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The Final Autopsy of X-Com Enemy Unknown

Concluding my thoughts on Enemy Unknown. Today's post is a spoiler filled look at how the mechanics and design of the game flowed through to the end.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

November 26, 2012

9 Min Read

The last alien has been killed, and the Earth is saved (except for France, sorry.) In my analysis of X-Com Enemy Unknown, I did not touch on the end game and how the game's challenges change. For this last post for now on EU, I'm going to go into more detail about the various elements of the game and what worked and didn't work for me from mid to end game.


The following post will be a spoiler filled discussion on X-Com Enemy Unknown. I will be talking about specific alien encounters, strategies and a look at the final mission. If you haven't played X-Com yet or are playing it now, read on at your own risk.

X-com: Meet the team

X-com: Meet the team

Strategic Layer:

I found that the strategic layer's challenge broke down at the midpoint of the campaign. As long as you produce enough satellites to keep panic levels low and get the "all in" bonus from Africa, you'll be rolling in money.

For the first half of the game, the challenge of the game moves you along to take on the alien base. Beating the base will drop panic levels around the globe dramatically, and reduce the # of UFOs that appear. The base mission itself is similar to the final mission in some of the design problems I have with the tactical layer that I'll come back to later on.

For the remaining half of the game there really wasn't a lot to do. The only big push came when I had to get firestorms built to take on the overseer ship, but other than that I was just fast forwarding through research and structures.

X-Com Enemy Unknown


My final score on classic mode

Base Building:

I also ran into some issues with the gameyness of the base building and how easy it was to exploit it. The adjacently bonus for uplinks made the upgrade buildings not needed.  As you get further in, scientists become even less utilized as you finish your research products and get bonuses from alien captures.

Because of the cost of buying the higher tech weapons and gear, engineers are always important for the price reduction. On my classic play, I didn't need to expand my base and left the third and fourth layers empty except for plot related structures.

Now to be fair, there were a number of optimal base plans you could use in the original X-Com to make things easier. However you had more freedom in designing your bases by building different bases that focus on different parts. You could have one base that is for manufacturing and other for research for example.

But with one base, it was very easy to figure out the best layouts for everything. As mentioned the adjacently bonuses for uplinks can save you a lot of money and can get you all the satellites you could need.


I was really let down by the equipment choices by the end of the game. While there was a decent variety of armor available, I was disappointed by the # of viable weapons. I had my crew outfitted in plasma weapons long before the end of the game and it felt like progression just stopped.

One thing that I was surprised with was the lack of new secondary equipment going into the last part of the game. Besides the blaster launcher, the only other one was the psi shield, and those were very late game upgrades. I was really hoping for new scopes, med kits and other items to add more diversity to your choices at the end. While the foundry upgrades were a great touch, it's not the same as getting more alien or technological upgrades for your squad.

While I can appreciate the class system for making your squad more developed then in the previous game, it definitely came at a cost to the variety of equipment. A part of what made the original so great was that feeling that you were catching up with the aliens in the arms race through research. But in EU, I ran out of research projects and it felt like things were cut out.

This was another lost opportunity by the designers to have more choices put into the game. Such as a med kit that would heal for less, but heals over an area. Or scopes that add an extra point or two of damage, or those designed to deal with armored enemies.

X-Com Enemy Unknown

X-Com EU

A side view of my base at the very end

Tactical Layer:

The late game is where the gloves come off for those playing on classic and higher. Enemy health is boosted into the twenties requiring you to focus down enemies quickly.

After finishing the alien base mission, you'll start to run into enemies who can use psi attacks on your squad. The added challenge from fighting them, and the more options for using them yourself was good. However, I don't like how the iron will upgrade that increases your squads will power (and psi defense) wasn't retroactive. This one upgrade can really screw you in the late game depending on how long you wait until you get it. As taking high ranked, but low will soldiers are easy targets for psi attacks and panic.

Returning to my analysis of EU, I talked about my issues with the cover system and how it forces the player and the AI into playing two different games.  But the straw that broke the camel's back was how enemy armor becomes a factor. In the last quarter of the game, you'll run into armored floaters, mutton elites and sectopods who have anywhere from a -30 to -40 to-hit penalty thrown in for wearing armor. In my opinion, this takes the gameyness of the design too far.

There's something off about an enemy standing in broad daylight with their back to my troops and still having a greater (or equal) chance at dodging compared to my guys in partial or full cover respectively . There are no weapons or tactics the player can use to mitigate this and their only option is to hope the RNG is on their side.

Because the will power of your troops affects their to-hit chance with psi attacks, this is where they start showing their usefulness. But you can't use them on mechanical enemies like sectopods who have a number of nasty attacks.

The Final Mission:

The final mission of the game where you take on the mothership of the alien forces highlights in my opinion, the problems with the new design of EU. Both the last mission and the alien base have a similar pattern: a large environment with a higher than average alien total.

The more aliens you have to fight, the more the cover system favors them. Now in the original game, alien bases were the same way, forcing you to fight more aliens than normal. But in the original, you had a lot more squaddies at your disposal. Losing one or two guys in the first firefight due to bad luck wasn't the end of the world.  But with only a max of six, leaves you with a less margin for bad luck.

Now, you do have more options thanks to the psi powers and fully ranked units, but there is one thing that can still get you: attrition. Because med kits are restricted by usage and points, it makes every point of damage very dangerous. When you have enemies that can score a critical hit for ten or more points, it’s very easy to lose a squad member.

What's worse is that from mid to end game, you'll be fighting enemies that can use grenades and other area of effect skills. With how limited your cover options are, it's very easy to have two or more soldiers taking cover around the same object. As with the player, these attacks almost hit every time for damage, that you can only heal a limited # of times.

This leaves the player with only one safe option: slowly go through each section and using over watch and psi attacks to keep everyone safe. This doesn't leave a lot of room for the player to think tactically about playing.

X-Com Enemy Unknown

X-Com Enemy Unknown

One of my most used soldiers: a psychic heavy


Lastly I wanted to talk about some of the bugs that myself, along with friends have encountered. There have been reports of issues with mind controlling enemies for the final mission, as the mission is scripted to only allow the player to move from room to room after all the enemies have been killed.

Regarding Psi, I hope that this next one is a bug and not a poor feature. If an enemy who is mind-controlled is killed, your soldiers will suffer penalties and may even panic from the aliens being killed. And having to wait until the mind control runs out before you can kill them when there is no one around was another poor choice.

There have been comments about game crashes occurring, which I was lucky enough to avoid. But for those playing on ironman mode, I can feel their pain.

But what is probably one of the worst bugs have to be with the SHIVs, people have been reporting cases where they are unable to use or build anymore SHIVs. For what was considered an important and viable strategy, to have a bug rendering them unusable is not good to hear.

Overall, after spending several posts looking at EU, I'm walking away from the game moderately happy. Firaxis has managed to take one of the most highly regarded (and challenging) games of all time and rebooted it for today's audience. With that said however, in terms of replay ability and longevity, I think the original still is miles above EU.

As it currently stands, I don't think we're going to be talking about X-Com Enemy Unknown after 15+ years in the same way as the original. For now, the ball is in Firaxis's court on if and how they want to expand on the game. They have a great foundation, now they just have to build on it.

Reprinted from my site: game-wisdom.com

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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