XCOM: Enemy Unknown: The Kotaku Review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: The Kotaku Review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown should have been a disaster. It’s a turn-based strategy title, a style of game its publisher said only last year was “just not contemporary“. It’s also a remake of a cult classic 1990s PC game, beloved by an audience so fickle that a modern version should be the most offensive entertainment product of the year.

Yet it is not. XCOM is, against the odds, a little bit special.


XCOM is about as perfect a remake of an old game as I could have hoped for, in that while changes have inevitably been made, they’re mostly for the better, and anything genuinely new introduced is only there to improve things.

At its heart, XCOM is still the same game that won hearts when the original was released in 1994, a near-perfect blend of strategic management and ground combat that puts you in command of Earth’s last line of defence against an alien invasion.

For half the game, you’re running a base, funding research, building new weapons, managing a fleet of fighter craft and generally trying to keep a small number of rich and powerful funding nations happy enough to keep on funding you. For the other half, you’re taking a small squad of soldiers out into the field for some turn-based combat.

The game’s changes, then, don’t affect XCOM‘s overall structure. They’re apparent when you notice a nip here, a tuck there, places where things now run smoother than they used to, in some cases, run a little too smoothly.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes a classic PC strategy game, improves it then makes it playable for console owners as well.

Developer: Firaxis Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 Released: October 12 Europe/Australia Type of game: strategy What I played: Completed singleplayer campaign in around 22 hours. Dabbled briefly in multiplayer.

My Two Favourite Things

  • A well-considered and respectful remake of one of my favourite games of all time.
  • The strong sense of attachment and ownership you develop for your soldiers.

My Two Least-Favourite Things

  • Combat needs a “simulate” button, because after 10-15 hours you need a break.
  • Your means of progression are sometimes vague.


  • “Rest in Peace, Captain Valdez.” — Luke Plunkett, Kotaku
  • “Defeat the alien menace through science, combat and atrocious German accents.” — Luke Plunkett, Kotaku

Two of the most important are the ways XCOM handles player feedback, and the way the game’s combat has been quietly revolutionised.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as this game was made by the same studio responsible for the mainstream-friendly civilisation series, this is as far from a “dry” strategy game as you’ll get. There are characters, dialogue and, best of all, a continued and palpable sense of progress, displayed by the frequent cutscenes seen around important breakthroughs. Your 19th scientific discovery may just be another ticked box on a menu screen, but when you see that it triggers a cutscene in which a room full of grown men cheer and high-five, you can’t help but feel a little pride.

Combat, meanwhile, may look the same, but it’s not. It’s now far more tactical and engaging, helped by a series of perks and abilities your soldiers possess, but mostly because of the way you interact with your surroundings. In the new XCOM, cover — previously important — is now everything. Those who have played Relic’s strategy games will be right at home, as your soldiers must make full use of cover for their own defence, and try and flank the enemy’s when in attack. If you don’t, you will die quickly, and horribly.

Which leads me to the game’s biggest achievement: its handling of your soldier’s lives (and deaths). The sense of attachment and mourning over lost soldiers was a big part of people’s love for the original, and those feelings will only be stronger for veterans of this 2012 campaign. You can customise almost every aspect of your soldier’s lives, from their names to their faces, armour colour schemes, weapons loadouts, even the abilities they gain as they level up.

This makes you love them while they’re alive, but in this game, death is around every corner. It doesn’t matter if a soldier has survived one mission or one hundred, they can all die in a single moment of inattentiveness. The feeling of loss once a veteran, beloved soldier goes down is crushing. In a good way. Not many games will take your best toys away from you so swiftly and permanently, and so not many games really force you to look after them and appreciate them as well as XCOM does.

I suppose as we near the end of this review I should tell you it’s not all high-fives and tears of remembrance. Combat can, despite its joys, start to feel like a chore 15 hours into a game, with no real way to take a break from it without suffering penalties. It can also feel a little too streamlined at times, which will be disappointing if you were hoping for a more open-ended experience like the original (build multiple bases, have full control over their floorplans, etc).


XCOM is one of the most important strategy games in years. It’s a great remake, sure, and that’s enough for most long-time fans, but for everyone else, know that this is a truly accessible strategy game. To the point where, if you own a Xbox 360 or PS3, you can play this with a controller and not miss a thing.

In the end, long after veteran XCOM players have appreciated the effort and moved on, that will hopefully be this game’s lasting achievement. That it took a project that only noisy, hardcore PC gamers should have cared about and, through window dressing, interface tweaks and some combat changes, turned it into a game that everyone can enjoy.


  • Luke Plunkett sucks! boo!

    kidding – just wondering where all the haters are today?

    meanwhile, first game in while that i’m keen to get on release.

    • Because Plunkett is a hot and cold writer. At times he writes articles like this that are great. Other times, not so much. This is the former.

  • I’ve not yet played this but I am looking forward to it. However, it does just look like a reskinned version of Valkyria Chronicles. Prob one of my fav strat games on the console so not a complaint. But I have a question, does XCOM take it a step further than VC? or is it pretty similar as far a gameplay (perhaps VC was based on the original XCOM I don’t know).

      • Interesting, I thought the opposite, quite enjoyed Valk Chronicles story, thus far finding XCOM to be a pretty silly, and primarily there as an excuse for the awesome gameplay, which I have no problem with. Better than VC2 story though… *shudder*

    • Valkyria Chronicles didn’t really have any higher level strategy component, just the low level tactical combat.

    • Umm what ?

      Valkyria Chronicles in the light of all that is holy would be a blip on the radar compared to the god of all games X-Com

  • I’m waiting for Far Cry 3.. I want to play XCOM as well.. but it’s going to take a backseat while I finish Borderlands 2 and Torchlight 2, and by the time that happens Far Cry 3 will be here and I will be playing that instead. Mechwarrior: Online will also likely be in Open Beta by the end of the year as well, so that’s another game I’ll be playing…. so XCOM is likely not to be installed on my PC for at least 3 months, if not 6…

    • Damn you GMG! 25% code plus only $49.95 base price means I get the game for $37.50USD.. couldn’t resist.. and bought it! 🙂

  • What does it mean by you can’t stop playing without taking penalties? I don’t want to be playing for hours on end. What kind of game doesn’t let you take a break? I got a bit sucked in to the genre after playing Ghost Recon on 3DS, so I’m hesitantly looking forward to XCOM!

    • You might be interested to learn that Ghost Recon on the 3DS was built by the creator of the original XCOM, Julian Gollop.

  • It is worth mentioning that for those not wanting to pay the ‘Australia Tax’ price of $70 on steam you can pick it up at Greenman Gaming for $37.50 (activates on steam) by using the coupon ‘GMG25-EVFWS-4Z4ZN’ at checkout. You also get a free steam copy of Civilization 5 and the preorder soldier decals. http://www.greenmangaming.com/?gmgr=liresace (my referral link if anyone wants to get some bonus credit).

    I can’t wait to give this game a crack. I hope it has some decent re-playability (the lack of random maps has me a little worried).

    • Yup.. I went with that option.. they also had it on 10% off, plus the 25% coupon.. even cheaper.. definitely worth doing it this way.. I’m not going to post a referall link though because I’m not that cheap. 🙂 hehe..

      Since I’ve bought it from a US-based store, paid US dollars for it.. I also don’t feel so bad for using a VPN to access the game a few days early here in Aus..

  • So to grossly oversimplify, the game is XCOM original meets valkyria chronicles meets Fire Emblem, with some deeper elements in a lot of areas and.. yknow… space ships and shit. Yeah! Now to have my fill before Dishonered arrives.

  • In the old one there was a simple strategy of just blowing the fuck out the environment be damned collateral damage. I’d destroy entire entire houses up.

    Can you still do this without penalty?

    • best way to take care of chryssalids during terror missions – park your troops in the open and blow holes in every single wall on the map. you do NOT want to be surprised at melee range by a chryssalid.

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