XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an isometric turn based tactical strategy where you are commanding a squad of four to six on missions against alien enemies. Its not just a tactical strategy, because between missions you’ll be managing a secret base with easy menus. You’ll get to buy equipment, assign what to research, add facilities to your base, hire new soldiers, manage the ones you have, get air power to combat UFOs, launch satellites and see how you’re doing across the globe when it comes to ceasing alien panic. A failed mission isn’t a game over. Without successful missions, panic will continue to rise in regions. Sometimes, you’ll need to chose one of three regions to defend. Do you take on a mission in Nigeria and ignore Germany and China? On top of that, each mission has rewards they tell you up front. Japan gives $200, but Australia has a Lieutenant Sniper and Brazil offers 4 engineers. The choice is yours Commander. Each month, regions pay you based on your performance in that region. The only game over is losing most of Earth to alien forces.
The gameplay for the turn based tactical strategy is simple, yet deep. Your usual squad consists of 4 – 6 members. Each of your troops have two turns. Once all of your troops have taken a turn, then the opposing side gets a chance. In these turns, you can move a troop, attack an enemy, reload, defend your position, overwatch and use abilities. Some actions like overwatch and reload will end that troop’s turn. Move troops to cover so they don’t get murdered. There is half cover and full cover. Cover can be destroyed with grenades, rockets and gunfire. Attacking enemies is easy enough, the game tells you who you can attack, what your percentage is that you’ll hit them, up to how much damage and a critical hit percentage. Gold icons mean the enemy is out of cover. Each enemy has energy that you can see above them unless you off set that in options. After three or four shots with your primary weapon you can either switch to a weak pistol or reload. Overwatch allows that troop to attack an enemy if they pop out of cover during the enemy’s turn. So if you have a 20% chance to hit the enemy, best to overwatch for when they move during their turn.
The abilities get based on classes and unlocked for each soldier as they rank up. When a troop has reached its first rank (squaddie), he or she earns one of four classes: sniper, heavy, support and assault. Other than abilities, it gears the soldier more toward certain weapons and tactics. Snipers use long range rifles, but need a pistol for short range. Heavies have the most powerful heavy weapons and rocket launchers, but cannot get critical hits. The rocket launcher, grenades and other things can be freely aimed so you can use them to destroy cover. Assault classes use shotguns, assault rifles and pistols. Support classes can use the same thing, but they move further on the battlefield.
Its not just unlocking abilities, but for every rank you chose which of two abilities to unlock. So you can make every soldier different. I can’t cover them all, but snipers unlock things like headshots that increase critical chance, a recon throwable to see more of the battlefield. Assault class has abilities such as run and gun to fire your weapon even after using two turns to run and flush that forces an enemy to run out of cover. It all adds so much variety and the choice is yours. You can customize all your troops down to their name, look, country and so on. You’re not forced to micro manage them.
Each unit can get equipped with armor and an extra item, such as various grenades, more armor, med kit, scope for better accuracy and an arc thrower to capture enemies alive for research. Your troops can be flat out killed in battle. Death is permanent. Sometimes you get lucky and the soldier isn’t dead, but needs to get stabilized with a med kit or they’ll die in three rounds. That doesn’t mean they’ll be back in the fight without an ability granting it. If you chose to abandon a mission, you need to get everyone back to the ship or they’re lost forever. There is a memorial to show you all the lives lost.
You are in command and beyond a mission or two that teaches you, you’ll be on your own with no hand holding. The game does a good enough job explaining things so you can make informed decisions from equipment stats, to research and objectives on a mission. There is a lot of freedom in this game. You can micromanage as deep as you want.
The game shines when it comes to the enemy variety and intelligence. When you first begin you face common sectoids that will laser at you, but the moment they seem insignificant, they can use metal powers to create shields around greater enemies. Thin men not only explode into poisonous gas, preventing you from killing them up close, but they also can shoot the poison to ensure they’re always hurting your team. There are items to prevent poison, but its not worth it. The game amps it up to floating creatures and giant mechanized discs complete with drones that do little damage, but heal the robots. Later on, there are much stronger soldiers that intimidate, which can cause your own troops to become uncontrolled with fear if their will power stat isn’t high enough. Other variations continue to charge at whomever shoots them. There are even enemies that will mind control your own troops into fighting for them. If that wasn’t bad enough there are fast moving aliens that cause people to become difficult to kill zombies. The enemies will try to flank you and if you can’t find any to kill your squad will hear them make noises in directions to bait you over to them.
The maps are well put together. No matter if you’re in a giant alien mothership or in the middle of the woods next to a book store. Everything is credible, both the grandiose and the mundane. The missions have compelling objectives that sometimes tell a story. Its more than just kill em all, its save people to prevent them from getting turned into zombies. Rescue a diplomat and get him back to your ship safe.
Outside of combat, there is the day to day operations of your base. You can have your crew research weapons, do alien autopsies, sift through futuristic technologies in order to unlock new gear and weapons. The engineers will construct the weapons, ships, armor and equipment. Everything not only costs money but parts you find from missions. You can even build new facilities, things like laboratories grant you more scientists to research faster. There are satellite relays to increase the satellite capacity you can have in orbit. All these things need power and there are a variety of generates to construct. You have a limited amount of space at your underground compound, so make good use of it. Putting two similar facilities next to each other gives them a bonus.
With satellites operational, they’ll detect UFOs and you send out continental aircraft to shoot them down. Each continent can have up to four jets and you can equip their armament. Not just that, but to make combat more engaging for you watching, there are items you can buy and use to help your jet win the fight. You can also break off from battle to keep your jet from getting obliterated if it gets too bad.
All the research, satellites getting launched and facilities getting made isn’t done in a day. That’s where you wait. Day by day, you scan for activity. Sometimes there is a string of days with no contact. Other days there are UFOs, missions, crash landings and the council sends you on missions. It really sinks you into a world all its own. There are a few different personalities in your base. All with different perspectives. The head scientist prefers you capture aliens instead of killing them. The lead engineer could care less. The ring leader is your even keeled assistant, helping you, and keeping you on point. It all blends together to make a convincing game world where you save the entire planet one mission at a time.