When you hear about video games featuring flying saucers and space aliens, you may automatically start thinking of a stubby little ET phoning home or, I don’t know, some Men in Black stick figure-looking thing with a mug of coffee in its hand. But those kinds of relatively friendly extraterrestrials are nowhere to be found in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Nope, no bug-eyed Yoda mangling English here. This game’s space travelers are thumping down to Earth with a sneer and a determined goal in mind: They want your land, your home, your dog … and your head on a pike. Period.
As the game begins, space pods are landing and innocent civilians are being vaporized or dragged away for some horrible alien experimentation. And so, a badly battered and nearly defenseless mankind has to quickly figure out how to respond. They piece together a special organization called XCOM—a group made up of the best engineering and scientific minds and elite-of-the-elite soldiers from around the world. Financed by a coalition of governments, this secret collective sets up base in an underground bunker and takes on the overwhelming task of keeping what’s left of the world safe.
Oh, and you, Commander, are in charge of making sure everything spins like a top. It won’t be easy. This turn-based time/money/combat-strategy game will definitely make you earn your stripes.
Loosen Those Purse Strings …
Produced by the same team that created the Civilization franchise, the challenging gameplay is divided between base management and battlefield strategies. And there are benefits and consequences to every choice you make.
For instance, it’s your job to decide which projects best deserve the monthly allocation of funds. Supplying your cadre of scientists with the means to dig into found alien artifacts and crashed spacecraft to discover new armor and laser tech is important. Let me tell ya, when you’re in the heat of battle, a vaporizing plasma ray will beat a bullet any day. But there’s also the question of the base itself. Should you build a new generator, which will give you the power to expand? Or perhaps construct a workshop or a foundry to give your engineering staff some weapons-developing room. Of course, you’ll also need to consider how to keep the global array of governments satisfied and maintain their support. A panicked country will eventually pull its money and look elsewhere. So building and sending up UFO-detecting satellites and saucer-blasting interceptor aircraft can certainly offer some good bang for your buck.
… Marshall Your Forces …
A lot of that buck bang also comes from the soldiers in the barracks. You can hire and strategically upgrade up to 99 fighters. Each trooper falls within the categories of “heavy” (carrying large-caliber weaponry and rockets), “assault” (showcasing run-and-gun skills and a powerful close-range shotgun), “support” (skilled at providing cover and medikit heals) and “sniper” (long-range specialists). Later in the game, units can include Super Heavy Infantry Vehicles, or what’s known as a mechanized S.H.I.V.
When satellites reveal an alien threat somewhere in the world, you must rapidly put together a balanced team of four to six troopers and zip them off to the point of conflict. Once there, the task is straightforward: Keep units moving from cover to cover, using their strengths to support one another and systematically take down the enemy.
Sometimes you’re rescuing an important VIP. Other times you’re saving as many civilians as possible in a heavily populated area, or you might be simply sending units to breach a fallen spaceship and recover valuable intel. No matter what the mission, though, you can be sure there will be plenty of explosive contact with those nasty outer space villains. And here’s where the play gets messy.
… And Duck
Most of the move-and-shoot visuals are from a 3/4 bird’s-eye view. But when the bullets, ray zaps and grenades hit true, you still see quite a lot of blood and gunk sent flying from humans and aliens alike. Even the running and screaming unarmed civilians will splatter as aliens rumble up and kill them with berserker manglings or blazing blasts. On particularly well-aimed shots, the action switches to an up-close cutscene that zeroes in on the kill and shows us every heavy-fisted bone-crush or head-obliterating zap.
Oh, and it’s not just the aliens who conduct those much-rumored probing experiments. We watch as human scientists carry out some goop-spewing autopsies on the various alien species, too. The aliens, meanwhile, introduce Psi abilities into the mix. This means, among other things, that they can ram their thoughts into humans’ brains, sending unfortunate soldiers to their knees in agony while holding their bleeding noggins and screaming in pain. (Humans can gain these psychic powers along the way, too.)
Other kinds of screaming involve profanities. We hear the s-word, “h‑‑‑,” “d‑‑mit” and “a‑‑” peppering the heat-of-action dialogue.
It seems that even when it comes to strategy games, war, whether with other humans or with aliens, isn’t always a pretty picture. Or game.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.