‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ among best games this year

Colin Bowden, Staff Writer

What must aliens have to study when they teach their young to plot taking over Earth? Laser Combat I? Advanced Precision Probing? Intro to Human Biology? What research have aliens already done on us and our civilization and what can we do to stop them? Well, wonder no longer as “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. “XCOM” is a turn-based strategy game that focuses on Earth’s finest killing an alien invasion force and beating it back using Earthling ingenuity, alien firepower and good old-fashioned tactics. Sun Tzu would be proud.

The visuals are not breathtaking, but each energy shot has vibrant color, each soldier has slight changes in their facial features, and the enemies have enough detail to help players differentiate one type from another. But, the environments can get bland and non-descript, and the overall color tends to turn to an overall dreary nature. It can be argued, however, that this is not a game about stylized graphics and huge explosions, but there were some notable issues, not to mention some hiccups in framerate that were just inexcusable for a turn-based game.

The music, creeping aliens and wanton destruction is captured well by the sounds. The surprise sound when an alien is discovered can be ever-so-irritating, and hearing people get mauled by alien pods is at once terrifying and awesome. The graphics are serviceable if underwhelming, but the sounds are a welcome surprise given how powerful and effective they are in setting the tone for the game. There are times, many in fact, where sounds will tell you far more about the situation in “XCOM” than the graphics, and that’s not a bad thing.

The gameplay is truly where the game shines. When you start, you probably will go into the extensive and fun tutorial that shows off the rich complexity and turn-based fun of “XCOM” that makes up the bulk of the experience.

Many a developer could make a game like this—you kill aliens, get rewards, go back out and do it again, but it’s harder. However, “XCOM” makes it interesting in a couple great ways. First, your team is important and, second, they are also expendable. This means you need to try to save your warriors and level them up through battle experience, killing and capturing aliens to get new skills.

Yet they can die and die easily, even on the easiest difficulty. This doesn’t mean you can’t finish the game, but it produces reasons for playing more of the game (to level up more character types) and that’s all gravy.

“XCOM” also gets a phenomenal balance between strategy and tactics, combining resource management, politics and research with precise in-battle planning and some good fortune. This adds up to a gaming experience that sucks you in to playing a game you never even thought of playing for 10 hours on a Sunday when you should be doing homework. Long story short, it’s doggone fun.