XCOM: Enemy Unknown – First Impressions of Earth

2012-10-20 by . 0 comments

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Although I joined Steam in 2004, I managed to avoid spending very much money on it in the early years. That all changed in 2009, when the allure of sales finally won me over, and some $2,000 worth of games later, here we are. One of my very earliest purchases on Steam was the X-COM Complete Pack. X-COM was a franchise that had always interested me – I’m a sucker for tactical RPGs and strategic base building games. However, the difficulty, coupled with the somewhat impenetrable interface turned me off, and I still haven’t played a complete game in of any of them. The purchase ended up being the first in a very long line of games that I ended up buying but never quite could get into.

When I first heard that Firaxis was being handed the XCOM license and were making a turn-based strategy game with it, I was elated. I’m a big fan of Firaxis, and I’ve logged nearly 200 hours on Civilization 5 as of this article. I will play pretty much anything if the title starts with “Sid Meier’s.” I pre-ordered this game, and I’ve spent nearly every free moment I’ve had since the release playing the game. After a good chunk of hours invested, I think I’m ready to at least give my impressions of it. I think I’ll probably be sinking a considerable amount of hours into this game, including its higher difficulty levels and other challenging modes in the coming months, so this is by no means a final word.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reimagining of the first game in the series, X-COM: UFO Defense (or UFO: Enemy Unknown outside the US). As such, it consists of two major parts. In the first, you are tasked with using your organization’s limited resources to research and engineer new alien-vaporizing technology while maintaining the fragile alliance that keeps you funded. In the second, you are tasked with commanding a squad of up to 6 soldiers in tactical combat against an overwhelming alien force.

The base view gives you a window into the various facilities you’ve built underground, and has buttons for easy access to key facilities.

Both halves are executed with the kind of expertise I’ve come to associate with Firaxis. There’s a lot of attention paid to the strategy and mechanics of the game, but not at the expense of the visual and audio design. There aren’t many studios who can put out a good looking, mainstream AAA strategy title like this, and I can’t help but be impressed. It’s got the same “one more turn” time-burning properties as the Civilization series – prepare to lose track of time and not want to stop when you know you have other things to do. There’s always one more research project, one more alien to kill, or one more door to open before you quit.

Resources are always limited, so how you prioritize your projects and construction in the base can significantly change the way you approach the tactical combat. The base view communicates a lot of information in a very compact format, and the simple base building mechanics mean that there’s not that much of a learning curve.

Still, it would have been nice to get some guidance (à la Civilization’s Advisors) – there are times when it’s not really clear what aspects of the base would give you the most benefit for your investment. Likewise, the tech tree is a bit flat, confusing, and opaque, and you may neglect avenues of research that would give you huge benefits because their side effects are unclear. The base building is neat, but a bit oversimplified – think about how a game of SimCity would go if you only had a couple of dozen places to build buildings, and just one road. Intercepting UFOs is mostly a hands-off process, with few options for upgrading your interceptors and little control over the interception itself.

Ashley, one of my heavies, shows off her LMG.

The tactical combat aspects are quite good. The game manages to make every turn feel like you’re stepping into an unknown situation, and even when you’re pretty sure you know what kind of aliens to expect, they’re still as scary the hundredth time as they were the first. Caution and careful exploration are key. There’s very real risk here, with very real consequences for making mistakes. This isn’t a game you can always win – it’s a game where you have to learn how to lose gracefully. The high-stakes tactical combat lends itself to some very emergent stories. Try naming your squad after people you know or game with, and you’ll frequently have epic stories of last-second snap shots that your friends took to save the day.

However, the cover and line-of-sight mechanics are a bit weird at times, especially when there are angular walls or odd angles of attack. Managing loadouts and keeping track of what button activates what skill can be frustrating for no good reason. The key bindings not only change from soldier to soldier, but even if you switch weapons. Soldier progression options are fairly limited – there’s only a few weapon possibilities per class, and at most 2 ability choices per level. Occasional glitches (such as randomly teleporting enemies and camera issues) damage the experience, but hopefully we’ll see these issues fixed in a post-release patch.

The tactical combat is well executed, although it has occasional issues – in this shot, I can’t send my soldier to the lower level under this balcony without being very precise or rotating the map just right. Also, he gets no cover while on the ramps, even if he’s up against the wall.

XCOM:EU is a good game, but I find myself on the fence about it. It’s terribly addictive, and it manages to distill a lot of complicated XCOM mechanics into something that’s easy to pick up and play. However, I feel like it’s pulling punches. Certainly concessions have been made for the console interface (e.g., larger fonts, less text, simplified controller-optimized navigation) and a more casual audience, (e.g., less choices in terms of loadouts, soldier progression, technology, and base building) even though the difficulty and challenging strategic combat are intact. This dichotomy of “dumbed down for the masses” while still punishing even on normal difficulty is strange, although I personally don’t mind it.

There’s more than a few things that aren’t adequately explained or fleshed out, which makes the game feel a bit rushed. For instance, the tooltips on many skills and items don’t adequately describe their effects in-game, and there’s no manual or other source of detailed information to explain them. A particular piece of armor might give you “+10 defense,” or “increased mobility,” but what that means isn’t clear unless you dig through the game’s help files (assuming there are any for this topic) and/or experiment thoroughly.

I feel as weird criticizing this game as much as I feel weird praising it. I find it entertaining and engaging, while at the same time I’m hungry for more. I suppose, in the end, that this game reminds me of Civilization: Revolution – it’s a good game that feels like a “lite” version of a truly great game. Perhaps when patches eventually squash the bugs and minor annoyances, the remaining nitpicks I have will seem that much more minor. I’m also sure I’ll be playing this game for many, many more hours. But is it a game that we’ll revere as a legend and all fondly remember 20 years from now, as we do the original X-COM? That I’m not so sure of.

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