover tracks from that game, as the similarity between the two is uncanny to say the least, but even so, the electronic score infused with hints of orchestral flair is still the highlight of the aural experience. Sound effects for gunshots, explosions, environmental ambiance, and of course, the aliens, are all effective, but voice acting is a mixed bag, with some uninspired performances and a few rather obvious fake accents.  Oddly, despite there being many voices to choose from for your soldiers, they almost all sound identical and everyone speaks perfect American English, even though the game goes out of its way to include nations and people from all over the world.

The PC version of the game, unfortunately, also could have used a bit more work with regards to the user interface. It's clear the game was designed with a controller in mind, and as such there's no customizable quick slots for commands, point-and-click functionality is reduced in some situations over what you would expect from a native PC game, and the inclusion of an over-the-shoulder "firing mode" adds an extra step every time you want to take a shot at an enemy. The camera can also be a bit finicky about displaying the insides of a building or the roof, and it always feels like you're never able to zoom out quite as much as you'd like to. It's certainly a playable PC port, but you won't confuse this for a native PC game. Last, XCOM requires Steam to play, and features all the usual stuff that comes along with it, both positive (Steam Achievements) and negative (DRM).


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a frustrating game to review, because there are a lot of very good, very smart design choices in it, but it's impossible not to compare it to its forefather.  It's clearly a love letter to the franchise, but it's also one that hasn't been afraid to make changes. Unfortunately, in my opinion, not all these changes have been for the better, and I think that they strip out layers of complexity in favor of accessibility. While the original game was very much targeted towards hardcore strategy fans, this new one is geared towards more casual, pick-up-and-play audiences, and that's why I question its longevity - will people really still be singing this game's praises and debating the finer points of its gameplay 15 years later?  I can't see that happening.

There are two ways you can look at XCOM: Enemy Unknown - either as a brand-new game made in the spirit of the original, intending to evoke the feel but not the particulars, or, as a pale imitation of a classic PC game that has suffered from the many compromises made to make the game work for consoles and the triple-A industry. Both perspectives are valid, and I agree with both. If you are looking for a solid strategy game with fun tactical combat, but one that doesn't require months to appreciate, then X-COM: Enemy Unknown is the game for you. But, if you've grown up with the original and have just got done playing the latest Crusader Kings expansion or Jagged Alliance 2 mod, you might want to ignore those UFOs on the horizon.