Unreal (Late) Game Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown


After finishing up Spec Ops: The Line, I saw the opportunity to hunt down another popular game I’d missed this past year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Again, it was a game getting a lot of praise from a lot of sources, and if I’d liked The Line so much with similar suggestions, perhaps I’d feel the same about this next title.

I hadn’t played past XCOM games, so when I kept asking people what the game was about, they would always say, “Oh, it’s an RTS!”

“Great!” I thought. I love Real Time Strategy games, and have been playing ones like Starcraft, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires for years. Hell, I even liked Halo Wars to some degree. I fired up XCOM to find out I was misinformed.

People seem to think that “RTS” is a term that encompasses all strategy games, but that’s not the case. The “real time” part of that phrase is rather important, as it implies that all actions happen dynamically. In short, there are no turns. But there are in XCOM.


Chess, with guns!

Rather, XCOM would be classified as a “turn-based tactical strategy game,” a relatively uncommon style that I don’t believe has its own acronym. Undeterred, I pressed on to see if I could adapt.

The storyline is relatively simplistic, considering all the lore that goes into a game like Starcraft. Aliens have invaded Earth, you are in charge of a response force (XCOM) made up of the world’s nations, and you are tasked with fighting and studying the aliens as they attack around the world.

Gameplay is balance between actual missions and the behind the scenes preparing for the missions. In your off-time, you’re given access to the XCOM command base where you are tasked with many, many responsibilities. You research upgrades and study aliens in a laboratory, and then task engineering with actually building the new technology. You recruit new soldiers and equip the ones you do have. You launch satellites to monitor alien attacks around the globe, and build fighter jets to shoot down UFOs you may find there.

Missions are different, and make up the core of the game play. You’re given a landscape filled with cover, be it debris, park benches, cars, buildings and so on. You move your way through the level with your squad of soldiers, controlling each individually. Countering you are alien forces who move toward you from the opposite direction.


Probably not the best idea to take shelter in a gas station while aliens are shooting at you. 

Each turn you have to set up your forces in a way that you’re best able to fire upon your foes without exposing yourself too much. As your soldiers get kills and level up, they become specialized with unique abilities. A sniper can perform a long range headshot. A heavy can shoot a rocket launcher. A commando can sprint and fire in the same turn. And so on.

It becomes a sort of game of chess as you move around the board. The aliens don’t put up much of a fight at first, but eventually get stronger and stronger to the point where they’re quite terrifying. And on these missions, if your soldier dies, they’re dead, and that’s that. It doesn’t matter if they’re a Colonel that you’ve taken on 10 missions who has 30 kills or a noob fresh out of training. One wrong round of positioning, and they can be toast.

The problem with this is that it often feels like you need to restart a level if one of your prized soldiers dies. This never happens at first, but occurs with alarming frequency in later missions. It never feels worth it to sacrifice a soldier you’ve invested so much time in building up, so you restart and try again.

You often have to do this because sometimes, there’s no way to anticipate where enemies are going to come from on your first playthrough of a mission. You might carefully set up a flank of a trio of little green men, then suddenly two uber badass aliens come out of nowhere from the other side and blast your team to shreds. Additionally, with the inclusion of maddening “hit percentages” that can’t be avoided in “true” strategy games like these, I can have my low health commando miss a target directly in front of her despite a 90% chance to hit with her shotgun, and then have her butchered the next turn as a result, forcing me to reload the whole mission because she’s the most valuable member of my squad. For a strategy game, it often doesn’t feel very strategic at all.


I could never leave you behind Karl!

The same goes for the off-mission fiddling with your base and resources. Perhaps I was dumb, but I didn’t quite understand what was a priority when upgrading things. I found myself constantly low on money despite the game constantly telling me I should be building a bunch of stuff I couldn’t afford. Completing missions only gives you cash about a third of the time. You can sell things you find during missions like weapon fragments and alien corpses, but you never know when your next research project is going to require whatever you’d just sold.

Time is another factor in the game that makes it seem painfully slow. Research of anything takes days, and you only get paid once a month, which takes forever. Soldiers you use in battle have to recover from injury, so you can’t use them in the next one or even two or three missions sometimes. This then presents circumstances like one I encountered shortly before I threw in the towel for the game.

I’d just completed a tough mission where all my high level soldiers sustained some form of injury, and the mission before had left a number of recruits killed. Unfortunately, as I waited for my soldiers to heal by fastforwarding time, an alien invasion happened in France. The subsequent mission was rated “very difficult,” yet because of my injured squad, I only had three rookies available to fight (out of five open spots). I thought, “oh, I’ll hire some more soldiers,” but then I discovered that action took three days by itself. And even if I had them, I couldn’t complete the mission without any of my high level operatives who were still a week away from full health. I either had to attempt the mission with a lackluster squad, which was impossible, I discovered, or fast forward time and hope my guys healed . Unfortunately, fast-forwarding time again caused me to auto-fail the mission, and France left the council as they were overrun. There was literally nothing I could do in order to effectively take on that mission, had I not known it was coming in advance.


“I feel like we should probably bring two more guys.” “They’re dead.”

This game just isn’t for me. Turn based combat games (outside of Pokemon) really never have been my cup of tea. I can understand why someone might like the “board game appeal” of a title like this, but I found it maddeningly slow during missions, compounded by an annoying upgrade system that managed to be even slower when you weren’t fighting. And the story? What story? It’s more or less Mars Attacks minus anything at all that resembles humor.

XCOM might very well be a brilliant game I’m just too dense to get, but it wore my patience thin and I didn’t want to invest any more than a few months of game time and a dozen-odd in-game missions. I don’t judge anyone who did enjoy it, but I couldn’t force myself to have fun while playing, despite all the high praise surrounding it.

See our own Dave Bast’s post for a bit of a different opinion.

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  1. Huh, yours is the first review I’ve read that didn’t like the game. I’ll have to think about this. I had been planning on getting this one but what you mentioned sounds super-frustrating and I have been avoiding frustration in games. I simply have too many games and not enough time. If I was still in high school or college and had loads of time, it would be different. Thanks for the viewpoint!

  2. as far as making money goes you need to launch satellites ASAP. it really helps bring the money in. and if you rotate in one or two rookies on each mission you’ll build up a solid table so when your best guys are hurt other guys can step in. the base and squad management is just as much of a chess game as the actual battles are

  3. Oh, sorry, one more comment. Permadeath has always been a thorny one for me too. I love the Fire Emblem series but I absolutely refuse to allow any of my characters to die, especially when they are one of the good characters who I’ve spent a lot of time training. It’s exactly why, as much as I love Fire Emblem I never got to finish Radiant Dawn and am reluctant to buy any future titles.

  4. Oh boo hoo a video game didn’t hold my hand until the ending and one of my guys died.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Paul just a few months ago write an article complaining about how video games were TOO easy?

  5. I think he did. This article is a good example why Paul should stick to videogame politics instead of actual reviews. He just can’t write an unbiased one. XCOM won a shitton of awards and sold like candy because it’s just that good.

    1. Oh my god, if I hear “unbiased review” one more time after someone disagrees with me I’m going to lose it.

      I don’t like The Hobbit and neither do most major critics? I’m biased. I don’t like XCOM and all major critics love it? I’m biased. I give Halo 4 an 8/10? I’m biased. There’s no winning, unless of course you happen to agree with me.

      And tell me what article you’re talking about where I’m complaining about games being too easy. I honestly can’t think of what you’re referring to.

  6. You know Paul I think I am blending in my mind a different article that I read recently and your recent “Tired of FPS Grind” article…I went back a few weeks on your archive but just scanning titles quickly I mighta missed it but I think like I said I was thinking of your Tired of FPS Grind article

  7. Paul, I would to point out that Turn based games have been around alot longer than RTS ones. The original XCOM was much more difficult btw (By Microprose – along with Master of Orion, Master of Magic, etc)

    RTS – it’s who can click the fastest and get the greatest minerals. I like Star Craft (Dune 2 was the first done right and was great). Building on ‘time’ is how those games are won.

    Turn based – it’s slower, but honestly there is more stratgey involved. It’s not necessarily who’s the quickest but has best plan. Doesn’t mean you always have the most or best equipment. The hit percents are frustrating but they wanted to add a little like.

    I agree it’s not for everyone. I enjoy it (along with UFO, Aftershock etc) and can’t stand Sins of a Solar Empire. I love Star Craft also.

    It’s a game people. So will like it, some won’t.

  8. Well, I agree with you Paul. It is not an easy game, but like the entire series it takes some getting used to. I would never expect to complete this on my first play through, but that I feel is where I get the enjoyment from it.

    To get the most out of this game you need to be already aware of the game and how it works. More like a lot of information heavy strategy games like Civ and Anno 2070, just jumping in will put you off. But give it time, come back to it later and your effort gets rewarded.

    I do see what you mean about the tough battle near the end of your playthrough, and I agree this is the point to stop. It is good to hear from someone who is not the avid fanatic of the whole series and instead gives an honest opinion like anyone else who may have picked up the game because it looked good or a friend recomended it.

    But come back, once you have had a chance to digest all that happened. Start afresh, and love this game for its difficulty, and challenge, that this can give you.

  9. What’s silly is…you kinda say that you aren’t a fan of these types of games. Therefore, it seems odd that you bothered writing a review for it. From the sounds of it, you did a lot of things wrong and expected it to go swimmingly well on your first playthrough. That’s not how these games work at all. Most of the time, you go through it horribly and learn from your mistakes, then start again with a better understanding of how the game plays. Hence the “skip the tutorial” option. Also, the game randomizes the encounters/maps/alien placements, so the game isn’t going to be the same twice. It’s not meant to be largely story based at all, which is good considering replayability is a huge factor for these types of games.

    The issue, though, is that you don’t really write reviews like many major websites. Your reviews are usually very specific to your likes and dislikes, whereas many major reviews will evaluate the mechanics in relation to how games in that genre are supposed to work. In that respect, XCOM is a brilliant addition to the series. People need to remember to expect highly opinionated reviews when reading reviews on this site, that’s all.

    1. Yeah this is a critique I can respect, though I don’t think it’s bad to have someone who is NOT a fan of a genre play that game and share their thoughts. I don’t think it’s necessary to only play games I think I’m going to like or are comfortable with. What’s the point of that?

  10. The key to this game I found was save and save often. After every two moves in a mission I would save just in case one of my guys died (at the point I’m at most of my soldiers are at least half way to Generals). I also had an issue with balancing my budget in game as well. I wish they had thrown in a tutorial part for the base setup like they did with the combat missions though. The learning curve was way too steep there. But once I got the hang of it I have a hard time putting the game down. Now I won’t blame anyone for not liking the game. Hey, it’s not your cup of tea. That’s cool with me. But in reviews, putting down the game because it’s not your thing, or was not what someone told you it was, is a bit harsh. Just say if what the game tried to accomplish was done well or poorly and leave it at that.

  11. I liked the game and didn’t use saves to get my guys back. I guess I felt like it made me invest in the characters more, because when you lost a good one, it really hurt. I had to restart the campaign several times as I learned lessons on resource management and to be less aggressive in the missions. I guess I saw the hit percentages and sudden entrances of enemies as a way to simulate the fog of battle and “unknown unknowns” of actual special forces type missions.

  12. Hello Paul,

    I totally agree with everything you said. This game is unforgiving, and many members of my team died. I reloaded my saves. To no avail, countries quit XCOM, and Earth was overtaken by aliens.

    So I started a new game. Learning from my past mistakes I chose a new path… and failed… hard. Again a new game, and again fail.

    After sinking 40 hours into it during my 5th attempt, I beat the game on normal. This game really is a learning by dieing experience. It’s not for everybody, but I highly suggest revisiting it some time down the road.

    The story is sparse, XCOM is all about trial and error.

  13. I wish I could tell you something more mature than “the game’s good, you are playing it wrong”. I loved it, and my non gamer brother also played it to completion multiple times and got pretty addicted. That does not happen if the game is bad.
    You are supposed to embrace permadeath once you are capable playing the game halfway decently. It makes it feel different.
    You can’t say the game does not feel strategic. If you take a 90% shot, you are always taking a 10% risk and you should have an answer for that, thats the point. If you don’t have the manpower to take a mission, then you messed up because you planned poorly priorly, when you could have recruited more soldiers. Strategy is planning for things before they happen, and it would not be fun if you knew what is going to happen. The game is supposed to feel like a war against a superior enemy while shit goes wrong (Once I lost a mission because the aliens killed my support guy in front of the sniper, he went into a panic attack and shot the vip they were escorting, and you get pissed because a guy missed a shot… ). You never get to win it if you don’t earn it. Lower the difficulty and try again untill you find your groove.
    Also, this game is a reboot, if you play a reboot and you don’t know what to expect of the game, you are at fault.

  14. There’s an Ironman mode available where there’s only one autosave. Soldiers that die stay dead, you can’t reload to make a “do-over”. It’s not for everyone but it makes XCOM that much more intense, and eliminates the Fire Emblem problem of reloading when something goes wrong.

  15. “Unfortunately, fast-forwarding time again caused me to auto-fail the mission, and France left the council as they were overrun. There was literally nothing I could do in order to effectively take on that mission, had I not known it was coming in advance”

    The best thing to do in this situation is to send a team, even a small team, to the Terror Site. Even if you land and retreat you’ll get a slightly better score than if you just leave the Alien Invasion alone.

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