XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) review:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

A great strategy isn't foolproof, however: you still need the numbers on your side. Each offensive action has a chance to hit, and while it rarely makes sense to gamble when you've got a 1 percent chance of landing your shot, the choice isn't always that simple. Triumph can hinge on a dice roll. Your ability to maintain proper distance is the best way of maintaining supremacy, but you're still at the mercy of mathematics. You might shake your fist and curse when you miss a shot that had an 85 percent chance to hit--but you'll breathe a sigh of relief when the numbers aren't on your side, yet you land a critical hit that shifts the tide of battle. The tension of the dice roll is further drawn out by the cinematic animations that accompany the action. The camera closes in on your sniper and you hear the rifle charge. The fear rises and your heart skips. The anxiety might be relieved by the sight of a sectoid erupting in a gusher of green goo. But it might also be exacerbated by watching the laser fire miss the target, which means finding a new way of handling the danger--and the stress.

The glamorous camera angles that dramatize the successes and failures often contribute to the excitement, but the glam-cam occasionally glitches out, as do other aspects of Enemy Unknown's presentation. Along with close-ups of mean mutons beating their chests and thin men looking as if you caught them in the middle of something insidious, you get close-ups of plasma rifles clipping through walls, laser fire shooting through vehicles, and leafy bushes obscuring the entire screen in all their leafiness. A soldier might lean out from behind a wall and bug out, pointing her empty hands in one direction while her still-holstered weapon fires somewhere else. These seem like small considerations, but the game goes out of its way to look cinematic, so the visual problems really stand out.

Back at the base, in the meanwhile, you must manage a global array of countries that provide funding to the XCOM project. Their funds are important, because you use them to perform research (alien autopsies, for instance), enhance your squads (unlock another squad slot, perhaps), and purchase new facilities at your base. You view your base from a side cutaway view, ant farm style, and add facilities by excavating outward and downward. Those facilities fit into the bigger picture in a number of ways, producing engineers that you need to research upgrades in your foundry, for instance, or allowing you to place satellites over more regions of the globe.

Satellites are your way of keeping tabs on the state of the globe. Should a satellite detect a nearby UFO, you're engaged in a brief minigame in which an available interceptor attempts to take down the flying menace. Those interceptors--as well as the actions they perform, and the advanced weapons they can equip--also cost you funds, so it's well worth your while to keep different countries well protected. Should a country's populace panic, they may very well withdraw from the project, which negatively affects your monthly income. You can sell off various alien parts you earn after each battle should you need the funds, but those bits and pieces are used to both research and manufacture upgrades. You must always be aware of how your decisions impact future options. Buying titan armor for all your soldiers is tempting, for instance, but would those funds be better spent on more uniform satellite coverage, or foundry projects? There are consequences for every choice.

If you want to exercise your strategic skills outside of the core single-player experience, you can face friends and strangers online in one-versus-one matches. Players are given an equal number of points to spend on units. Soldiers can cost any number of points depending on how you equip them, while alien units are a set number of points each. There is no base management involved in multiplayer games, which are quick-and-dirty deathmatches in which the best (and sometimes, the luckiest) player wins. The matches have the same tense qualities as they do in single-player, with the added tension of not knowing your foe's play style, or the unit makeup of the opposing team.

You'll see strategies here that you won't see in the campaign. The opponent might use ghost armor to go invisible and then use the overwatch ability to spew plasma at you while you reposition yourself. Or he might buff up powerful human heavies even further by using a sectoid's mind merge. The multiplayer is enjoyable as a result, though its one-off nature doesn't have the long-lasting charms of the full-fledged campaign. You can save a go-to squad for easy use in multiplayer battles, though it's a shame you can't save more than one. Having multiple slots for various squads would be a really handy time-saver.

The limited number of multiplayer maps also takes some of the edge off of online competition, which echoes a limitation in the campaign. While you encounter a healthy number of maps when playing offline, Enemy Unknown does not feature the randomly generated maps of the game that inspired it. You eventually start to see maps repeat, which can be noticeable when you're traversing a map in Russia that you played in North America. The enemies may be in different spots, and you might begin battle from a different corner of the map, but the element of surprise isn't as strong in this game as it was in the 1994 original.

Don't be too concerned by the minor drawbacks, however. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a wonderful and worthy strategy game with a layer of campy charm that makes the stone-faced seriousness of the game's characters all the more endearing. It's also remarkably accessible, thanks to a great interface that feels comfortable whether you're using a keyboard and mouse or have a controller in your hand. Enemy Unknown packs dense amounts of dramatic tension into each turn. And so it's time to eliminate the alien threat, commander. Select a location, build your base...and save humanity.

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