In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, victory is sweet--but it's so much sweeter when it arrives after a heart-wrenching standoff. With each turn, the newest entry in this beloved strategy series heightens the sense of tension, and each defeat of a hovering alien craft thus becomes cause for celebration. But don't get too intoxicated by the faint scent of triumph: nothing is certain until you've ripped your last enemy to shreds. Getting cocky and rushing ahead is a fool's strategy, and until the alien threat is eliminated, your guard must remain up.
Enemy Unknown isn't a simple remake of the original, but like that game, it cannily instills a sense of fear. Earth is under attack by aliens, and the game makes no attempts to humanize the attackers. This isn't District 9--it's The War of the Worlds, and extraterrestrial invaders are to be annihilated, not welcomed or bargained with. This might be a modern rendition of an older game, but developer Firaxis relies on old-fashioned fears to drive its narrative. Almond-eyed greys and floating saucers ripped from popular culture need no explanation: they're clearly not of this world, and they're clearly out to destroy us. And so it's up to you, the commander of the super-secretive XCOM organization, to make Earth a safe haven once again.
Gameplay is divided into two portions: base management and combat scenarios. Near the beginning of the game, you select a location for your base of operations from one of several possibilities. The choices are more limited than the ones in the original X-COM, and this is the only base you manage through the course of the game. If you're a fan of the original, being limited to a single base might seem cause for concern, as might the subsequent loss of the oft-challenging base invasions. It may not share the full breadth of the game that spawned the franchise, but it would be difficult to accuse Enemy Unknown of "dumbing down" the core gameplay. Nevertheless, if you crave a relentless challenge (if not quite as relentless as the nail-biting), you should play on classic difficulty, rather than the default difficulty level.
And so there are some changes to adjust to, but once Enemy Unknown is in full swing, you will be enthralled by its turn-based combat missions. Upon learning of an alien threat, you select units from your barracks to fill out your squad, and you are whisked to the point of contact. You eventually command up to six squad members--and in time, you might replace them with robotic SHIV units--but even in the early hours, the eerie atmosphere and faint sounds of skittering alien feet get you immediately invested. Upon discovery, the aliens are introduced with a burst of discordant music and a close-up of their ugly faces, and thus the stage is set for battle.
The basic concept is simple: get squad members behind cover where damage is minimized, and then take aim. Each squad member gets two actions per turn, though some of your soldiers will earn ways of extending this basic number. When possible, you want to move from cover to cover, diminishing the enemies' chances of landing shots while flanking them to lessen the benefit of their own cover spots. In the early hours, your options are few. But the soldiers that survive the mission level up and gain access to new abilities that you assign back at base. Additionally, you spend funds on better weapons, upgraded armor, and other enhancements. Simple grunts become trustworthy killing machines--and when your killing machines are fully leveled and decked out in your finest equipment, you'd best keep them alive.
But soldiers can, and do, fall in battle. The units don't have much personality apart from their battlefield quips, but you can customize them beyond their loadouts, giving them names, changing their hairdos, and adjusting the color of their armor. (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners be aware: some cosmetic customization features require that you enter a code that comes with brand-new copies of the game.) But while you may not develop an emotional connection with your soldiers, you'll certainly come to rely on the skills of your most senior combatants. Losing an effective soldier in battle is a tragic turn of events, though in some cases, a downed soldier can still be saved if you have a soldier with a medkit in battle--or if you are lucky enough to conquer the enemy before the unlucky victim bleeds out.
So you want to keep your soldiers alive. And that means treading carefully, even before you have encountered hulking berserkers and speedy floaters. As you close in on the game's final hours, you'll have discovered that managing the fog of war is as vital as performing the right actions once combat has commenced. If you move too quickly into the fray, you risk alerting more enemies than you can handle at once. One of your greatest adversaries in Enemy Unknown is your own patience, and this battle against human nature is part of the tension that builds from the moment you enter the map. Where are your foes? Should you risk flanking a cyberdisc if it means uncloaking a portion of the map? If you're already in over your head, you may not want a trio of pointy-legged chrysalids intruding on your personal space.
If they do intrude, however, you might still have the tools you need to survive. Soldiers of different classes have different roles in battle, and depending on their loadouts, you have a number of ways of approaching the enemy. Close-range weapons like shotguns and alloy cannons are super effective, but getting in close can be a big risk. Meanwhile, having a sniper move too close to a quick-witted floater can dramatically reduce your chances of landing the shot. You need to know your soldiers, and develop strategies that make sense. A quartet of mutons looks threatening, but you have ways of whittling down their numbers if you play your cards right. A SHIV's suppressive fire and a soldier's flush skill can be used in tandem to bring down stubborn foes. Alien grenades, shredder rockets, and other doodads can be more than helpful as well. Just as a seemingly simple situation can turn deadlier than you imagined, a difficult encounter can be tamed with a few smart moves.