XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Elite Edition review

Firaxis is well-known for the Civilization series of games, and it’s now added another string to its bow with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Like the Civ games, Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game, but it takes a more up-close-and-personal approach to its alien-invasion storyline that creates a greater sense of tension and involvement.

Based on the classic XCOM game from the ‘90s, this 3D update puts you in command of Earth’s extraterrestrial combat unit – XCOM – as you fend off yet another of those pesky alien invasions. There’s an initial tutorial mission that introduces the basics of movement and combat to help you get started, but experienced strategy players can drop right into the first mission, tracking down a group of aliens in St. Petersburg. 

Subsequent missions will take you globe-hopping all around the world, although many of the city street locations can look rather samey. Fortunately, you’ll be too busy trying to keep your squad alive to waste time admiring the scenery. It’s XCOM’s squad-based approach to combat that makes the action so gripping. Many strategy games rely on simply building up large armies of disposable troops in order to overwhelm your opponent, but XCOM puts you in control of just a small squad of soldiers – four initially, growing to six in later missions – and this makes a real difference to the way that you approach the game.  

Each member of your squad can perform two actions each turn, and as you plan your tactics the game zooms out to a distant, overhead view that allows you to survey the surrounding area. But as each squad member approaches their target the camera zooms right in again, giving you a close-up view of the action that makes you feel much more involved. 

Having such limited numbers also means that you can’t afford to treat any member of your squad as canon-fodder, so you need to plan your tactics carefully, finding cover wherever possible and picking off your alien opponents with precision. There’s another incentive to keep your team alive too, as squad members who survive each mission can be ‘promoted’ in order to gain new weapons and abilities.

Meanwhile, back at HQ, there are teams of scientists and engineers beavering away on new weapons and technologies, so you also need to allocate your resources carefully in order to supply your squad with the equipment they need.  

This ‘Elite Edition’ for the Mac also includes a couple of expansion packs so you should get 20-25 hours out of the main single-player campaign. There’s also a challenging ‘Iron Man’ mode that limits you to just one saved game, which means that you can’t go back and replay a battle in order to save a few lives. When that’s done you can use the GameRanger service (www.gameranger.com) to find opponents for a two-player online battle, or play with friends on your home or office network.

OUR VERDICT

Playing with such a small squad gives XCOM: Enemy Unknown a really intense style of play that will have you thinking carefully about every move you make. It may not have as much long-term playability as more multiplayer-oriented titles such as StarCraft II, but its single-player campaign will provide an exciting and enjoyable challenge for strategy game fans.

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