There’s more than one way to shoot an alien. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a modern update of the 1994 cult favorite XCOM: UFO Defense, takes a chessmaster’s view of a war between a shadowy government agency and invading extra-terrestrial creeps. Eschewing the fine, first-person control of blockbuster shooters in favor of deliberate, turn-based strategy may make the action feel a little less immediate, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s slick, streamlined strategy makes a good argument for ditching twitch for something a little headier.
Players assume the role of XCOM’s director, building an army of heavily armed bad-asses whose specialty is putting bullets in E.T. and mopping up the mess after he’s dead. The sprawling battlefields where these face-offs go down are rendered in great detail. Downed UFOs are found at the edge of smoldering woods, strewn with felled trees and burning wreckage. All the fiddly bits of tactical information are kept out of view so that the lovingly crafted scenery, replete with modern visual flourishes like floating embers and flowing water, can take center stage.
Only when the puppet master leans in to make a move does a battle grid reveal itself, unfurled across the scenery like a checkerboard. When it is a particular unit’s turn to move, the distance they can run is highlighted in the scenery. And browsing the different bits of cover each soldier can duck behind causes handy symbols to appear, revealing which directions will be the best protected. All the data is there, but it exists harmoniously with the kind of vividly realized scenarios more common in overblown action games.
Outside of battle there’s much to wrangle. XCOM’s headquarters house an engineering department for researching new weaponry, barracks for recruiting and training soldiers, and a science lab where dead aliens can be autopsied to learn their secrets. The base can be expanded by digging into undeveloped earth and building new facilities. All these locales are presented in a handsome cutaway view, like one of those cross-section angles in a Wes Anderson movie sans the dollhouse cutesiness.
There’s also the whole outside world to worry about. From a danger room, players get a global view of the alien invasion. Countries where abductions go unanswered eventually explode into panic and defund XCOM’s black ops. It’s from here that players sweep for alien sightings, deploy fighters to take down encroaching spacecraft and scramble squadrons to mop up the buggers who manage to infiltrate population centers.
This complex, overarching meta-game provides an involving antidote to the ground-level brawls that make up the meat of Enemy Unknown. With scarce funds, spending on one development path means letting another go fallow. Many discoveries made underground provide the player with new goals. The collection of live extra-terrestrial specimens makes every fight riskier and failure (or the the occasional dead agent) that much more likely. It’s this feedback loop between violent action and methodical planning that makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown so hard to pry yourself away from. And it is a dedication to recreating this kind of old-fashioned fun in a contemporary manner that makes the game such a pleasant surprise.
A fast, thought-out and easy-to-tweak multiplayer offering (where the alien faction is in play) offers a quick tactical fix that isn’t chained to the single-player save file. That’s vital, because XCOM: Enemy Unknown encourages players to become attached to their fighting men and women who develop as they get more missions under their belt. They say you have to be in the shit, breathing gunpowder and tasting blood, to truly feel the cost of war. But when that sniper you named after your best friend dies, it becomes clear that even commanders, from the safety of the war room, can get caught up in the action.