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 humanity's desperate battle to fight off a violent 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 only half the story. You see, humanity's deliverance comes not only from bullets and bravado but springs also from careful paperwork, blazing calculators, and scientific innovation.
Every combat scenario is a breathless test of your ability to master cover, outflank the enemy, and blow massive holes in anything in which an enormous gap would provide an advantage. But without a properly funded base, advancing weapon and armor 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 recruits available, there's no lives system to threaten your progress as long as you manage your funds well. 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 ant farm of a command center, 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 unraveling narrative twists) that what could have been a dry management sim is a thrilling, multi-layered ecosystem of risk, reward, and profoundly satisfying empowerment.
With every facet of Xcom's sophisticated yet accessible mechanics – from meaningful combat tactics to budget balancing to life-or-death diplomatic decisions – flowing directly into every other part of the game, this is a fascinating world in recent memory. Enemy Unknown moves quickly yet thoughtfully, cognitively challenging but always attractive, and chaotic yet always balanced and inviting. This indeed does it all — and it does it exceptionally well.