XCOM: Enemy Unknown review

  • Satisfying, difficult tactical battles
  • The lengthy campaign and robust multiplayer
  • Incredibly deep customization
  • Camera and control problems
  • Random difficulty spikes
  • Watching your loved ones die to incredibly bad luck

Firaxis’ reboot of XCOM, Enemy Unknown, is one of the most logically sound alien invasion games you’ll ever play. It accepts that if extraterrestrials were to invade the earth, it wouldn’t be a single soldier in a suit of armor that fights them off by blasting his way through their defenses. No, it would require a multinational organization dedicated to researching the aliens, building the tools to defeat them, and engaging them in strategic battles to fuel the resistance. It also admits what most invasion stories won’t: The fight wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be pretty, and there’s a good chance the human race’s attempts to destroy their invaders would fail horribly. It’s from desperation like this that true greatness becomes possible.

Enemy Unknown follows in a classic tale of alien invasion, with near-future Earth interfacing with a violent alien race for the first time. As the commander of the XCOM initiative, you’re tasked with protecting humanity (and taking part in extraterrestrial combat), on a mission to beat the newly-discovered alien threat back to the speck of light it came from. From a war room stationed underground in the country of your choice, you’ll oversee every move XCOM makes, scrambling fighters to shoot down enemy UFOs, deciding which countries to protect from invasions, and even prioritizing the analysis of recovered alien objects. It’s a unique way to handle the genre, but it fits well, providing an unorthodox gameplay structure that feels classic, and yet incredible modern in its execution. 

Check out the video review to see XCOM in action

You’ll be tasked with spinning many plates fairly quickly, but once you’ve grasped what it is to be the commander of XCOM, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the more strategic approach to fighting an alien threat, even if it proves more difficult than simply blowing them up.

When missions crop up, they’re usually of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” variety, giving you the option to intervene in one of a number of conflicts occurring concurrently. Protecting one country over another will see the other’s panic levels rise, which, if left unchecked, can lead to the ignored nation pulling support--and money--from XCOM. If too many people pull their funds, the XCOM initiative is eventually shut down, creating a “Game Over” scenario that many modern gamers might not be used to seeing.

Even dissecting aliens and researching different recovered artifacts has important rewards and repercussions, giving you insight into the new races you discover and letting you build the necessary tools to defeat them. Using the tech gathered you’ll also be able to upgrade, improve, and customize your units, preparing them for the many inevitable battles.

And though you can spend a lot of time making decisions from behind a desk, a majority of the time you’ll spend in XCOM is in commanding units to battle alien foes on the ground. It’s here that XCOM goes from an engaging alien defense force simulation to one of the best tactical games in years.

XCOM’s grid-based combat has you commanding units to take cover, find better positions, and attack the alien forces in turn-based battles. These encounters are remarkably tactical, superbly rewarding, and absolutely brutal. It’s a game of weighing odds, deciding if it’s worth moving a unit to attack an enemy or biding time to lure them into a trap. Each move is so important that you’ll have a hard time not obsessing over it, even when you’re not playing, working out troop arrangements and squad customization concepts in your head before attempting to execute them when you’re back in-game.

One poorly placed troop or risky move and the entire mission can go up in flames, resulting in the permanent death of your soldiers--something made even more heartbreaking if you choose to customize the squad members, fueling your emotional attachment by assigning digital souls to your digital soldiers. Losing a soldier can be devastating, both in terms of your mood and your progress through the game’s 12-15 hour long campaign, leading to you potentially consider restarting the entire thing over after a few failures (mainly if you play with Iron Man mode, which removes the ability to save on demand, and replaces it with an autosave after every action).

This threat--this ubiquitous likelihood of bitter failure--makes the successes so much sweeter. Your heart will stop every time you move your high-level units into uncharted ground, and you’ll be breathless when you finish off the last alien and see the mission success screen come up.

Watch the launch trailer to get in the mood for alien killing

And yet, for as enjoyable as the strategic battles are, you might sometimes feel that chance plays too large a role in this otherwise mathematical outing. Losing a high-level unit to a poor move is one thing, but having your entire team miss attacks with a high percentage of success only to have an alien opponent critically strike your best warrior from afar is frustrating and, often, doesn’t feel fair, probability be damned. Camera problems, too, occasionally make finding a new position to attack a chore, and can sometimes lead to an errant action putting your entire team in danger. These flaws are less of an issue in multiplayer, which allows two players to compete in the game’s battles after assembling a team of humans and aliens. Still, the issues detract from the overall experience, and occasionally make a bad situation worse.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown elicits feelings of nostalgia you might not even realize you have--but not necessarily for an earlier era of gaming. Researching new equipment and customizing your soldiers is like a trip to the toy store, and bringing them to the battlefield feels like ripping open the packaging and playing with that new, awesome toy for the first time, discovering all it can do and testing its limits. Firaxis has done a remarkable job at adapting the classic gameplay of XCOM in a way that should satiate both fans of the series and those new to the genre, and though it’s capable of being brutally difficult, it doesn’t shy away from rewarding you for your successes. It’s a game that should absolutely be played by anyone interested in a more strategic take on the cliched alien invasion story--so long as you’re not afraid to lose a fight once or twice.

More Info

Release date: Oct 09 2012 - PS3, PC, Xbox 360 (US)
Available Platforms: iPad, PS3, PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy
Published by: 2K Games
Developed by: Firaxis Games
ESRB Rating:


  • Darkhawk - June 20, 2013 12:29 p.m.

    Reminds me a lot of the board game Pandemic - you spend all this time balancing resource development, deploying specialists across a world map... and ultimately you lose. (Seriously, you lose about 75% of the time you play Pandemic, but it's still fun.)
  • neosapien - October 27, 2012 8:45 a.m.

    Well, to be honest i've heard of this game when i was like 7 or 8 years old, but i was too young, so i usually played mario and zelda, i played the demo of XCOM on the Xbox 360, it was pretty good!!
  • talleyXIV - October 21, 2012 10:06 a.m.

    This game is amazing.
  • Rhymenocerous - October 10, 2012 10:51 a.m.

    So do we only have one base then? I think you could have about 8 on the PS1/PC version, if I remember rightly.
  • winner2 - October 9, 2012 3:27 p.m.

    I haven't been paying much attention to this, mostly because I never played the original. But this looks pretty awesome, so I think my christmas list just got one item longer. Gonna to go into battle with Tim Wilson, Ron White, James Gregory, and Rodney Carrington.
  • GoldenEagle1476 - October 9, 2012 2:15 p.m.

    Never payed much attention to this game, but I'm really thinking of getting this now.
  • avantguardian - October 8, 2012 5:12 p.m.

    gets here tomorrow. love it when my preorders don't let me down.
  • BladedFalcon - October 8, 2012 5:03 p.m.

    Wow... Hrm, so i hadn't been paying attention to this one at all. But I mean... A good Turn Based Strategy games AND that plays well on consoles? I can't say no to that!
  • brickman409 - October 8, 2012 4:58 p.m.

    looks pretty good, although I kinda miss that fps X-com game
  • Viron - October 8, 2012 11:47 a.m.

    Thank god I forgot about this, now my week looks 500% better. More games need to sneak up in their releases, pleasant surprises are the best kind.
  • Fitter89 - October 8, 2012 11:04 a.m.

    You mentioned that it sometimes feels like the odds are against you, but I like the idea of knowing that if I just sent in some elite troops then it's not going to be an easy win. Saying that, if they get a pot shot at my Chuck Borris, then I am going to go ape ****.
  • jimbobmcclan - October 8, 2012 10:33 a.m.

    What? No building your own Bases?
  • 7-D - October 8, 2012 10:27 a.m.

    Wow, this one snuck up.
  • Stabby_Joe - October 8, 2012 6:09 a.m.

    I'm glad this is getting very positive reviews so far, it pretty much goes to show that you can take an old genre and keep it fresh without changing everything for the sake of "broad appeal". *cough* XCOM FPS *cough* HOWEVER, how is the interference between console and PC?
  • ObliqueZombie - October 9, 2012 9:24 a.m.

    Slightly faster with the running, reduced loading times, *slightly* better graphics, etc. etc.
  • Bossco - October 8, 2012 6:04 a.m.

    I loved this on the PS1 so I'll be purchasing a copy. Does it play OK on PS3 or is is better to get the PC version?
  • Exiousa - October 8, 2012 7:51 a.m.

    Game play is pretty much identical no matter what version, the interface on the PC is tweaked a little and a few small nudges in the PC's to fans of the original game. It really comes down to what you are most comfortable gaming on, perhaps even if you want the multi-player side too, how many friends you have either on PS3 or PC and have this game. Cannot go wrong with any version of this :) As far as I have read a lot of reviewers on early builds of the games have all enjoyed grabbing a game pad on PC to play it like a console too, but even the PS3 and Xbox versions people have played very smoothly with no problems! So just get the version you feel most comfortable with :D If it helps there is a online video showing you the Interface differences of the PC one if that helps sway your decision! Just do a search for "XCOM PC Interface" ;)
  • taokaka - October 8, 2012 5:40 a.m.

    This review just made me want to go back and finish valkyria chronicles, I might get this some time down the line because this year and early next is fully booked out.

Showing 1-20 of 23 comments

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