Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review - XCOM: Enemy Unknown

When it comes to turn-based strategy games, I can say without hesitation that the original X-COM: UFO Defense (Titled UFO: Enemy Unknown in its native England) is and always has been my all time favorite, followed by Final Fantasy Tactics. X-COM was released on PCs in 1994, but not having a computer capable of running more than the most basic games, I didn't get a chance to play it until years later. I first played the game in its Playstation incarnation at a friend's house; the time spent hunting aliens, hiding around barns, and wasting several hours watching its deathly long loading screens is time I'll never forget. It was a scary, difficult game with a great soundtack, and when I eventually did play the PC version six or seven years after its original release, I loved it even more.

When Firaxis announced that they were working on a remake, I felt cautiously optimistic. The end result is a great game with a few major bugs that won't replace the original, but exists nicely alongside it.

Note: For players who want a couple really basic tips, I've included a beginner's primer at the end of this review. Most of the triumphs and failures you'll experience in this game are best experienced on their own, but it never hurts to have a little foreknowledge.

While there have been several X-COM games since the original, none lived up to its superb quality. The first sequel, Terror from the Deep, was a fun game but didn't do anything new, and ramped up the difficulty to a level that was more annoying than fun and forced you to spend hours combing cruise ships for Lobstermen hiding in closets. The next sequel, Apocalypse, was a smaller scale game that introduced real-time gameplay. I only tried it briefly, but it never clicked. I had no interest in Interceptor or Enforcer, two spinoffs that followed the release of Apocalypse. I was pretty much settled on never seeing a true, high-quality follow-up to the original game.

In 2010, 2K Marin announced they were working on a reboot of the series. They announced a new game simply titled XCOM (minus the original's hyphen), and unveiled a first-person shooter that bore no resemblance to the original game. I'm perfectly fine with reboots establishing themselves as wildly different from the original base, but at this point, the new game was so divorced from what X-COM was that it just felt like the name was bought cheap and slapped on an unrelated product in order to get a built-in fanbase. Needless to say, it wasn't what anyone expected or really wanted. This project has since been delayed multiple times and as of this review, still doesn't have a release date. Ultimately, slapping the X-COM name on this shooter probably hurt it more than it helped; the final game may wind up being decent if it ever comes out, but it will have trouble escaping this stigma.

It wasn't until early 2012 that X-COM fans would have something to be excited about again. Firaxis Games, best known for the Civilization series, announced that they were also working on an X-COM reboot titled XCOM: Enemy Unknown (again dropping the hyphen). Lead developer Jake Solomon made it clear from the beginning that his take on the game would be loyal to the original, bringing the series back to its turn-based strategy roots. Development videos and journals leading up to release raised a lot of hopes, and the game was released in October to a very positive response.

The simple plot of the new game follows the original's fairly closely. The iconic Grey aliens, known as Sectoids in XCOM's world, begin an invasion of Earth and it's up to a secret organization funded by nations across the globe to stop them. The Sectoids are soon followed by other types of aliens, both organic and mechanical, leading up to the appearance of the psychic-powered Ethereals, the other-worldly monsters who masterminded the invasion. XCOM: Enemy Unknown adds narrative cutscenes and a couple of support characters who talk to the player and give advice. None of these characters are spectacularly interesting, but they play their roles well.

Most of the aliens from the original game return in Enemy Unknown. The hulking, green Mutons of the original return in three different flavors, and the Sectoids are divided into two classes, one that can use psychic attacks and one that cannot. While the aliens have been redesigned, they definitely carry the same feel as their predecessors, even if they're a little less colorful. The most radical redesigns are the Chrysalids, who have gone from bipedal zombie-making machines to scurrying, insectile zombie-making machines, and the Floaters, who went from purple weirdos in cloaks to torsos strapped to jetpacks. Gone are the chubby orange Snakemen, the monstrous Reapers, and the blobby Silacoids and Celatids. No one will miss the later three, but I do miss the Snakemen. New aliens include the toxic slender men known as Thin Men, the crystalline Outsiders, and repair drones that work as backup units for mechanical enemies.

Like the original, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is split into two forms of gameplay; the building-sim Geoscape mode and the turn-based fighting Battlescape mode. In the Geoscape, players can expand their base, manage resources, research technology, buy and sell goods, and manage global panic. The Geoscape mode offers less freedom than the original game's, since you only have one base to manage and you don't have to worry about it being attacked directly. At the same time, it's more challenging, since it's much easier for funding countries to panic and abandon the XCOM project and resources are far harder to come by in the early days. Players are often given the choice of which city to save when alien terror campaigns begin, and saving, say, an Australian city instead of a French city will cause panic to rise across all of Europe.

The Battlescape is quite similar to the original game's, only with a smaller squad of soldiers. When the game begins, you can only deploy four, but can eventually deploy up to six at a time. With only four soldiers, it's hard to maintain a strong defensive line against certain enemy formations, and even though the player has fewer soldiers than in the original, the enemy certainly doesn't. Soldiers are now divided into several classes, each with their own unique abilities; Heavies, who have powerful rocket attacks, Snipers, who can hit from a ridiculous distance with the proper abilities, Supports, who are great as medics, and Assaults, who serve as your most straightforward attack unit. As soldiers defeat enemies, they rank up and allow you to allocate abilities in a fairly simple tech-tree.

This game is just as unforgiving as the original, and at times, possibly more so. It's almost impossible to catch enemies by surprise in the new game unless you carefully flank them while drawing attention from elsewhere. There's no more walking into a room, seeing two Sectoids, tossing a grenade and walking out without a reaction. Now, all enemies scatter and take cover when first spotted, even if it's not their turn to move. Cover is essential in this game; when in cover, enemies are less likely to hit you, and if they do, are less likely to hit you critically. There are some objects that give full cover and others that give half, and you can choose a defensive Hunker Down command to enhance cover for that soldier. Each soldier gets two commands per turn, rather than having a Time Units bar to spend freely like the original game had. You can move, shoot, reload, use a skill, Hunker Down, or go into Overwatch mode, during which the soldier will automatically shoot at any aliens that cross their line of sight during the next turn.

There are four difficulties to choose from: Easy, Normal, Classic, and Impossible. As of now, I've finished the game on Normal and Classic, and will undertake an Impossible run later. Players can freely save and reload during battle unless they have turned on Ironman Mode, an option that prevents reloading and saves after every turn. I tried this mode the first time I played and failed spectacularly somewhere in the last third of the campaign. I recommend trying it out, but you should probably play straight Normal/Classic once through first.

I am without a doubt very pleased with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's well balanced, it looks and sounds great (even if the soldier voice samples become repetitive way to fast and are too HOO-RAH WE'RE SOLDIERS for me), and it gives players plenty of options. This is a well designed game that fully respects the player, and while it does have some absurd difficulty spikes if you're unprepared, it's totally manageable once you know how everything works. That said, this is a very frustratingly buggy game.

The glitches in this game range from funny to infuriating. I played the PS3 version of this game, but from what I've read, these glitches pop up on the PC and Xbox as well. On the funny side, sometimes soldiers will look at an enemy, turn 180 degrees away from them, fire their gun in the complete opposite direction, and still register a kill. On the infuriating side, this game locks up a LOT, especially towards the end. Once I built the final plot sensitive room in my base, the game began freezing before every single battle unless I saved and reloaded before embarking on the mission. During battles with large numbers of enemies, the game sometimes locks up during the enemy movement phase. It's absolutely essential for you to keep the Auto Save option on at all times, because you're going to need it when the game inevitably forces you to turn off your system to proceed. Other bugs include both soldiers and enemies shooting through walls, weirdness with the game's line of sight system where enemies who should be visible aren't, markers showing that there are aliens visible when there aren't, and problems with the Sectopods.

Sectopods are massive machine enemies, the most difficult in the game. They're hard enough on their own, but with the aid of a couple bugs, they become even worse. Grenades and rockets never miss enemies as long as they're within the blast radius. Not so for the Sectopods, and not due to an in-game reason; through glitchy coding, they often just ignore explosion damage. In addition to that, they sometimes ignore regular weapon damage as well. In the second to last mission of my Classic playthrough, I hit a Sectopod with a Plasma Rifle and the game switched to the Action Cam view that it goes into when a shot is a guaranteed kill. The shot visibly hit, and its damage counter was displayed, more than enough to take off the Sectopod's one remaining HP. Unfortunately, nothing happened after that. It was unaffected, even though the game told me it was hit. In addition to this, your soldiers probably shouldn't miss a gigantic hunk of metal standing directly in front of them when they have a 90% hit rate, but my troops somehow regularly miss Sectopods no matter how high the hit rate is. This isn't an issue with other enemies.

The final bug to cap off the whole experience was the game's ending. When lines of dialogue from XCOM's base personnel played, the sound was incredibly loud compared to any other sound during this cutscene, and midway through, the sound just cuts out entirely. This happened both times I completed the game. The content of the ending is fine, even if I was let down that I didn't get to finish things the way I did in the original game, but it's technically broken, at least in the PS3 version. This followed by eleven minutes of long, slow scrolling credits with basic menu-type music and no interesting backdrop was kind of a sour way to end things.

Also, this isn't a bug, but my only other complaint with the game is that you should not charge players to customize the color of their soldiers' armor. This is such a basic, easy feature that locking it behind a $5 paywall is pretty low. I received this DLC free since I preordered my copy, but I disapprove.

In spite of these obnoxious bugs that I hope will be patched out, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great game and I recommend it to any fans of turn-based strategy who are willing to tolerate a game with a steep learning curve. While Enemy Unknown and the original X-COM: UFO Defense are at their core the same game, there are enough differences to enjoy them both on different levels. There is also a multiplayer mode that allows you to build small squads of XCOM units and alien units and fight it out online, but this mode didn't do much for me. I lost my first match, won my second, and didn't feel any desire to try it again. Your mileage may vary there, and I'm sure it would be more fun with people you know, but the multiplayer mode isn't really for me. It doesn't really matter, since the core, singleplayer game is so good.

Now that you've read (or skipped) all of that history and criticism, here's a few basic gameplay tips to get you started. These are in no way the be all, end all way to play the game, and the fun comes from forming your own techniques, but these served me well:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Beginner's Primer
  • Turn Auto Save on immediately!
  • There are five starting locations you can choose from to build your base. If you play through the tutorial first, you can only choose two. It's best to skip the tutorial if you want to maximize your options.
  • Early on, Africa has the best base bonus, as you get 30% more funding per month. Since money is so low early on, this makes a huge difference. South America allows you to instantly complete alien autopsies, which sounds useful but is outclassed by every other starter bonus.
  • Your monthly funding level is based on the number of satellites you've put into orbit. Make satellite and satellite uplink facility production an early priority.
  • Whenever you launch a satellite in a new country, that country's panic level decreases.
  • Rockets and grenades destroy enemy equipment, which lowers the amount you earn after each fight. It's usually worth the trade off if it means killing enemy squads quicker and saving your soldiers.
  • Using the Squad Sight ability, Snipers can hit enemies from incredibly long distances as long as the path is clear. Sniper accuracy increases as distance increases, so a far away Sniper with Squad Sight is often a guaranteed hit.
  • Get your troops new armor and new weapons as quickly as possible. It's not worth skipping Laser weapons to wait for Plasma weapons unless you really know what you're doing.
  • Capturing aliens alive allows you to take their gear intact. Normally, alien equipment is destroyed when the alien is killed.
  • Never dash unless you're absolutely certain it's safe. Move slowly and methodically from cover to cover.
  • Overwatch is only useful if an enemy can't see you. If an enemy has you in their line of sight, they will know they're being Overwatched and will not move. You're better off taking a shot at them or Hunkering Down.
  • If you're going to Overwatch or Hunker, do it once all of your units have moved. You don't want to end a soldier's turn if an enemy suddenly appears and that turn would have been the difference between life and death.
  • A failed or ignored alien attack on a city will cause panic to rise on that entire continent, not just in that one country. Once a country is at full panic, you may lose them from the XCOM project forever.

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