Monday, 19 November 2012

First Impressions: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

I didn't plan on buying this, but many people said it was fantastic and I happened to spy a copy for just £20, so buy it I did.

Even more surprisingly, it had the colour pack, or whatever it's called, in, which enables greater customisation of soldiers. Because of a wonky internet connection I played initially without that DLC, and can report that it's as DLC should be: it adds a little, but only superficially. To be honest, the colour and styles of hair don't add much, although it'd nice being able to colour co-ordinate snipers, heavies and so on.

So, in the four hours or so I've played XCOM, has it met those lofty expectations?

Yes, in a word.

Unlike some strategy games there is actual strategy as well as a tactical level of gameplay. XCOM is split between the base and the various battlefields you visit. Both aspects of the game are great, in very different ways.


The story is about as old school as they come. Aliens are invading, the swine, and the world has united to kill them. They've found a handsome devil (the player) to lead the charge and… that's about it as far as story goes. However, this isn't an RPG and the premise of the game works very well.

Gameplay - Base

The base is underground, and features a range of basic starting facilities (a lab, barracks etc). The base operates on a grid basis, with excavation and access lifts required to free up more space for brand new facilities or copies of existing ones (to speed up research or provide sufficient power for the base).

The base is the strategic part of the game. There's never quite enough resources to get everything you want, whether it's making new weapons, buying new fighters for the hangar or expanding the base itself.

In addition, the base is where you get given missions, when they crop up. Each country has a certain threat/panic level, and when this reaches the maximum they pull out of the XCOM project and stop supplying funds. So, when you have a choice of missions, as often happens, and can only attend one you need to consider the difficulty, the potential reward and the threat level of the country in question. Rewards vary, including scientist/engineers, a veteran soldier or money.

The base is extremely well-balanced. Almost every facility seems useful in and of itself and it can be very hard to decide just what should be bought. Keeping all the plates spinning regarding the threat level of the various countries is challenging too.

Gameplay - Battlefield

This is the tactical part of the game. A squad of 4 (initially) soldiers go on a mission to a specific battlefield. Most of the time the mission is basically kill everything alien, but occasionally you have to rescue civilians or a VIP, stop a bomb going off, or find an alien craft your fighters shot down.

The battlefields are quite small but this works well. Difficulty, on normal, is higher than might be expected and presents a challenge (although I must admit I had to replay one mission after my best soldiers got absolutely slaughtered).

Initially the aliens are pretty soft, but before long they start unleashing rather more fearsome units and the difficulty rises as the game progresses. I'm playing on normal and it's a nice challenge.

Units begin as rookies, but after their first promotion they get a specialisation (sniper, heavy etc). After each promotion, of which there are several, they get a new perk (most of the time you get to choose from two options) most of which seem useful and some of which are great. A small downside is that the specialisation is random, so if you've got a dozen heavies and would love a sniper, you might end up with heavy number 13.

The differing unit types seem well-balanced, and each soldier can be individually outfitted with four varying items (armour, main weapon, sidearm and an auxiliary item such as a grenade or medical kit). It's a very simple but very good way of making soldiers slightly different.

The tactical gameplay works brilliantly. The only minor downside is that if your best soldiers get obliterated bouncing back with rookies would seem to be very hard, as the difficulty of missions can often be Difficult, Difficult and Very Difficult.


Not the core of a game like this, but the graphics are mostly good and occasionally very good. The globe/hologlobe in Mission Control looks great and all the items, soldiers, aliens and characters (whilst not rivalling a Final Fantasy cutscene) look distinctive and good.

Textures can sometimes take a while to load, but I think that's the only graphical issue.


There are a handful of characters in the base (engineer, scientist and military chap) who are well-acted, but the range of voices elsewhere is limited to American accents. It seems a bit odd that the game goes out of its way to include countries from every inhabited continent as members of XCOM but then has just US accents. However, the soldiers' voices tend to be good or at least passable. Sound effects are very good, and it's always fun listening to a laser beam terminate an alien.

Bugs and Other Issues

Sometimes on the battlefield the game can run a little slowly. There's also a persistent issue with soldiers/aliens being able to shoot through walls, which is a little weird.

I've read reviews of the game freezing (either for a short term or permanently) but this never happened to me (for reference, I'm using a 40GB fat PS3) and it seems to be a minority issue.

Rebuilding a squad if your A team get slaughtered is perhaps harder than it should be. Apart from that, the game seems extremely well-balanced.

The only way to get resources is when aliens attack, which makes proactively getting alien alloys and other stuff impossible. It'd be nice if there were an alternative way to get resources or lure aliens down somehow.

Conclusion (after a few days)

In a world swimming in shooters and games so easy a health and safety executive could've designed them to ensure nobody failed and suffers hurt feelings XCOM: Enemy Unknown is both a welcome change and a cracking game in its own right. I'm really looking forward to see how the rest of the game goes and then playing it a second time without making so many schoolboy errors.

I'll write a proper review after I've completed my first playthrough.


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