REVIEW: Close Encounters.
Confession time: I never played the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, nor any of it's associated sequels or spinoffs. I knew of the games, certainly, but never got around to trying any of them. Not that it matters; familiarity with the UFO / X-COM series is certainly not required going into Firaxis' reverential remake of the original game.
The plot doesn't exactly require much in the way of explanation: aliens land on earth, and start killing people. The countries of the world band together to provide funding for the XCOM project, a highly equipped reactionary force capable of combating the alien threat, overseen by a mysterious Council. As commander of the XCOM project, it's your job to respond to hostile actions, scour the skies for UFO's to shoot down, and research alien technology in order to develop better weapons and equipment.
From your underground headquarters, you can assign scientists and engineers to research and construction projects; conducting autopsies on alien corpses and investigating their technology by building bigger laboratories and constructing satellites to stand watch over friendly countries. Managing your resources is key, particularly in the early stages of the game; the faster you can get access to alien technology the more effective your response teams will be. You'll spend quite some time here in the control room; waiting for days to tick by while your research and construction projects count down to completion, and responding, of course, to alien threats.
The majority of these - particularly in the early stages of the game - come in the form of Alien Abductions. Aliens will attack three locations at the same time, and you have to decide which location to send a team to. You can decide based on the relative difficulty assessment of the threat, but more often you'll have to chose based on which countries have the highest 'panic' rating - unchecked alien attacks and UFO visits cause panic in a country to increase, and if it gets too high they secede from the X-COM project - removing their resources from your coffers. Lose too many countries and it's game over, so you'll probably want to make some decisions quite early on about which nations you're willing to lose. Other events include UFO sightings, which will normally require you to launch interceptors to, well, intercept them, in the hopes of shooting them down before they achieve whatever goal they were sent to, which plays out as a strange chase sequence minigame.
You'll be spending plenty of time managing your resources and facilities, and there's certainly plenty of things to keep your eye on - though thankfully the game does a decent job of introducing elements gradually - but the majority of your time will be spent creating, outfitting, and commanding your team in missions. Said missions take the form of turn-based tactical battles where you team of up to 6 men must combat the aliens in various urban locales. There's a fairly broad range of maps on offer, randomly chosen and filled with randomised enemies for each mission, so you're not likely to get bored of repeating the same maps too frequently.
Each team member can move and take an action, though it must be carried out in that order, and they can opt to forego their action in order to make a second movement. What actions character's can take depends on their specialisation, which is earned after they accumulate a little experience. All characters can shoot - which is helpful, given the hostile nature of the aliens - but some gain extra actions depending on skills and equipment. All are capable of using basic assault rifles, pistols, and grenades, but Assault types can use powerful shotguns and make run-and-gun attacks, Support troops can use medikits to heal allies and smoke bombs to provide cover, Heavy's can make use of powerful weaponry and rocket launchers, whilst Sniper's get improved accuracy and the ability to equip sniper rifles. Later you can build robotic SHIV's to take in place of troopers; they can't gain experience, but on the other hand if they die you can just build another one.
And death is very much a constant threat in XCOM. When a soldier dies in a mission - and they will die, because the aliens are far more numerous and better equipped than the XCOM team is - that's it; their name gets chalked up on the memorial and they're gone forever. Even being injured takes a soldier out of the fight for a few days. What makes it worse, though, is that you do start to develop a connection with your soldiers - partly because the more experienced a solider is the more effective they are in battle, but largely because you can name them yourself. And, in the tradition of every game that lets you name characters, you naturally name them after your mates. When Assault specialist Colonel Gibbons is killed by an alien, it's annoying. When your best mate is killed by an alien, that's substantially worse. After a few levels of experience - if they're still alive - you can even give them nicknames. Aww.
You'll have plenty of aliens to battle, too, and they come in varying flavours. The most basic are the weak, but psychically gifted Sectoids and the nearly-human Thin Men, but it gets much worse from there. Hulking Mutons look like Gears of War rejects, hovering Floaters can jump around the map, spinning Discs rain laser death, and the hulking robotic Septapods insist on blowing you up with explosive rockety death. All are easily capable of taking down any of your soldiers, and you'll be forced to make smart use of tactics, cover, and strategic positioning to come out on top. Cover is a big benefit - to both you and the aliens - though it is destructible. More important is the Overwatch ability, which lets a soldier sacrifice their action in return for the ability to make a reactionary shot during the alien turn, blasting aliens as they dart between cover.
Most missions are simple eradication exercises, clearing the attackers out of an evacuated area of the city, but there are some more varied objectives on offer. When you shoot down a UFO, you'll get to move in on the crash site to clear out the aliens and salvage their tech; sometimes you'll be given missions from the council, given the task of evacuating civilians in an area under attack, or rescuing a vip trapped in hostile territory. Occasionally you'll even get to board an alien vessel, and the amount of maps on offer, coupled with the varying objectives and abundance of enemy types, means that you won't get bored even some 20 or 30 hours into the campaign after countless missions.
Actually finishing the game is tricky - there are all kinds of ways to lose, and only one way to win, making it more a case of survival than anything else - and with multiple difficulty settings - including an optional 'Ironman' mode that allows only a single save, deleting itself on loading - there's enough to keep you busy for a very long time. It's not always perfect, though. and a number of bugs do ruin the experience. Mostly these are just cosmetic issues - sometimes characters will fire a reaction shot whilst facing the wrong way, for example, yet still hit their enemy. Sometimes they'll fire reaction shots into walls, and firing through scenery in general is commonplace for both your own forces and enemies. Then there are the silly niggles - enemies that you've mind-controlled, for example, can't be attacked, which is fine until they're the last enemy on the map, in which case you can't kill them and can't finish the mission - you just have to wait for the mind control to expire, at which point the alien will get to attack you before you can do anything. There's also a frustrating issue in that characters on overwatch will all attack an enemy at the same time- which proves really annoying when a single Sectoid breaks cover and your entire team wastes their reaction shots killing it whilst a platoon of heavy Mutons works its way after them.
The issues don't mar what is otherwise a very faithful and thoughtful update of a classic title, though, and Firaxis' engineers deserve some applause for the lush presentation. Your headquarters is presented as a massive overview screen that lets you zoom in and out of the various rooms you've constructed, the handful of named characters are likeable and well voiced, and the battle sequences generally look pretty good - odd glitches aside - with some lovely slow-mo and a graphical style that drips with b-movie overtones, matched only by the appropriately eerie soundtrack. Even the loading screens are nice - the mission loading screen shows your team tooled up and waiting aboard the dropship.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the kind of reboot - or reimagining? - that we like to see - one done with due reverence to its source material and with the sensibilities of what made the original so popular safely in place. XCOM feels, most of all, like an X-COM game, and that surely is the most important aspect to consider. That it's also excellent, challenging, and hopelessly addictive only helps solidify it's status as one of the most enjoyable releases of the year.