XCOM: Enemy Unknown – The Verdict

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

For one month, you followed me as I played through Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the successor to one of the greatest games of all time. Now that I’ve finished, I can give my verdict: this is the true heir to the original, both in its strengths and its weaknesses.


At heart, both 1994’s X-COM and 2012’s XCOM are stories about heroism. That is something so many games claim to offer, but so few truly do. Heroism is not a power fantasy. Heroism is not about being the toughest guy alive (action games), or the sneakiest, or the cleverest general (Total War). Heroism is the courage to stand up against overwhelming odds, to endure loss and sacrifice on the road to victory. This is the experience that XCOM delivers in spades.  Like its predecessor, XCOM follows a handful of outnumbered, outgunned, and oh-so-fragile men and women in their struggle against a technologically superior alien invasion. They are few enough, and diverse enough in their capabilities, to be distinct: I knew every name and face in my barracks. That makes it hurt all the more when they die – which they do often and permanently. For those odds, at least on “Classic” difficulty, really are overwhelming. On the world map, the aliens often launch three attacks at a time, while XCOM can only respond to one. Once in battle, XCOM operatives will usually die in two or three solid hits. But – and this is key – thanks to the context provided by the game’s strategic layer, that sacrifice never feels in vain. Slowly but surely, those brave underdogs will turn the tide of the war. With each battle, the survivors grow more skilled. With each pile of recovered alien loot, the survivors become better equipped. With each XCOM satellite and fighter plane (their construction funded by that loot), the world takes one step back from the brink. With each act of bravery by your soldiers, XCOM comes one step closer to victory.


If XCOM is about heroism at an overarching level, at a finer level it is an emotional rollercoaster. Like another one of this year’s notable releases, FTL: Faster than LightXCOM grasps that the key to a good story is twists, turns, and sudden reverses. Between battles, my scientists might invent new armour two weeks before the aliens show up with bigger guns. In battle, I might go from simple fear of the unknown, to adrenaline when the aliens reveal themselves, to muttering a prayer when one of my soldiers breaks cover for a high-risk shot, to fist-pumping exultation when the shot connects – and to panic again when a second wave of aliens arrives. As a result, XCOM calls into mind the saying that dangerous professions (e.g. combat piloting) are 98% boredom and 2% terror – except here, the mix is closer to 90% tension, 8% terror, and 2% sheer exhilaration, made all the sweeter by what came before.


Just like its predecessor, XCOM’s greatest problems come when that emotional rollercoaster stalls or breaks down. First, stretched out too long, tension can become tedium – playing “hunt the last alien” was a drag in the original, and despite Firaxis’ best efforts, it periodically drags on XCOM, too. While XCOM provides players with hints as to where the remaining aliens on a map might be, this is not a complete solution. Combat is so lethal, rushing into the unknown is such a bad idea, and camping is so effective that even knowing where the last aliens are, it can take a long time to encounter them. This is especially bad on some of the game’s maps – in particular, larger UFOs, which bristle with rooms, nooks, and crannies to check. Second, for some gamers, tension could easily become frustration – the difficulty was just right for me, but from the reports I’ve seen, there is too big a gap between difficulty settings (i.e. for some people, Normal is too easy and the next setting up, Classic, is too hard). Third, this is a game built upon the altar of “interesting decisions” – indeed, it derives some of its tension from forcing the player to choose between difficult alternatives (1) – but that isn’t quite flawless in practice. For instance, in the early game, a choice between hiring engineers and hiring scientists should always go in favour of the engineers – more engineers means more and cheaper satellites, which are the single most vital part of the strategic layer. Finally, just as in the original, the tension simply disappears in the late game. By then, XCOM’s soldiers are so capable that the aliens become the underdogs!


So while XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a really good game, it’s not perfect. This is all right. What matters is not perfection. What matters is the overall experience, the memories with which we walk away. Three weeks after finishing the game, my strongest memories aren’t of engineer/scientist imbalances or overly long battles or ways to break the game. They’re of the vivid emotion this game brought me, and of the heroes whose stories it told. They’re of the worry I felt as the aliens pushed country after country closer to surrender, while I raced to build enough satellites to stem the tide. They’re of the time when Kat came face-to-face with a Chryssalid and lived to tell the tale. They’re of the grim satisfaction when archangel snipers Elyscape and Riztro first wiped out an army of aliens, and of bleak fear as an alien drew a bead on the wounded Rebecca. They’re of the careers of Colonels Thasero and Talorc, from XCOM’s first battles (the first battle, for Thasero) all the way to its final triumph. And they’re of the martyrs along the way, Beefeater and frogbeastegg, Josho and LeSquide and Farnsworth and more. My memories are of some of the best emergent narrative I’ve experienced, and for that, XCOM deserves a place alongside its illustrious forebear.


(1) For example, why can XCOM operatives only carry one grenade or one medikit or a targeting scope? Why can XCOM only respond to one alien incursion at a time? Answer: because while this might not make sense from an in-universe perspective, it leads to a more interesting decision for the player. I understand why this would hurt immersion for some people, but it personally didn’t bother me.


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Buy from Amazon.com

Strategy sub-forum at the official site

Interview with designer Jake Solomon on the game’s difficulty settings


The basis of my review

Time spent with the game: 51 hours, according to Steam.

What I have played: I have won the Classic Ironman campaign. I have also played several multiplayer battles.

What I haven’t played: The remaining campaign difficulty levels. The new “Slingshot” DLC.

While I played the game on a PC, I used an Xbox 360 controller throughout.

Series Navigation<< Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 7 (FINAL): AvengerXCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it! >>

5 thoughts on “XCOM: Enemy Unknown – The Verdict”

  1. This is a game I’ve never played in a genre I’ve never played and won’t… but it has been a terrific read. Thanks for saving the world from the aliens, and bringing us along!

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