You are now reading about a masterpiece of turn-based strategy games in recent history – the latest game in the XCOM series, a series that started all the back in 1994. The year 2001 saw the release of Enforcer, the last game in the XCOM canon, and since then the XCOM project gathered dusted in video game hall of fame. When the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced, long time fans were craving for an old-school tactical experience that will let them at zap aliens and save the earth, just like olden times. When the game was release this year (2012), it seems like all of their hopes came true.

The new XCO: Enemy Unknown is basically a remake of the old one, so the whole underwater alien invasion and the coming apocalypse that were part of the franchise’s canon don not count (if you want to know what we’re talking about – go play the old XCOM games). In Enemy Unknown you’ll be playing as the commander of a special task force called XCOM that brings together countries from all over the world in an attempt to protect Earth from a potential alien threat. In the year 2015 such a threat becomes a reality and the XCOM project gets the green light. As its commander, you’ll have to make tough decisions both on the battlefield and back at the base; you’ll have to manage both resources and global defenses if you want to survive the upcoming invasion. With its turn-based gameplay, the game really gets tactical, forcing the player to think several steps ahead and foresee any possible scenario.

“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” – Sun Tzu. This quote is especially true in Enemy Unknown, because until you study the aliens you fight against; until you know their anatomy and technology inside and out, you’ll never learn a battlefield Unscathed. That’s why one of the most important goals in XCOM is to research the aliens and use their weapons against them. Because this game is hard, but not the kind of hard that will make you quite in rage and throw the controller/mouse at the screen. It will make you try even harder, using a different tactic. And if that doesn’t work? Well, just use a different one! This game is challenging and addictive, with hours of fun guaranteed even to those who aren’t blessed with a tactical mind or a general’s prospective.

The gameplay is rather straight-forward: you control a squad of 4 soldiers (later it be expended to 5 and 6 soldiers), where each of them has two action he can do per turn; It can move and then fire, reload or use and item, or it can just move twice. Once every soldier has depleted his action, the enemy takes its turn. Sound simple, right? Well, it’s not. The number of actions a soldier can take grows with each level it gains and the better its equipment is, allowing for different tactics and strategies to be utilized. Will you kill a dangerous alien or try to capture it alive? Save as many civilians as you can or focus on eliminating the alien threat completely, ignoring civilian casualties? Take down a UFO with an EMP blast to preserve the technology aboard it or plasma missiles to kill as many aliens in the crash?

Starting as a low-level grunt, each soldier gains experience when on a mission, and once it levels up it will gains a specialty: Assault, Sniper, Heavy or Support. This specialty will determine which weapons it can use and what part it will take in your tactic decisions. In addition to leveling up, the technology and alien bodies/prisoners you collect will also help to improve your soldiers, turning them from good to excellent.

After choosing you squad and its gear – it is time to go to battle. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is centered on the battlefield, where it’s humans against aliens and everything comes down to the winning tactic. Elevated ground will give your soldiers a better chance to hit their targets, partial cover will protect them from plasma fire and full cover will offer even more protection. It’s important to keep your squad alive. If one soldiers dies, the ones next to him might panic, lose control and start shooting each other (or, if you’re lucky, the enemy). The soldiers you choose to take to combat will also force you to choose a certain strategy. Heavies can fire rockets that can destroy cover or hurt several aliens at once; Snipers can’t move and shoot at the same turn, but their improved range makes them an excellent lookout; Assaults can move twice and then fire, which means they can see the white (or red) in the enemies eyes before blasting it away; Supports are versatile, with smoke grenades for extra cover or first aid kits to helps their mates who took one too many plasma blasts to the head. These are just the basic abilities for each specialty, and the higher its level, the more a soldier can do and the more customizable they get.

On some occasions you’ll have to make the aliens come to you, so it is always a good idea to maintain aerial superiority around the globe. Launching satellites will give you worldwide coverage of alien activity and locate invading alien vessels. This is where your interceptors come into action; they are the key to dominating the skies of earth. Once an enemy vessel is located, interceptors are the only way to take them down and give your ground troops a chance to loot the wreckage for alien technology. Satellites can also be used to reduce panic in a certain country/continent and ensure they keep backing the project with money and personnel. The more satellites you have orbiting the earth, the bigger the bonuses at the end of each month will be.

Probably one of the coolest things in Enemy Unknown is the way Firaxis Games really managed to create a sense of hopelessness, of confusion; a sense you are really facing an unknown enemy. From the little fires speckled across a forest map to the urban maps filled with shadows and uncertainties, the visuals radiate with the very essence of the familiar meeting the alien. The sounds only enhance that feeling, with distance groans and growls or beeping consoles that alert you to the fact you are not alone and you should probably sent your troops for cover. The game also looks good; with the Unreal 3 engine, EU looks just like a game should look: Not too realistic or with eye-popping graphics, but simple, smooth visuals that fit perfectly in the game’s setting. The one problem the graphics do have is their tendency not to load properly when a new mission starts, but that doesn’t really hurt the overall experience.

Bottom line, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an excellent, fun and challenging game. Even gamers who aren’t into turn-based strategy games are recommended to give this one a go. It doesn’t really matter whether you played the old games in the franchise or not, EU stands all on its own, with a modern visuals and hours of fun, lasers and plasma cannons. Even if at first you don’t succeed, maybe invest in a small tank with miniguns? Or try for a levitating armor? There are a million ways to solve every problem in XCOM, so try try again because “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu.

Written by Eran Shvartz.

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