XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reimagined and streamlined remake of the classic X-COM game. It should be mentioned that I haven’t played the original game, and I’m fully aware that this probably makes me a bad person, but it’s just something that I’ve yet to get around to. With that in mind, I can only judge Enemy Unknown as a game of its own rather than a remake, and as a game, it’s so riddled with bugs, tediousness, and miscellaneous stupidity that it’s barely playable at times. Despite all of that, however, I ended up enjoying my time with it.
There’s a lot of bad here
Let’s me be perfectly clear right now—if there were more modern games out there that involved turn-based strategy, there’s no way I’d ever recommend this game. Even if you forget about all of the endless bugs, there are still long stretches of tedious repetition broken up only by annoying micromanagement that bring the game down and make the whole thing feel like a chore.
It’s not all bad, though
Halfway through my time with Enemy Unknown, I hated it with a fiery passion. I was positive that I was going to tear it apart in this review and talk about how no sane person could ever enjoy such a bad game. Everything about the design and pacing was proving to be rage-inducing.
Now, I had changed all of my soldiers’ names to be color-based because it amused me, and that’s when I noticed something completely random about my soldier, “Yellow Yellow,” that made me laugh:
It’s sad, but this was the turning point
It may sound insane that Yellow “Kitty” Yellow changed the way I view the game, but it’s true. The similarity to Hello Kitty brought me so much joy that I forced my way through the boring first half of the game while keeping all of my soldiers alive.
Keeping them alive made the difference
Your soldiers level up as you use them, unlocking abilities that prove to be handy. For example, Yellow Kitty was a support character, so she had smoke grenades that made others harder to hit. I used her as such until I tested her for psionic ability and found her to be gifted. By the end of the game, she was mowing down giant robotic enemies with her mind, eventually becoming my most important character. It’s strange to think that I once found her to be completely useless.
Her journey from pointlessness to mind-killery wasn’t the only story that I ended up with, however. There was also Pinkyton, my sniper, who could accurately hit an enemy from so far away that the camera couldn’t zoom out enough to have both characters in the shot. Additionally, once he leveled up, he took a perk that allowed him to finish off enemies with lower amounts of health without using a turn, turning him into a long-range, semi-automatic killing machine.
This is the game’s saving grace
Enemy Unknown tries to have a story, but it fails spectacularly, randomly shoehorning in some vague explanation of the aliens’ motivation at the very end. However, you can end up with some great stories like that of Yellow Kitty thanks to the randomness of names and the different types of roles that different types of soldiers play. Despite the characters being meaningless pawns lacking back stories or personalities, you become attached to them because of stuff like that, and that attachment is really one of two reasons to play this game.
The second reason is the combat, kind of
XCOM’s missions are grid-based, with your chance of hitting an enemy represented by a percentage that’s informed by your elevation (shooting down on enemies is better), distance, natural aiming ability, whether the enemy is in cover or not, and so on. Early missions reveal the inherent clunkiness of the combat system, and the percentages never seem to correlate to your actual chances of hitting an enemy, but once you have some soldiers who have leveled up, going through missions with their special abilities can sometimes be a lot of fun.
It’s only fun sometimes, though
The missions are also where a disproportionate number of the bugs seem to be. In fact, every bug I encountered in the entire game occurred during a mission. Here are some of the bugs I stumbled on: enemy turns freezing (which is bad because you can’t open the menu during enemy turns, forcing you to control-alt-delete to exit the game), the camera getting stuck or jumping up a level every time I moved a character (forcing me to move it down a level six times every turn), the movement grid disappearing or making crazy loops that don’t correlate to where characters can actually move, enemies and weapon fire going through solid objects, textures disappearing randomly, and as you’ll see in the video below, textures going crazy to the point where it’s impossible to accurately select a location to move to:
That’s just the tip of the iceberg
The bugs aren’t the only thing that’s wrong with Enemy Unknown, sadly. There are only a few types of enemies that repeat far too often, maps are corridors and usually as simple as “go forward and shoot anything that moves,” the graphics sometimes don’t correlate to the situation (like when an enemy is right in front of your character and yet the game says “no targets in sight”), a certain enemy’s poison attack can cheaply hit you from across the map with perfect accuracy, you’re unable to destroy obstacles by shooting at them manually except for in the case of rockets and grenades (which can only be used once per mission), and I failed a laughable number of 97% shots (far more than three out of every hundred, including two back-to-back shots from different characters).
Don’t skip me, bro
Worst of all, however, are the unskippable cutscenes. Say you’re at the end of a level and encounter a new kind of alien. Using a device to capture it only works if it doesn’t have a lot of health left, so you save, take a shot, and get a critical hit, accidentally killing it and ending the mission. In any other game, you could reload your save right there and try to do something else to capture the alien alive. In Enemy Unknown, you have to sit through three cutscenes before you can reload your save and try again. You also lose all control during enemy turns, meaning if someone dies and you decide to reload, you have to sit through a bunch of enemies making their moves before you’re even given the option to reload (or exit, for that matter). This is simply unacceptable.
Invading aliens fail at invading
There’s also the amusingly stupid fact that enemies often sit around waiting for you to discover them rather than, you know, invading. This isn’t true during “terror” missions where there are innocents who you have to save (enemies will go out looking for the civilians and kill them before you even know where they are), but most of the time they just sit in place until they come into view. This effectively disincentivizes spreading your characters out; while keeping all of your characters together might not seem like fun, it’s the best way to keep from alerting a bunch of enemies at once. After all, keeping them all together means triggering one group of enemies at a time rather than having to deal with four or five.
Everything else is tedious
I know a lot of the non-mission gameplay is derived from the original X-COM game, but I don’t like it. Managing buildings and engineers and countries’ panic levels and resources and money and ships and satellites is all just padding. Maybe it all worked in the original game, but here it’s just used to pad out the game’s length by forcing you to manage a bunch of stuff that’s not fun in any way.
Even worse, “abductions” (which turn into missions) occur in groups of two or three, guaranteeing that you’re constantly snubbing countries and raising their panic levels. You’d think at a certain point you’d just buy another plane since you eventually have more than enough soldiers to respond to multiple problems at once, but the game doesn’t allow it for some reason. This effectively puts you on a timer since the game ends if enough countries have their panic levels rise to the point where they withdraw from the XCOM project. The previously-mentioned padding doesn’t pass the in-game time, so it’s really kind of awe-inspiring how they made the game feel like it’s both on a timer and padded out.
This was graphically advanced maybe 5 years ago
For a modern game, Enemy Unknown really isn’t that pretty. It has its moments, obviously, but most of the time everything looks very bland and forgettable. Areas begin to repeat quickly enough as well, making it feel doubly fatiguing.
Some of the music is surprisingly good
While most of the music in the game isn’t really anything to write home about, there are a few tracks that are memorable. One in particular sounds a bit like it came straight out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, while another was a bit glitchy and reminded me of Remember Me’s soundtrack. Taken as a whole, I’d say the soundtrack is better than average.
Here’s what you should do: