Tuesday, 6 November 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

System(s): PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Genre: Strategy RPG

Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher:  2K Games

Release Date: October 2012

Note: This is for the Xbox 360 version only

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of  XCOM: UFO Defense, also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in PAL territories. For those who, like me, have had no previous experience of the XCOM series, the original was dreamt up by Julian Gollop of the now defunct British studio Mythos Games and published by MicroProse in 1994, who were also known for publishing the earliest of Sid Meier's Civilization titles. So it is fitting, then, that Sid Meier's studio Firaxis should be the one to replace Mythos as the developers of this re-boot.

XCOM is a Strategy RPG which takes place against a backdrop of alien invasion. These aliens are not like the "skinny aliens from the James Cameron movies" to quote Roger from American Dad!, but are in fact a mixture of diverse, yet terrifying forces, some borrowed from popular culture. In order to defend Earth from the invasion, but also to try and turn the tides of war in their favour, several countries have banded together and contributed funding and troops for an organisation called XCOM. You are put in control of the organisation and are responsible for controlling troops and managing resources. This gives you two major aspects of gameplay to focus on, and makes for a very addictive game.

You can choose to play a tutorial mission to get you started, although it's the default option so if it's your first game then you can jump straight in. The tutorial is as good as can be expected from a re-imagining of a series known for it's punishing difficulty. There is the usual easy, normal and hard modes (called "classic", a hint to series veterans they may want to start off there), and an impossible mode that gives me nightmares just thinking about. It goes without saying that, like many games released nowadays, this XCOM is nowhere near the challenge of the wildly unbalanced original games, which were unmerciful at best.

When you start a mission, you direct your troops like you would in a real time strategy game, except you can move only a certain distance, since it's turn based. This gives the illusion of freedom of movement given it it isn't strictly grid based. At the end of your move you can either overwatch, which allows a free shot against moving enemies, or shoot straight away if an enemy is in sight. If you want, you can move your unit even further by "dashing", at the cost of preventing you from carrying out another action. Shot accuracy is displayed as a percentage, created by a random number generator. It calculates the accuracy based primarily on distance and weapon type, although you can flank enemies to increase it.

Learning to find cover and using it effectively is essential to surviving in this game, which is at denoted by blue shields. Cover can either be full or half, which signals how likely you are to dodge. A red shield means you will be under no cover or flanked in that position. If you or an enemy miss, you can destroy cover, as well as ignite cars and other objects on fire, rigging them to blow next turn. However, sometimes the game doesn't entirely make clear whether cover is good or not, since it can extend in four directions. You need to be especially aware of where your enemy is, or even might be emerging from when deciding to send you squad into new cover positions.

There are mission varieties, such as bomb disposal, escorting key officials and UFO crashes or landings. Admittedly though, most boil down to killing everything you see. The toughest of these missions are terror missions, in which you have to guide your troops to civilians to save them before they are killed by the enemies roaming the level. A unique enemy appears only on this stage that can dead soldiers or civilians into zombies, which provides a special and memorable challenge. What makes this mission type and the bomb disposals particularly cruel is the way it takes everything you have learned about how to play XCOM (patience and forward thinking) and turns it on it's head. It's very difficult to avoid the temptation to rush ahead, and the game does a good job of conditioning you to think carefully before taking a turn. XCOM also gives the enemy a free move as soon as they come within your sight range. This may seem unfair, but is meant to enhance the overall feeling that you are fighting against a more organised and technologically superior force.

XCOM has a variety of interesting mechanics integrated with its' strategy gameplay that make the combat much more compelling and the controller very hard to put down. The most striking of these is that it gives your soldiers a nationality (there are 29 in total) and a corresponding name. This accomplishes two things. First, it makes you care if your soldiers die. Which they will. A lot. Much like Fire Emblem and Cannon Fodder, characters will die and never come back, which encourages you to replay levels or change your strategy. Soldiers also level up and gain new ranks and unlock new abilities, which adds to the distress of losing your highest ranked soldiers. Granted, soldiers don't get back stories. But they earn nicknames based on class as they reach a certain rank, which is another way the game builds emotional connections, albeit rudimentary ones. You can also customise their appearance and names. This can enhance the sense of disappointment should they die, if you are the type who names characters after relatives or friends.

Secondly, having a diversity of nationalities adds substance to the plot. If the military of XCOM were entirely made up of buff, cigar smoking American marines, it would be very difficult to relate to. But the game attempts to make you feel a bit like you are re-creating the scene from Independence Day when the Iranians are cheering at the news the Americans have shot down an alien craft. The difference being that, unlike Hollywood, it feels like it's more than just the U.S saving the day while everyone else watches or does their part off-screen. As an example, you can have sworn enemies like Israelis and Egyptians fighting side by side. The sense of humanity banding together  and putting differences aside to save their species amid desperate times would probably be driven home a bit better if all the character voices weren't American though. Another oddity is that there are separate British and Scottish soldiers. Far be it from me to complain about that, but it does take some of the realism away. But overall, these complaints are fairly minor and, while they remove some polish from the game, it's not as though they can make the game less addictive.

The four classes in XCOM all have their uses. Initially you start out with rookies, which are generic, blank slates armed with assault rifles and grenades. When they promote into squaddies, they are categorised into one of four classes: assault, sniper, heavy and support. The game does a good job of balancing all four classes to make them useful, although in certain missions you might feel compelled to take more of a single class. When your rookies level up, they will randomly be assigned a class, although it is weighted slightly in favour of whichever class you need most. This is by no means perfect, and on occasion when playing the game, I seemed to be short of the support class more than most, even throughout five different save files.

Eventually, you will unlock other abilities that can be used rather than shooting normally, many of which are class specific, such as firing rockets for heavies or taking headshots for snipers. The skill tree is very basic, there is mostly just a choice between two abilities. Some of these choices don't feel difficult to make, but largely the system gives you plenty of food for thought. Do you want a support unit that can carry extra medkits and sprint further, or one that carries extra smoke grenades which also provide a boost to the stats of any soldiers concealed within the smoke cloud? You can initially take only four soldiers, so taking one of each seems a no-brainer, but when you unlock up to six, the real tough decisions on squad management begin. It's tempting to be overcautious and bring extra medics
 at the expense of firepower, but doing so can be costly in some missions.

At the end of your first mission, you will choose which of the five continents your base should be built in (Australasia is consolidated into Asia). Depending on which continent it is built it will give you a bonus, which can be helpful or useless, whatever suits your play style. You view your underground base in between missions in a cross section view, which resembles an ant farm. There are various screens, which are handled seamlessly through sub menus. Your research lab allows you to assign projects to develop counter-threats. Engineers build your base as directed to manage resources and create useful items and your hangar and barracks let you build up, customise, upgrade and outfit your ground and air forces. Scanning the globe in the mission control menu advances time and brings up abduction or UFO warnings.

Managing your cash and using it in each of these key areas is the core of the resource management. Failure to build satellites can leave you with high panic levels, for instance, while poorly directed research can leave you struggling to kill mutons with assault rifles when you wish you had laser or plasma weapons. This also gives the game replay value, as you might try and challenge yourself to complete the game differently or start your base elsewhere next time for one of the other bonuses to see how it would affect your game. The game also has one-on-one multiplayer where you can mix and match alien and human squads against another player. As if you needed another excuse to keep playing......

The situation room is where you will observe the panic levels of the council countries which make up XCOM, which will rise if you fail to protect them and complete missions. Managing these panic levels is key to the base building. Every so often, for example, an alien abduction mission will show up and you will have a choice of which country to assist. The countries who were not picked will see a rise in panic levels, along with other countries on that continent. If unchecked for too long, panic can cause a country to exit the council and withdraw support and funding, making the game even harder.

Launching satellites and completing missions will reduce panic, as well as bringing you rewards like a new advanced soldier or cash. And that's not all - sending satellites to monitor all countries on a single continent will grant you one of the aforementioned base bonuses. Each country provides money at the council report each month based on your performance, as well as scientists and engineers. If you are low on cash and weeks away from a council report, which is a lingering danger in XCOM, there is a market where you can sell items you have picked up from defeating enemies, although selling too much can be risky, since much of what you recover can be used in research and engineering. This carrot and sharpened stick approach of offering rewards combined with risk is part of what makes the game so compelling, as well as the feeling that your decisions carry such incredible significance and can come back to bite you later on.

XCOM may be a difficult game at times, but it is always fair, and it does a great job of introducing you to gameplay elements without completely overwhelming you. To illustrate this, enemies come in many flavours, and gradually you will encounter tougher enemies. Some of these, like floaters or thin men, are just a nuisance, but cyberdisks and zombie-spawning chryssalids can eventually trouble you in a massive way. But although you will need new strategies to beat these threats, you will in theory by that point have acquired a highly trained squad and high tech weapons. All in all, RPG elements bring a lot to the XCOM table, but that's just the icing on the cake. The gameplay and, in a sense, the difficulty and pacing is deeply affected by how you handle the base building.

Graphically, XCOM looks great by turn based strategy standards, although some environments are re-used frequently. There are only so many times you can assault a grounded enemy UFO in the same half destroyed forest. Saying that, usually you will be so caught up in the gameplay you don't really notice. Sounds and music are suitably eerie too. It uses the Unreal 3 Engine, although it's not without the odd bug or glitch. It defeats the purpose having slick, slow-motion action sequences when these are frequently where much of the bugs in the game can be found. I have had the game freeze on me and give me random disc read errors for no reason, as well as delaying quite a bit when enemies take their turn.

Other frequent issues include shooting through walls, soldiers facing the wrong way when shooting, some texture pop-in and clipping problems. I have also had issues with the DLC Elite Soldier pack, which allows you to further customise soldiers. In theory anyway: in my copy it just crashes the game and sends me back to the Xbox dashboard. I haven't played the PC or PS3 versions, but I have been made aware of similar problems on those platforms, except for the DLC content, which seemed to exclusively affect my version. On the subject of platform, strategy games may have their issues with controllers, but XCOM handles this very well. Although faster load times and a mouse would have been convenient, at no point did I feel the game suffered without a keyboard and mouse. Given the way the cursor handles free movement, the analogue controls are probably the best you are going to get for a strategy game on a console.

While you might experience the odd bug along the way, you will still be unable to put XCOM down. It surely won't be the sequel hardcore fans of the series were hoping for but it holds it's own brilliantly enough to capture a new generation of fans. For all the minor flaws XCOM has it will still suck you into it's game world with it's enjoyable setting, excellent pacing and strong level of challenge. The base building, RPG elements and permanent deaths will give you a chill down your spine as you lament the death of your fallen comrades at the hands of a muton berserker or deadly cyberdisk - knowing full well that you share full responsibility for sending a highly trained team out to die and leaving a country in ruins. For in XCOM, every decision can lead you staring down into the empty abyss of total annihilation unless you have patience and cunning. And even if it does come to that point of humanity falling into a yawning, darkness-filled chasm, it will still leave you wanting more.

+ Challenging yet well-paced
+ Enjoyable combat and cover system
+ Great replay value
+ Addictive RPG levelling and micro-management are seamlessly integrated
+ Great use of setting to draw the player in

- Occasional frustrating technical issues and bugs
- Frequently reused environments

Overall Score

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