Xcom Enemy Unknown PS3 review – Middle management has never been so badass

Xcom enemy unknown PS3 review

Funny how canny presentation can completely alter your perception of something. Underneath Xcom’s approachable, sci-fi movie exterior operates a precision machine of cold, hard maths, sharp strategy, forward planning and yet more maths. But layer said mechanism with a glossy coating of action-game camera angles, cinematic killcams and a damnably likeable ambience neatly straddling ‘epic’ and ‘schlocky’, and you can forget any hint of this being a stuffy beard-stroking affair.

Xcom Enemy Unknown PS3 review

Xcom: Enemy Unknown feels as much like a turn-based cover shooter as it does an exercise in tactical strategy. What’s more, it excels in both directions, leading to one of the most unique and endlessly compulsive games of the year so far.

This is the tale of mankind’s desperate battle to fight off a fierce alien invasion. Moreover, it’s the tale of your attempts to lead the whole survival bid. But you won’t just win the fight amid the glory of the battlefield. That’s literally only half the story. You see, mankind’s deliverance comes not only from bullets and bravado, but springs also from careful paperwork, blazing calculators and scientific innovation.

Each and every combat scenario is a breathless test of your ability to master cover, outflank the enemy, and blow massive holes in anything in which a massive hole would provide an advantage. But without a properly funded base, advancing weapon and armour technology, and enough multinational support, your squad’s efforts rapidly succumb to diminishing returns.

The last part’s the kicker. With a steady flow of new recruits available as long as you manage your funds well, there’s no lives system to threaten your progress. But allow too many attacks to go unpunished in one of the countries that make up the global council backing your efforts, and they pull out. Lose too many of them and it’s all over.

Beware, though: without enough global satellite coverage, you won’t be able to keep an eye on everyone. Without enough engineers, you won’t have enough satellites. And without excavating enough new space to build new workshops in your subterranean antfarm of a command centre, you won’t have enough engineers. And without bringing back enough alien tech and specimens from successful missions, your scientists won’t have enough supplies to design and build the shiny new toys you need. And it all takes time and money. And time is pressing forward with every move you make, and money is always running out.

This breathless juggle is what keeps Xcom exhilarating. Everything happens at such an accelerated rate, and every decision pays off with such constant feedback and progress (technologically and in terms of unravelling narrative twists) that what could have been a dry management sim is actually a thrilling, multi-layered ecosystem of risk, reward and deeply satisfying empowerment.

With every element of Xcom’s complex yet utterly accessible systems – from meaningful combat tactics, to budget balancing, to life-or-death diplomatic decisions – feeding directly into every other aspect of the game, this is as compelling a world as any in recent memory. Enemy Unknown is fast but thoughtful, mentally taxing but constantly exciting, and chaotic yet always balanced and welcoming. This really does do it all – and it does it very, very well.


Our Score

Score: 9