2015. The Earth is under attack by waves of UFOs. Alien infiltrators are kidnapping humans to unknown ends, or simply going on the rampage to spread fear and terror. To fight back, the nations of the world have established XCOM, an elite force designed to combat the alien menace. With a fleet of interceptor aircraft and well-trained soldiers at their disposal, the forces of XCOM must discover the enemy's purpose, turn their own weapons against them and win the war...or risk the extinction of humanity.
XCOM: Enemy Unkown is a remake and update of the classic 1994 strategy game, UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense in the USA), which in turn was heavily inspired by the 1970 Gerry Anderson TV series UFO. It's a turn-based strategy game in which you command the defence of Earth against an encroaching alien menace. The original game is still held as one of the best strategy games of all time (if not one of the best games of all time) and remaking it is a brave move, but one that Firaxis seem to have pulled off well.
As with the original, the game is divided into two distinct sections. Between missions you hang out at your base, which is initially small but can be expanded to incorporate new laboratories, workshops and other facilities. At your base you can research new technologies, recruit new soldiers and build new equipment for them. You can also upgrade your interceptor aircraft and build and launch new satellites to increase your chances of intercepting the UFOs before they can cause havoc. Increasing your satellite coverage is also important to mollify your financial backers: if a country suffers too much damage in an alien attack or does not feel that XCOM is protecting it, it will withdraw from the XCOM project, delivering a serious blow to your finances. Once you don't have anything more to do, you can hit a button to speed up time, with the game pausing again to let you know about important news (such as research being completed or the completion of a facility's construction) or with news of a fresh alien incursion. Sometimes you have to scramble interceptors to shoot down a UFO, but at other times UFOs will land of their own accord. In either case, once an alien hotspot has been detected, you can send a Skyranger dropship packed with troopers to investigate.
At this point the game moves onto a 3D map depicting the area of operations (sometimes a town packed with civilians, or an empty stretch of countryside, or an alien base).You move your troops around this area in turns. On each turn you can move your troopers, have them fire at any aliens in range or switch to an 'overwatch' mode, which basically stores up their move until the aliens' turn, when they can automatically fire on any aliens who venture into their line of sight. You have to be careful as the aliens often do the same thing, and moving might trigger an alien attack of opportunity on their turn. Combat is undertaken by your troops aiming at the enemy with a percentage chance being shown of how likely the attack will be. Cover is vitally important, with both full and half-cover available to protect combatants, so flanking is critically important, as is the use of heavy weapons that can destroy cover. As the game proceeds your squad size increases (from four to six troops) and you gain access to devastating new weapons, including laser and plasma weapons, as well as psi-powers and expendable robotic drones.
The game itself is fairly straightforward, but what prevents the standard prodcedure (research and build stuff, shoot down UFO, fight on 3D map, rinse and repeat) getting repetitive is the importance placed on your decisions. Do you expand satellite coverage early on, but then lack the funds needed to research new weapons? Can you risk neglecting your interceptors' weapons in favour of upgrading your troopers' rifles? This also extends to your individual (and highly customisable) soldiers, who gain experience and new abilities between missions. Gaining new abilities (such as the ability to use three medikits per mission instead of one) comes at the cost of sacrificing others, and careful decisions have to be made. You can be fairly ruthless, upgrading your troopers' offensive weapons whilst ignoring their defences, since recruiting fresh troops to replace the slaughtered is inexpensive. But experienced combat veterans have powerful abilities, so you may want to pump resources into armour instead. There are numerous approaches you can take to the game, which immensely rewards replayability.
Presentation-wise, the game is slick but not lightweight. The UI is straightforward and instinctively easy to understand, whilst the 3D graphics are more functional than impressive, but with an attractive art style and some cool explosions. Sound effects are good, the alien designs (many of them directly upgraded from the 1994 originals) memorable and interesting, and there's even some pretty good characterisation of your various advisors. One mild misstep is a lack of personality and character amongst your soldiers (since you have full control of their development), which makes some events in the endgame not resonate as strongly as they should.
The game is quite hard, even on the easier difficulty levels, and does not tolerate too many mistakes. Many players, particularly those not familiar with the original, may find themselves having to play through several dummy runs to get acquainted with the concepts and controls before launching a proper campaign (this is not helped by a story-driven tutorial mode which doesn't actually do a good job of giving you the tech you need urgently in the early game period). Still, it's a refreshing change to find a game these days which will punish you but not overwhelm you with frustration to the point where you stop playing. On the contrary, XCOM is compulsive stuff, with the "Just one more turn," mentality resulting in you staying up until ridiculous hours trying to acquire that plasma rifle or bring down that alien base.
On the negative side, the game does lack some of the freedom of the original, such as the ability to exchange equipment in the field and bring a lot more troops to the battlefield, whilst the inability to destroy cover deliberately with normal weapons seems a bit limiting. But these are fairly minor complaints. More serious is a series of crashes I experienced shortly after installation, but these stopped after an hour or so and never reoccurred.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (****½) is a smart, intelligent and engrossing game, with compelling (but also challenging) gameplay and some fiendish opponents. It's a superb update of a classic game but also a great game in its own right, and a clear front-runner for game of the year. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).