XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review – Choose Wisely, Commander

Operation Red Fear would go down in the books as the first major turning point in an intergalactic conflict that humanity had given up all hope of surviving. That assault on an enemy base buried deep in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range gave us our first glimmer of hope –  a small piece of intelligence that gave us a critical insight into the hive mind of the enemy, and ultimately led to the source of the onslaught against Earth. It was not the first great discovery in our battle against extinction, nor was it the last mission that would see heavy casualties. But it was the first time it truly hit home for me just how significant every decision we made – no, I made – would be to the survival of our species.

I lost my wife to Operation Red Fear. Captain Delia Burns was a veteran of no fewer than 10 enemy engagements, and she supported her squad with the same dedication and compassion that drew me to her to begin with. When another highly decorated (and mission critical) squad mate found himself in an impossible situation – backed up against a wall by no fewer than six Chryssalids and a small squad of Mutons – she didn’t hesitate in putting two feet forward to extract him from what looked like almost certain death. She died rescuing him, knowing well that the success of the mission depended on his survival. What she did not know was how much that mission would mean to the future of our people.

In those long ago days, we dreamed of children – I was convinced we’d have two, while she insisted on three for reasons I never fully understood – and a farm somewhere in Northern California, far removed from the squalid apartments and 20-hours-a-day social and professional hustling we’d grown accustomed to in Manhattan. Today, while the time for children of my own has come and gone, I look at all that humanity has accomplished in the nearly half a century since the war ended, and I smile to see the faces of so many new lives – lives that will never know the fear we once faced down. And I think Delia would be proud to know of the great joy that her sacrifice has brought to so many of our people.

She always wanted more children than I did. Finally, I understand why.

–Commander M. David Burns, XCOM, speaking on the 40th anniversary of Operation Red Fear


Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a 2012 remake of MicroProse’s 1994 PC and PSX classic X-Com: UFO Defense, is a game in which players take command of an elite military operation, fighting as the last stand against extraterrestrial invaders hell-bent on humanity’s extinction. It’s a mixture of genres that might be a tough sell for players weaned on instant gratification: how does “turn-based tactical action slash business management simulation” sound to you? But it’s a remarkable game, a classic made modern by two decades of advances in interactive software design to build an experience that retains the terror, anxiety, and even charm of the original, while relegating the tedium of the former game’s often unyielding complexity to the dustbin of history.

While Firaxis should be applauded for successfully updating such a beloved game for modern audiences, where XCOM: Enemy Unknown truly, truly shines is in the way it bonds players to the narrative experience with the simple mechanic of letting them customize their units as they see fit, then sending them into randomly-generated situations to write their own stories. You can hire new units and leave them as they are – generic military-types that will likely die and be forgotten – or you can turn them into ‘roided-up versions of your friends and family and agonize over each and every death caused by your poor decisions. You will want to congratulate your friends on the successes of their virtual equivalents, and will find it difficult explaining to them when you let them die. It’s a social game writ large into a deeply complex, often unforgiving, and always enthralling experience. And there’s simply nothing else like it.

A sniper faces down a Chryssalid, one of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s most fearsome creatures.

Among the many layers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s gameplay, the turn-based tactical mode is the core experience, though it feeds organically into a much larger one. Players, assuming the role of XCOM Commander, will guide a squad of 4 to 6 elite soldiers through a wide range of environments as they hunt down and exterminate an assortment of invading alien forces. Fog of war and line-of-sight limitations raise the tension as players won’t know what their squad is dealing with until they actually discover where the aliens are hiding, leading to moments of indecision which can quickly turn dire as one poor choice leads not only the death of one squad member, but sometimes several, or (possibly) all of them. Enemy forces range from the tiny, humanoid Sectoid scouts and the parasitic Chryssalid that are capable of impregnating XCOM operatives and ultimately turning them against you, to the grenade-wielding Mutons and towering Sectopod walkers which will take your entire squad to bring down. XCOM units are equipped with a variety of weapons and are typically given 2 actions per turn, which consist of a mixture of movement, attacks, or support item usage.

At the end of each mission, units are ranked up depending on mission performance, and each new rank rewards players with interesting perks that are unique to the specific unit’s class, such as a high-level bonus for snipers that grants an extra action for each successful kill. Units also earn amusing nicknames which seem to be based on their individual tendencies, such as Captain Brian “D.O.A.” Valine, who, despite often overwhelming odds, had a knack for meeting enemy forces head-on. We’ll never forget you, Captain.

Successful missions yield many spoils, be they advanced weapons to reverse engineer, alien corpses to study, or hostages to interrogate. In order to afford the scientific and engineering resources required to utilize these spoils, players will have to placate a global council of nations – whether that’s making sure each member-nation’s airspace is being monitored by satellite for local alien activity, or assisting each country’s military with a donation of precious resources, or responding swiftly to unexpected enemy incursions while minimizing the loss of innocent lives. Funding from member nations goes to XCOM base upkeep, facilities construction, recruiting, and other overhead costs, and the fewer member nations that remain on the council, the less funding you will receive each month.

The Geoscape: a welcome sight for longtime fans.

It’s also literally impossible to keep every nation happy, as one country will often call for help at the exact same time as another, so choosing to help one will always be to the detriment of another. Ignore any country long enough, and it will leave the council; lose enough countries, and your funding will dry up and humanity will go the way of the floppy disk. It’s a constant race against time, one that, if not properly paced, will lead players into dire situations from which they cannot recover. The fact that you can make it 15 hours into a 20 hour playthrough and ultimately box yourself into a corner might be seen as excessive punishment by players who aren’t used to such high-stakes play, but finishing a campaign is a richly rewarding experience for players who manage to make it to the end –  particularly when combining the game’s Classic and Ironman modes, which brings Firaxis’s game up to the notoriously high difficulty level of MicroProse’s original.

Ultimately, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best games of this, or any console generation. It is an imminently replayable game that embodies the best ideas of classic game design, while utilizing modern technology and old-fashioned social interaction to immerse players in its world in ways that even its much-beloved and still-playable progenitor can’t match. It plays equally well on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, and has crossover appeal to fans of action and sci-fi, though I worry console players will give the game a pass simply because strategy and tactical games can be a tough sell on consoles. But in a time when highly-regarded developers are forced to iterate endlessly on the same basic design just to make ends meet, Firaxis’s game is a refreshing change of pace, a stylish, rewarding experience for dedicated players looking for a challenge. If you’re a console player who needs a break from Call of Duty, Pokémon or Mario, give XCOM: Enemy Unknown a chance. It might just open your eyes to a world of gaming you never even knew existed.


Invisible Gamer’s review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was based on an Xbox 360 final retail copy, which was provided to us by the publisher.  We were unable to test multiplayer in advance of the game’s official release of October 9th, 2012, but will update the review accordingly if the  experience warrants it.

About The Author

Michael Burns is the Founder and Executive Editor of Invisible Gamer. Between custodianship of this site and contributing work for sites like IGN and 1UP, he spends entirely too much time thinking about video games – especially old ones. A migrant to New York City from northern California, Michael can often be found under a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, thinking "big thoughts" and generally just loving life. Find him elsewhere on the web at the links below.