Review from a Gaming Expert – XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Invasion of my Heart

Here’s my expert review – XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the best game of 2012. Not Halo 4. Not Walking Dead. XCOM.


Despite my status as an expert gamer (which I will cement further below), I have never been addicted to games. People who spend all their time playing games just didn’t make sense to me. There’s so much more out there in the world! Go see it! Embrace your future! Carpe Diem!

Well, screw Carpe Diem. I have XCOM. And now I’ve found my gaming addiction.

In one afternoon, I went from “should I or shouldn’t I even bother giving it a shot” to “I started playing at 9 am, why is it midnight and what the hell just happened?” Allow me to break it down.


At the core of XCOM is a turn-based strategy game, where you lead your squad against surprisingly horrific aliens attempting to conquer earth. You move your soldiers around the battlefield, taking advantage of positioning, surprise rounds, and uncovering the enemy behind the “fog of war.” When engaged in combat, you order your troops to fire a specific, upgradeable weapon, fire a rocket, use psionic powers, or trigger an ability. Each leveled character will have a multitude of different options, and it’s up to you to decide which, and in what order, they use them in.

There's a Zoolander reference to make here...
There’s a Zoolander reference to make here…

Here’s what’s great about XCOM strategy: it’s both fun and unforgiving. Charge in too fast and leave a member of your team open? Your enemy WILL exploit that, and chances are, that person will be dead as Fred. If you’re playing the Ironman mode, which auto-saves after every turn, kiss that person goodbye. If you’re not, be prepared to reload and learn from your mistake. XCOM will force you to utilize strategy, or you will not complete the game.

No, seriously. You can actually “fail” a playthrough of XCOM, and get the plug pulled on your operation. But more on that in a minute.

Your squad

In my last mission, James Harden (of the Houston Rockets) dropped a telekinesis shield, offering protection to Max Payne, who used an advanced Medkit to heal Ellen Ripley, who was weakened after psionically mindcrushing an alien Berserker. Then, Princess Zelda advanced her position, lining up a perfect sniper shot for Samus Aran. It was magical. Upon victory, I got up and danced suggestively around the room, and then saluted Samus for some reason.

If that paragraph is any indication, I grew a little too attached to my crew. Yes, I customized them, which includes a only a paltry few options, and a naming feature. But these soldiers had been with me since almost the very beginning, and I had leveled them up and invested hard fought capital into them (again, more on that later). At this point, each soldier was wielding upgraded weapons, donned in advanced armor, proficient with elite abilities, and some were even gifted in psionics.

My squad's better.
My squad’s better.

These options and paths that open up are part of what make XCOM so addicting. Squad members start at a base, and as they level up, they will go down one of four classes: Sniper, Assault, Support, and Heavy.

  • Heavy uses rockets and shotguns to do tons of damage.
  • Support is responsible for buffing and healing, but can also do considerable amount of damage, so as to encourage the player to keep them close to the front line.
  • Assault is an all-around balanced class.
  • Sniper, in my opinion, is the best, most powerful, most broken class in the game. One Sniper can completely change the entire tide of battle from way behind the front lines, picking off multiple enemies in a single turn with only a few shots.

As they level up, characters learn abilities that supplement their strengths in the field, and can even develop alien-derived psionic abilities later in the game. Each character represented my investment of time, money, and emotion, and it didn’t take long for me to realize I couldn’t watch them die in battle. So I didn’t.

That’s right – I played the easy way out. Jason and I will detail how very different our experiences with XCOM were, but I went the pansy way. Any time a soldier of mine died, I reloaded. If they took too much damage, I reloaded. If a turn didn’t go exactly the way I planned, I reloaded. And since I was frequently taking cover in stupid places, or trying to hit distant enemies with a shotgun, or blowing up a car which my own soldiers were taking cover behind, I probably spent more time reloading than playing. I didn’t care. While maybe this tedium isn’t for everyone, I loved it, and appreciate how XCOM let me play the game the way I wanted to play it. Speaking of choices…

The economy

Here it is. The crux of XCOM. The factor that elevates the experience from “Very good” to “Incredible.” The game economy.

As commander, you’re in charge of the XCOM base. You have facilities and funds, but it’s up to you to keep countries investing in your base by keeping the panic levels within their borders low, either by taking missions there, or launching satellites to help monitor their skies. Keep the countries appeased, and they keep money flowing to your project. Sounds easy. It’s not.

Yeah, he's dead.
Yeah, he’s dead.

Satellites cost money and resources. Furthermore, you will often be faced with a decision to help three different countries at once, but can only choose one. The country you choose will offer you immediate resources and their panic levels will be reduced. The countries you ignore will see a rise in their panic levels. Do you trade short-term reward for long-term goals? It’s up to you.

Once you have that money, there are tons of ways for you to spend it:

  • Build more facilities to help with research, provide power to your other buildings, or aid in research and development.
  • Spend money in the Officer Training School to strengthen your squad.
  • Research weapons and armor to soup up your soldiers.
  • Construct advanced aircrafts to shoot down detected UFOs.

These are only a few of the many options available to you. You’re always looking for more money, and each passing of the month becomes this addicting effort to appease the countries and maximize your income. With the right managing of resources, you’ll become a powerhouse organization in a few months. Manage it wrong, and countries will pull support of the project. If eight countries withdraw, that’s game over.

That’s correct. Like I mentioned above, if you fail at XCOM, you literally fail. The campaign is over. Earth is dead. Learn from your mistakes, and try again. The consequences of failure are very real, and it’s a breath of fresh air. Take care of your decisions, or there will be repercussions.

Summary and score

At the end of the day, XCOM epitomizes everything I love about games. It’s fun and finely tuned, with a system that is addictive and very freeform. I went the route of upgrading my soldiers weapons, but I left an entire option of sending unmanned robots into the field unexplored. Jason poured resources into research and development in exchange for creating an aerial armada. If you’re smart about it, both options can work, which is the pinnacle of game design.


Furthermore, Jason and I loved the game for very different reasons. He played the game with random statistics, and with no redoes in Ironman. This made every encounter visceral and realistic, making each victory that much sweeter.

I played it slower, and focused on my economy and maximizing each turn for the most efficient result. Both play-styles yield phenomenal results. XCOM is a basically a sandbox of options and creativity, and it’s a game that should be experienced by everyone.

I give XCOM: Enemy Unknown five psychic James Harden’s out of five. 

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