Back in the 90s when the internet was called the information superhighway, XCOM proved that turn-based strategy needn’t be about recreating Napoleonic battles with hexagons. The game put players in command of XCOM, the agency charged with stopping aliens from enslaving the world, and its combo of tense squad tactics and secret base-building made it a classic.
Now, after a 15-year gap, XCOM is back – but this time without the Duplo-sized pixels and all that faffing around with DOS. But can its old-school approach cut it in the Xbox age?
XCOM – building on tradition
XCOM 2012 might have a sleeker control system and more visual panache than the original, but when it comes to gameplay this is business as usual. The base management aspect is all about researching alien tech, trying to keep countries bankrolling your work and developing an underground HQ that would make a Bond villain proud. This might sound like hard work but XCOM 2012 makes it a breeze and has enough of Civilization’s knack for drip-feeding treats (such as an alien autopsy or base enhancement) to keep you gripped.
XCOM – Squad tactics
All that Dr Evil base stuff might be fun, but it’s the squad-based missions in which you direct your XCOM operatives around the world into battle against the aliens that makes XCOM Enemy Unknown special.
These encounters take place as turn-based battles that involve picking the actions of each squad member as they hunt down aliens, provide covering fire, rescue civilians or cower behind a bush in terror. But thanks to the flexible yet simple commands it’s a snappy rather than sluggish experience.
XCOM – Extra-terrestrial terror
Since players are cast as XCOM’s boss rather than an individual soldier, there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong. XCOM operatives regularly end up on the wrong side of alien ray guns and sometimes entire missions go to pot. But as long as you keep enough of the world’s nations backing the XCOM project you get to fight on.
What’s impressive, though, is how the constant danger of losing your best soldiers makes every encounter with the extra-terrestrial threat a tense and utterly engaging experience.
XCOM – Multiplayer
Although XCOM is primarily a solo game there is a multiplayer mode thrown in, too. Here you get to go head-to-head with another player using squads that can include aliens and humans.
The chance to control the multiple alien species is great and the two-minute time limit on completing your go makes sure no-one dithers too long. But since there’s not much beyond one-off contests, it’s more of an occasional nibble than a full-sized meal.
XCOM – The downsides
If the multiplayer is on the slight side then the sections that see you ordering fighter jets to shoot down UFOs is positively anorexic. It was always a weak spot in the original and despite XCOM 2012 doing such a sterling job of updating the game everywhere else, these sections involve little more than watching wireframe dogfights while hovering a thumb over the disengage button in case your jet takes too much damage.
There are also a few distracting graphical glitches in the squad missions – seeing your operatives magically fire through walls often works to your advantage, but it’s still disappointing to see.
XCOM – Verdict
Dishwater-dull dogfights aside, XCOM delivers on almost every other count. It’s taken an enduring classic and improved on it in almost every way, creating a captivating must-play game that has much more to offer than a nostalgia trip for old-time fans.