XCOM: Enemy Unknown — Demo impressions

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

I should preface this with three comments. First, I can’t opine on XCOM‘s maligned keyboard+mouse interface, as I played with an Xbox 360 controller. Second, I edited the game’s configuration files to dial the difficulty up to “Classic” — this is how — so I also can’t comment on the demo’s default difficulty (which was apparently set to the lowest level). Lastly, as the demo only comprises two battles (the tutorial and one “proper” mission), it didn’t give me the chance to assess the game’s strategic layer, or the progression of tactical battles over time.


With that out of the way, I had a great time in the demo. Combat felt tense, fluid and atmospheric. I played slowly and very carefully,  and for most of the mission, this worked — I didn’t take a single hit. Then suddenly, it didn’t. The last alien — the last alien! — on the map one-shot-killed my poor support trooper with a lucky critical. As Jake Solomon would say, “that’s XCOM!” Neither did I experience technical problems. Using the 360 controller, I found the UI fine, and after setting the graphics to “medium”, the game ran comfortably on my 2010-vintage notebook (Core i7, 8GB RAM, Mobility Radeon HD 5730).


All in all, what I saw has only heightened my anticipation for the full game — due out in two weeks’ time. Stay tuned for my Let’s Play! Until then, you can watch my gameplay video of the demo mission below:


Who wants a walk-on role in my XCOM: Enemy Unknown squad?

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


Calling all readers, aspiring alien-hunters, and Guile-haired jumpsuit-wearers! With XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s release just a month and a half away, Earth needs a few* brave** men and women. As in the original X-Com, players will be able to rename their soldiers at will, and for the XCOM game diary I’m planning, I’d love to name my troopers after you guys. Though I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and incoming plasma, it’ll be exciting while it lasts! Who’s with me?! Do you want to live forever?!


Ahem. If you’re interested, leave a comment below and I’ll add your name to the bottom of this post. Once the game is out, I’ll probably either create a new post with all the custom-named soldiers and their current status, or just expand on this post. So check back in a couple months’ time!


* at least

** or “foolhardy”


The roll call thus far



“Josh” (wants to be first into battle)



“Talorc” (who wants a rocket launcher)

“Veloxi” (wants a sniper rifle)

“Hikaru Usada” (wants… to be last out of the dropship)

“Riztro” (great psi bait)

“Rebecca W”


“Farnsworth” (wants to hang back and lob the odd grenade)



“2K Alan”


“Bruce Geryk”




Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 1: Baby Steps

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

March, 2015. We are not alone in the universe. Humanity is under attack from an alien army equipped with technology beyond anything we have seen. The armed forces of the Earth are powerless. All save one – the mysterious international organisation known as XCOM, sponsored by a Council of sixteen nations. It’s up to XCOM’s soldiers, outnumbered, outgunned, but brave and (one hopes) well led, to stop the aliens in the cities and in the fields. It’s up to XCOM’s scientists to unravel the alien technology the soldiers bring home, and up to XCOM’s engineers to adapt it into something the troops can use. And it’s up to me, the player, to give them all direction. Will I succeed, or will humanity be destined to end up as just another course on the alien buffet menu?


Let’s find out.

Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 1: Baby Steps”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 2: Winning battles, whither the war?

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

Welcome back to my Let’s Play (Classic difficulty, Ironman mode) of XCOM: Enemy Unknown! We finished our last instalment on March 20 (game time), with a successful end to XCOM’s third battle. Following that battle, XCOM earned a new, experienced Heavy named Talorc, and I began construction of the Officer Training School.


But before I can train any officers, not one day after the previous mission, it’s time to sortie again:



Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 2: Winning battles, whither the war?”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 3: Terror and Triumph

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

Welcome to the third part of my Let’s Play (Classic difficulty, Ironman mode) for XCOM: Enemy Unknown!


When we previously left off, I had two worries. One, whether I could obtain better arms and armour before the game ramped up in difficulty. Two, a rising tide of global panic. And soon, the game does its best to exacerbate (2) by throwing a devil’s choice at me:


Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 3: Terror and Triumph”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 4: The Turning of the Tide

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

And we’re back!


After Part 3’s successful terror mission, the rest of April passes without incident. Dr Vahlen and her scientists finish research on beam weapons, which unlocks laser pistols and laser assault rifles for use by my squad!



Unfortunately, I’m too broke to build more than one of each. Not only do they hoover up cash, they also require precious alien alloys – and my stock of alloys is running dangerously low. Farnsworth gets the laser rifle; LeSquide, our sniper, gets the laser pistol (since he can’t move and fire his sniper rifle in the same turn, he’s the one most in need of a decent sidearm).


At the end of the month, the Council gives us our scorecard and funding cheque:



As feared, the XCOM Project has lost its first two countries: Japan and Mexico have raised the white flag to the aliens. Three more, Argentina, India and China, are teetering. But all is not lost – I have no fewer than three satellites in the pipeline, plus the cash to build more (and their supporting infrastructure). This coming month, May, will be do-or-die. If XCOM can make it through the month in one piece, by its end I should have enough satellites to halt the tide of global panic. More than that, I’ll have so many satellites, and so much funding, that I’ll never have to worry about scrimping and saving again. If, if, if.


Let’s see how I go.


Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 4: The Turning of the Tide”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 5: Pride Goeth Before a Fall

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

As Part 4 ended, things were going smooth as butter. XCOM’s soldiers were winning battle after battle, and coming home almost invariably in one piece. The strategic layer was under control, thanks to XCOM’s ample satellites and newly ample cash.


As June 2015 dawns, it seems fair to ask: what could possibly go wrong?

Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 5: Pride Goeth Before a Fall”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 6: SHIVs, Stopgaps and Archangels

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

The battle of Melbourne, June 2015, dealt a bitter blow to XCOM.  It left us down two countries and five soldiers (four of them amongst our finest veterans), and painfully exposed the inadequacies of XCOM equipment against the aliens’ latest toys. The laser weapons and carapace body armour that had served us so well, just a month or two ago, now look like a joke against Cyberdiscs. The new faces joining the squad are under-levelled marksmen of dubious skill.


But XCOM is a game about fighting back against the odds. This update is the story of how my survivors – a lopsided bunch, with too many snipers and too few heavies and support troopers – make do.


Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 6: SHIVs, Stopgaps and Archangels”

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 7 (FINAL): Avenger

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2


North America, 1 September 2015. The aliens’ forward base on Earth, the wee hours of the morning. Above the landing bay, a shape appears: XCOM’s Skyranger, followed moments later by a hover SHIV and five of XCOM’s finest operatives. The soldiers rappel down into the base, plasma rifles at the ready. Little do they expect what lies ahead: an anti-climax.


Continue reading “Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 7 (FINAL): Avenger”

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.

Continue reading “XCOM: Enemy Unknown – The Verdict”

XCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it!

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM2 Briggs Misses His ShotI did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.

On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.

On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.

Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:

*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.

*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!

*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…

Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.

  1. The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct.

Thoughts on XCOM 2

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

XCOM 2 victoryWorthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!

More detailed thoughts below:

This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.

Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.

Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM lategame characters

  1. Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead.