Review: X-Com Enemy Unknown
Every game developer of note has a signature style. Much like every movie director or author does. Firaxis has a rather unique one. In my opinion, they are the masters of the “one more turn” phenomenon. Any Civilization player will tell you how Firaxis’ turn based games have kept them up the entire night. No matter how hard you tell yourself that you will go to bed exactly 2 hours after firing up a session, it just will not happen. “Just one more turn” you keep telling yourself.
So when the news broke in 2010 that Firaxis will be working on a reboot of the X-Com franchise, I was ecstatic and worried in equal measure. I don’t do well without sleep.
X-Com is a one of those games that has an almost religious following. Fans have waited patiently for over a decade to see the series revived and I’m happy to say that patience has paid off. Things were looking promising enough in my preview of the demo and though it is far from perfect, X-Com Enemy Unknown is definitely a title to be celebrated (over many sleepless nights fuelled with obscene amounts of stimulants).
Broadly speaking X-Com can be categorized as a strategy game with turn based tactical combat sprinkled with some RPG elements. There is not much here in terms of story because frankly, it is unnecessary. Aliens arrive and decide they don’t like us. We decide they need to go. Period. Though there is a plot in there somewhere, it rarely impresses. The heart of the game lies in thinking about your next move, the motivations are of little consequence.
The game is divided into two parts. The first is centered on the player’s “base”. This is where the overall strategy is decided. The second is tactical turn based combat that takes place all over the globe.
Let start with the base (Headquarters). X-Com essentially boils down to a tightrope juggling act. There are a lot of factors that the player needs to think about as Commander. The X-Com program is humanity’s last line of defense against the alien threat. As such, it needs the support of member nations to continue operations. As the game begins, the program has the support of 16 nations. If at any point more than 8 withdraw, its game over. Keeping all nations happy comes down to keeping “threat” levels low. If it gets too high, the nation in question gets panicked and will likely quit thereby taking away a source of income and resources in addition to making the top brass unhappy. Threat is influenced by a number of factors including satellite coverage, success of ground missions and presence of air fighters (interceptors). Since resources are limited, keeping everyone happy is damn near impossible.
Every ground mission, if successful, has a bonus reward attached to it apart from lowering threat. This could be cash or additional personnel. It makes for some lip chewing moments of indecision. For instance, I have a choice of 3 missions in the cities of Beijing, Sydney and Detroit. Do I skip the easy Beijing mission and go for the harder mission in Detroit that gives me much needed engineers? My injured veterans won’t be ready for Detroit and a bunch of raw recruits will likely get slaughtered. On the other hand, China’s threat levels are high as it is. Beijing seems like a sure thing but those additional engineers will be very helpful long term. The medium difficulty Sydney mission will net me a veteran Heavy soldier, precisely the kind of trooper that I am desperately short of. Besides, Australia has no satellite coverage at all; not helping them might send them straight into panic mode. Decisions decisions.
Part of these decisions will be about how to develop the base itself. Like every other resource in the game, the space available for expansion is limited. Not to mention, expensive. Looking at the ant hill view and trying to figure what to do next while factoring all the variables is both taxing and fun.
One caveat here and this is a minor one, is how the development of the base does not visually evolve much over the course of the game. For instance, building a workshop is fine but regardless of how many engineers available or the work load they have, the player ends up looking at the same few personnel doing the exact same thing with no variation of any sort. The same applies to every part of the base. It does not influence the game play in anyway but does keep from making the HQ feel dynamic.
It is fair to say that the majority of the player’s time will probably be spent engaged in combat. And this is where the best and worst of the game is laid bare. For the most part, combat is extremely fun. There is a palpable sense of dread that is part of the X-Com experience. It keeps things tense and engaging in spite of the limited selection of environments. Players will quickly get acquainted with death. Your soldiers will die. No way around it. The first time you lose a valuable veteran, you realize why it is such an integral part of the whole experience. For one thing, veterans are worth their weight in gold. It takes a lot of skill, good equipment and a whole lot of luck for your little guys to survive. Especially in the beginning when humanity has little in terms of hardware. Bullets vs. lasers is not much of a contest.
Having a ranked up soldier is usually the difference between victory and outright massacre. Like a game of high stakes poker, you do the best with the hand you have been dealt. And sometimes that hand sucks. The randomness of the encounter is both a blessing and a curse however. Usually, things are balanced. You start a map and go about placing your soldiers during your turn. It does not take long for you to encounter resistance and from then on, it’s like a game of dynamic chess. The sort of chess where pawns can chuck grenades and run for cover while dodging laser beams. But sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes you turn a corner and there are seven aliens with plasma weapons and good cover, all aiming for Captain McAwesome’s head. “It’s not fair” cries the good captain before being blown to smithereens. Just like that, your best soldier is dead. Panic spreads through the ranks and a couple of green recruits shoot each other (yes that happens). Within two pathetic turns, your whole squad is dead. Bad luck you tell yourself.
I’ve never been much of a gambler. The rush that people get when slot machines are ringing is alien to me. Not for me are games of chance. No, give me something that favors skill over luck any day. Poker I can appreciate. Blackjack, not so much. But damn if X-Com didn’t make me feel like a high roller watching a spinning roulette wheel. The fact that I felt compelled to keep at it in spite of this speaks volumes about how good the core game play really is. In the end, superior skill will trump blind luck almost every time.
Now to be fair, as long as you are not playing “Ironman” mode, you could save right before McAwesome’s demise. So if a turn goes bad, it does not have to end in disaster. But perma death and randomness is what makes X-Com the game it is. Especially for old fans of the series. Even so, I recommend players stay away from Ironman because regardless of how good a player one is, there are times when the controls will misbehave. The primary culprit of this would be when switching between different levels of elevation. I have lost count of how many times the camera spazzed out on me leading to a misclick that sent a soldier to certain doom. If that happens in ironman, it’s pretty much game over. That being said, having the ability to save at any point during the battle is almost like a cheat. I suppose it comes down to individual discipline. Tell yourself that you will only reload is when the camera screws you over. Then see if you can keep from firing up a quick save just because you got lazy and didn’t stick to cover. I couldn’t.
Any advantage available should be exploited and exploited well. As the campaign progresses, the opposition gets harder. Newer enemy types are introduced and some of them are downright devastating. Melee units are particularly dangerous. But the biggest threat is getting one of your own mind controlled by a psychic attack. Nothing is more heartbreaking than having to shoot your best sniper in the head to keep him from killing the entire squad. As expected, there are different ways of dealing with these enemies and having a good mix of troops is absolutely essential. Towards the later half of the game, you can find budding psychics in your own ranks, giving you even more tactical options to mess with.
To the games credit, even if the maps seemed repetitive after a while, the sheer randomness of the battles and the various combinations of baddies was good enough to keep me from complaining too much. Even so, I am surprised that there weren’t any jungles, deserts or snowy regions in the entire game. The fact that mods are not supported seems to suggest stuff like this will be sold as DLC at some point. THAT, I confess, annoys the hell out of me.
When I went through the demo, I mentioned how the character customization options felt a little sparse. I did not think much about it till I started to go through my roster of soldiers in the campaign. There’s a lot of dying in this game and a lot of recruits will need to be hired. It’s hard to get emotionally attached to your troops if they are clones. Again, it’s not something I will complain about too much because it has zero affect on actual game play. During combat, the game is shown from an isometric view and faces are not discernible. But now and again, the camera zooms in to show a critical hit or such and it drives home the point that this is merely grunt number 275.
Speaking of soldiers, the ones that do survive will be given the chance to rank up. Every class has two branches a soldier can choose abilities from. The skill tree does not offer a lot in terms of depth and as such is presented as a means of giving some tactical variation. Still, it is a welcome addition and fleshing this part of the game out in future iterations would be nice.
If the single player campaign does not hold your attention for long, the multiplayer certainly will. As of now the game allows you to pit your squad vs. that of another player. The twist here is that both squads can have a mix of humans and aliens. It throws the story out the window but takes the tension of a single player battle and cranks it up to eleven. Each turn is timed, making every move even more tense than it usually is. I haven’t played around with this much and don’t intend to either. To me, X-Com has always been about the single player experience. Still, the multiplayer mode is not just a tacked on feature and that bears mentioning. I have no doubt that many people will thoroughly enjoy this part of the game.
All in all, playing through the campaign (it took about 20 hours) was certainly enjoyable. And though I do have some issues with Enemy Unknown, none of them are going to keep me from replaying it for a good long time. Apart from being a great game, it is a good example of how to revive a franchise. It is also the kind of game that the strategy community has gone without for far too long. The fact that it was developed as a triple A title and published by a heavy weight like 2K bodes well in more ways than one.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a planet to save.
And all it takes is one… more… turn.