XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Review
110 hours and counting. That is where XCOM: Enemy Unknown has taken me. Previously, that kind of time commitment was reserved for massive RPGs like Skyrim, or MMOs like Everquest back in the day (110 hours in Everquest would have probably been about 10% of the hours played...but that's another story). XCOM: EU is a game that keeps you coming back for more.
Interestingly, my first hour of game play did not impress. The opening cinematic sequence doesn't provide much in the way of context. You are thrown into the first mission without a lot of knowledge of the situation. The first mission (not the tutorial) feels like your hand is being held, and you don't feel in control of the situation. The tactical experience is satisfying right off the hop, despite limited options. Post battle, the HQ choices are very limited and the game is linear. I was nervous that this was going to be another paint by numbers game that didn't encourage planning, strategy, and design.
I was wrong. XCOM: EU is playing the long game. It makes its mark in the long term development of your soldiers and your HQ. In fact, the planning necessary (in particular on Classic and Impossible difficulty settings) is substantial to survive. It is easy make choices that result in long term problems. A careful balance of research, engineering, and satellite deployment are essential.
The tactical battles become a much more engrossing experienceonce your soldiers have acquired a few abilities. There's ample opportunity to use your various skills. It never feels like a skill is awarded just for the sake of an award. Almost all have varying degrees of usefulness in the combat field. The use of cover, teamwork, and knowing alien tendencies are constantly a consideration to successfully complete a mission. I did feel the payoff at the end of missions was lacking at times. After aparticularly intense mission, it felt at times like the game could have instilled a better sense of accomplishment.
Like other reviews have consistently noted, if there is one thing that keeps you connected to XCOM: EU, it is your characters. Being able to name your soldiers is such a simple thing, yet the effect is remarkable. Name them after friends, family, co-workers, sports figures, or anything you can dream up. Ironically, the character customization options beyond naming your characters are very limited (even with the Soldier Elite DLC which gives you armour colour and type options). You cannot determine you soldiers country of origin, gender, or class. In terms of appearance, you can modify faces, skin tone, and hair but for some reason they still end up looking pretty much the same except for small cosmetic differences. Despite this, you develop a strong connection to your soldiers. You watch them advance in their class and abilities with pride. When one is inevitably killed, you feel a sense of loss. XCOM: EU wisely plays to this with a memorial wall.
The production values in XCOM: EU are very high. The narrative and exposition are delivered in a very well designed way. The story brings you along at a good pace, and felt like a logical timeline. I loved the philosophical and ethical questions that the narrative engendered. The winning ending was highly satisfying (although the losing cinematic is also a must see).
XCOM: EU is a game that begs to be played a few times through. The enhanced "Second Wave" options on second play though are an excellent incentive. The daunting challenge of Ironman mode is equally tempting, however ultimately a difficult sell when the games primary strength is your bond with your characters. More than once I got into the second month on Ironman mode only to have a total wipe on a mission and be too distraught to continue. Did I quit and walk away? Nope, I decided I just needed to name my characters differently (because that will make a difference, right?), build my HQ in a new way, and make better tactical choices next time. And that, is how you get to 110 hours played.