A revered science-fiction strategy game from the early 1990s returns reimagined for a new generation of commanders who can save Earth from an alien invasion in XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2K Games and Firaxis Games, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $59.99).
Combining resource management and turn-based tactical combat, the game offers a somber, violent and stressful look at the planet in 2015 in the midst of a war between humans and extraterrestrials.
A secret international paramilitary organization — XCOM — is put in charge of containing the terrifying threat, as a player becomes the lead commander of the group.
He must balance research, development and global security from an underground headquarters while dispatching of a team of four to six soldiers into hot zones as they handle more than 70 often-challenging missions.
It's very easy to get sucked into and feel overwhelmed in this monstrous conflict. A player will have his hands filled with decision-making minutia, including keeping worldwide panic to a minimum and not running out of cash before the end of a month (a typical problem for many an economy), before entering the "turn-based" firefight portion of the show.
During a typical situation (supported with animated cut scenes), I first stopped by Dr. Vahlen's research lab to check up on access to new technologies (from lasers to scopes to stronger armor) or find out how the alien autopsies are progressing.
Next, a click over to Dr. Shen in engineering reveals the practical side of the research as I can purchase devices used on the battlefield or add nodes to expand satellite coverage around the globe.
A final check in the barracks allows commandeers to customize and promote soldiers who survive (snipers are well worth it), hire new recruits and personalize them down to names, voice tone, hairstyle, and armor types and colors.
All of this routine culminates with scanning the Hologlobe for any alien hotspots and deploying a squad.
With a mission in hand, a commander picks his elite squad (beefy males and females that easily would be accepted in the HALO program) and can customize loadouts for specialized weapons and powers.
Going into hostile territory is where the more familiar action-strategy session ensues and actually offers a calming respite compared to the harried headquarters.
A player moves soldiers across the terrain like chess pieces, attempting to surround, flank or surprise groups of aliens on abandoned highways or small-town streets or in a local restaurant.
Moves and use of weapons and special devices are limited to each turn (and are recharged after multiple turns) for each soldier.
A player can place each squad member behind cover and view the strength of the structure. He can set an option to automatically fire upon a foe when it moves in range, manually target an alien, toss a grenade and even can run and gun across a determined path.
During an assault, I may need to simply kill all hostiles, save and escort a person of interest back to the headquarters (I actually have to control the person), or capture one of the enemies alive.
By the end of the limited attack, locations are a burned out, rubble filled mess as witnessed during an assault near a gas station. Here's a tip: When a soldier says "It's going to blow," get him away from any smoldering vehicle.
Another piece of advice: Don't get too attached to the soldiers in your squad, as the fights are brutal and one of the best and most experienced might fall in a hail of alien plasma at any time.
The loss of a trooper can be quite frustrating and emotional. I commanded the tough Sgt. Joseph Zad through five missions before stupidly placing him in enemy crossfire. He fell and bled out because I forgot to load up on medi-kits before the mission.
Zad died and was gone forever, but his memory lived on. Players can access a memorial at headquarters and see fallen troops' names displayed as bagpipes play.
What must never be forgotten during all of the action, however, is the smothering presence of the Council (succeed in missions and collect cash and help or rate poorly at the end of each month and risk disapproval) and protecting the 16 countries (monitored at Headquarters' situation room) that contribute resources to the XCOM initiative.
You eventually will lose the support of some countries as leaders panic (they can't all be protected), so watch the monitors and carefully choose which countries to abandon and which to focus on.
If this sounds like a ton of work, it's a gleefully guilty pleasure.
Don't fret. A fantastic tutorial teaches commanders many of the finer points of the game, including controlling attack airships to crush hostiles' air power as well as the finer points of finding cover and alien species.
By the way, the game will get quite difficult due to those nasty aliens. The ultraviolent group brings with them every UFO cliche, down to cattle mutilations and telepathic possession, while tapping into nightmares spun from such pop-culture sources as "Independence Day," "Mars Attacks," "Falling Skies" and "Signs."
They often entrench themselves just far enough off-screen to ambush (a near haunted house effect hidden in a "fog of war") and will leave once-proud warriors in a pool of blood in locations ranging from Canada to Mexico.
The game holds a Mature rating for good reason as plenty of multicolored fluids are spilled by both sides of the conflict.
For those in need of more stress, a multiplayer option pits player versus player in a deathmatch with squads of humans or aliens available to use. Picking weapons during loadouts uses a point system so neither opponent is unfairly loaded with the best technology XCOM or extraterrestrial has to offer.
Perhaps what's most appreciated from XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that it's not just another first-person frag fest or third-person collection epic, both of which proliferate game libraries these days. Instead, it provides a blended experience where patience, strategy and forethought clearly lead to success that trumps the temporary satisfaction of button-mashing brutality and gory headshots.
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