Updated: April 6, 2015
When you try to revive a game the likes of UFO: Enemy Unknown, you are facing a very tough challenge. Basically, you need to create a title that will be just as compelling and interesting as the original, which is kind of hard, given the fact the original 1994 MicroProse strategy is one of the finest games ever made.
But Firaxis set about doing this in 2012, and they released a game with the simple yet almost impossible mission of bringing back the good ole terror and awesomeness of Enemy Unknown into the modern era. Back then, I got the game during one of Steam sales, and then let it sit on the digital shelf for several months before deciding to pick it up and start playing. I have to admit, my new laptop had something to do with it. Now, let's see whether this remake is worth its name. Oh, for those wondering, it's also available for Linux.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown starts with one of the turn-based tactical missions. Whether you choose to play the tutorial or not, it throws you right into the action. Skyranger lands in a terror-stricken city, and your team of XCOM operatives is tasked with exploring the situation. Right there, you encounter the moody setting that follows this game; tense music, darkness, limited field of vision, a brooding feeling of an apocalypse slowly unfolding before your eyes. Not bad.
Once you complete the first mission and go back safely - minus one or two dead operatives, depending on the difficulty of the game - to your hidden XCOM base, you are introduced to the game's interface and mechanics. It's done in a gradual yet slick way. You meet your engineers and scientists, you learn how to begin new research and manufacture technology, how to deploy satellites and manage your funds, as well as build and expand your underground base with additional facilities, which are critical to your success. Your assistants might be a little prosaic, but they do offer useful information and advice, and it does not feel tedious. You can always skip the heavily accented talk if you're not in the mood for all the drama-setting CGI.
Your first campaign
Or should I say, MY first campaign was a bit of a fiasco. I actually started too conservatively, without investing all my funds in new projects, but this turned out to be a mistake. Eventually, I did not have an infrastructure big enough to support additional satellites, which in turn affected my ability to intercept alien ships. My base lacked power, and I couldn't expand fast enough, and this stalled my progress in research and development of weapons, armor and defensive capabilities. Furthermore, since my research wasn't aggressive enough, I ended up fighting with primitive weapons against aliens and their plasma guns, and my KIA list was growing daily. In the end, this was a fitting start. Even on the easy level, XCOM is not going to forgive your silly mistakes. You must play with wisdom and cunning and brutal efficiency. I like the challenge.
Trying again, I made sure to listen carefully to my advisers. Moreover, I also invested all my money in building new facilities right away, and making good use of those steam currents for extra thermal power. Then, and some might call this cheating, I summoned several of the XCOM heroes to my aid. The thing is, if you rename some of your soldiers to this or that name, like Sid Meier and other legends, they will become highly skilled, highly lethal troops, capable of taking on even the toughest aliens. This is a built-in cheat feature, which lets you take some pressure off the game while you generate additional income and find your way around. You can always choose not to send your heroes to your battles, but if you need extra power, they are there to assist you.
Strategy & tactics
I have to admit I'm impressed with this new game. It's rare to see sequels and remakes capture the magic of the original, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes very close. It's less unforgiving than the original, and the fear levels are much, much lower. Nothing compares to that electronic MIDI terror, the sound of creaking doors, and the 16-bit shrieks of gray aliens dying. Nothing compares to that raw despair you felt playing the DOS version, knowing that you will be suffering great losses, and that you might win by a thin margin, if you're lucky.
The new game is also somewhat simpler and easier to manage. Back in 1994, you could and had to build additional bases around the world, and this meant significant overhead in managing your funds and resources. The layout was critical. You were well advised to leave empty squares near the entrance shafts, because when aliens attacked and raided your bases, and that happened more than you expected, they wouldn't have easy access to your laboratories and workshops, and they would inflict lesser damage, or your soldiers would have enough time to respond. The original game also had limited storage, so you had to shuffle goods between bases. Your geoscape activity was crucial to your success.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, less so. The focus is on combat, and you will spend roughly 80% of your total gametime in the battlescape mode. The turn-based nature of fighting the aliens remains, but it feels more fluid. Moreover, you only have one base of operations, unlimited storage and there's little to no chance of aliens knocking at your doorsteps. You can deploy interceptors on different continents, but it's very easy to use and manage them.
Your tactical team starts with four slots, but through additional training and experience, you can grow it to half a dozen. There are two ways you can go about combat. Send in the same troops every single time, and they will gain new ranks and knowledge, allowing you to expand your team. But then you risk losing valuable assets, and the rest of your cadre remains untrained. Alternatively, you can rotate your soldiers so that everyone gains more or less equal skill in combat, but then, you might struggle reaching higher ranks, and in turn, unlocking additional team slots.
When it comes to choosing combat classes, you have four options. You have the basic assault, support personnel, heavies, and snipers. Later on, you will be able to manufacture mechanized drones called SHIV, which play the same role as tanks in the original UFO. Choosing and selecting the right mix is critical.
Most of the time, having snipers helps, because they can take long-range headshots and easily dispatch the enemy. But if you want to capture living aliens for interrogation, snipers aren't a good fit, because they cannot move and shoot at the same time. You want a heavily armored support to take some of the flak while you sneak in with your weaker, more mobile troops and stun the enemy lifeforms. This won't always work, but if you use the heroes, they can act as live shields, although not without injuries.
In later missions, the challenge gets bigger, and you will need to start using more artillery and drones, if you want to survive. I made quite a few blunders here and there, and in one particular mission, I lost three out of five troops, including two heroes. This was my toughest encounter with the aliens, but also one of the more engaging and interesting missions. Even on the easy level, it highlights the necessity for proper combat tactics. Make sure you flank your enemy, fire from several directions, use the Overwatch feature so your troops can respond to enemy fire, and deploy medics to help with the wounded. High-quality armor suits are also very important, because they can double or triple the hit points your soldiers can sustain before being incapacitated. But nothing guarantees success, not even your heroes.
After roughly 15-20 missions, I slightly wearied of the tactical encounters. At this point, my base had some ten satellites deployed, and we had captured lots of enemy technology, allowing me to discover the hidden enemy starship in orbit around Earth, and I had several troops trained in psionic abilities. I have not yet finished the game, and I hesitate to do that, which makes me think a typical game is a little too short, and the knowledge it will all come to a bloody conclusion the moment you activate the so-called Gollop device slightly saddens me. There is an expansion pack available, and maybe that's the reason why.
Overall, at this point, you will no longer worry about funds or technology, you will have the highly advanced Firestorm ships and EMP cannon, and your soldiers will all wear advanced suits and tote plasma guns and pistols. But the sense of terror never quite approaches the sensation you experienced while playing UFO. I know for sure this is not an illusion of memory and time, because I've played UFO as a 30-year old man, so we can definitely exclude childish infatuation. Perhaps.
So there we are. I have yet to decide whether to take the point of no return. That means sending my men to die honorably fighting through the murky corridors of the enemy mothership. It's going to be battle royale, but I do not want it to happen, because it might kill off the magic, and I'm not sure I want to know how I'm going to feel once I'm done with the game. Which tells me that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a very good game, indeed.
This is not a perfect reboot of a legendary title, but it's darn good one. Sure, there are some things XCOM: Enemy Unknown could have done better. For example, slightly more focus in the geoscape view, with additional research, development and management challenges, including building new bases and similar. Fewer battles, because they get a little boring. Defusing bombs, stopping abductions and killing zombies all help create variety, but not enough to make it an endless experience.
XCOM could also benefit from extra terror. More drama, more suspense. It can be made more frightening, just like the original was. There's emotion in the new title, and the battles are colorful, but they lean toward comic and spectacular rather than creepy and dreadful. The overall story also feels a little rushed, probably to leave enough room for the mandatory expansion pack. Still, all considered, I am mighty pleased with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's a very successful attempt to capture the magic of yore, it's balanced, colorful, engaging, and challenging, and it gives the player a taste of what this franchise is all about: fear and fun. 9/10. Recommended.
For those who feel like more pretty pictures!