After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

X-Com-Enemy Unknown has old-school appeal: review

Steve lay dead at my feet, the smoking ruin of what used to be his head flopped around like a rag doll.  He had one finger pointing up at me still, a posthumous accusation of poor battlefield tactics.  I had tried to avenge his death and my laser gun spat red, fiery streaks at the monster, but it wasn’t enough.  The alien horror stalked on, unfazed - a giant green armoured beast of a thing, roaring like a maddened gorilla it raised it’s plasma weapon and fired.  There was nothing I could do, it wasn’t my turn.

X-Com - Enemy Unkown is the latest offering from Firaxis Games.  Players are put in charge of the X-Com Project: a paramilitary secret base, with weapon production facilities, research labs, interceptor fighter jets and a squad of special operations soldiers to protect the earth from mysterious marauding aliens who are hell-bent to enslave the human race and destroy our planet... yes, you've all heard this paper thin plot before, seen that movie, and yes, this is a remake of a game that came out in 1994. It's still a lot of fun.  

The reason you should be interested is that in a sea of first person shooters, fantasy MMOs and action games, X-Com stands out by being a genre of game that you don't hear very often anymore - turn based strategy.  Simply put, it's like chess, but with aliens, laser guns and a crack-like addiction that'll keep you up to the early hours of the morning, whispering, "just one more turn".

Help!  I’m stuck in a movie and I don’t want to leave!

Playing through X-Com feels like living through a bizarre version of Aliens or Independence Day, crossed with the creepiest moments of the X-Files and a musical score from a Michael Bay movie.  

Imagine this:  Your squad of commandos has been sent out to investigate a potential alien landing site, where the locals have all run away in fear, claiming that the aliens have been abducting people and conducting experiments on the local wildlife.  Your team will be dropped onto the edge of a forest and as your squad creeps ever so cautiously through the darkness, they’ll come across mutilated carcases of what might have once been a cow, or perhaps a deer?  You try not to think about it and press forward.

Ominous shapes loom in the distance, it could only be the alien ship.  Your squad takes cover behind a felled tree, and mixed in with the ambient forest sounds of insects and animals you can distinctly hear rumblings and chitterings of an extraterrestrial origin.  

“We’re not alone out here,” says Captain Kotris, your sniper.  He takes a step forward to get a better look... and all hell breaks lose.  A pair of floating, bio-mechanical monstrosities float down behind your squad and lets rip with their sickly green alien plasma guns.  Leaping out from the trees are a trio of business-suit clad alien spies that look like evil, elongated versions of Rainn Wilson.  

You’re outgunned and surrounded, but that’s ok, really.  It’s your turn now.
Come in peace? False. We’re here to take over.

How to beat the alien menace and keep your sanity.

The action in X-Com is always tense, as one bad move can result in disaster.  If you scout ahead too far with a squad member, there’s a high chance of you being flanked by the enemy, leaving you exposed.  Clumping your soldiers together is also extremely dangerous as a well placed grenade could spell certain death for your squad.  

Vengeance is a dish best served with grenades.

Thankfully your soldiers are quite capable, and come in four varieties.  You have snipers for picking off aliens at range, assault troops with close ranged shotguns, heavy troopers that can carry rockets and suppressive fire, and support troops that do a little bit of everything while administering the all important healing.

Should your soldiers survive, they’ll get a promotion and a chance for you to further customise their skills by picking extra abilities to use against the insidious aliens.

Picking new abilities, and yes, the size of the gun is justified.

The variety and mix of aliens you fight is definitely one of X-Com’s strong points.  Each type of alien has a unique set of nefarious skills to decimate your squad.  You’ll come across metal monstrosities that will unleash a torrent of lasers and missiles.  Creepy grey men that can mind-control your troops to turn them against the rest of your squad.  Many-legged clawed horrors will rush across the map in a blink of an eye to turn your troops into human fillets.  Seemingly harmless floating disks will suddenly sprout spines and transform into a whirling frisbee of destruction.

Base management, and what you can do with that pile of alien corpses.

In between all the high tension, nail biting field missions, you are required to take care of the management of X-Com headquarters.  This includes maintaining a small force of interceptor craft for shooting down alien spacecraft, upgrading base facilities, researching various bits of alien hardware you’ve recovered from missions and… dissecting alien corpses.  

X-Com secret headquarters.  

It’s all in the name of science and the safety of the human race, as alien corpses can be used to create special equipment for your squad.  


Utterly revolting.  All in the name of science.

If you’re lucky enough to capture an alien alive, you can interrogate the subject to glean even more technological advantages.  The subjects never do survive the interrogation, but even so, you can sell their corpses on the ‘grey market’, along with other spoils of war.

More in Game Talk

Assassin's Creed 3: The good, the bad and the glitchy

Assassin's Creed 3: The good, the bad and the glitchy. Is Ubisoft substituting flair over substance?

Dishonored: Steampunk action at its best

Do you like being a sneaky bastard? If expertly outwitting opponents with reality-bending powers in a world shaped by your every action sounds appealing to you, then I assure you, the game Dishonored...

Borderlands 2: blissful pandemonium

Borderlands 2 - more mutants, more guns, but is it any more fun?
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.