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Reviewed: XCOM - Enemy Unknown

Posted by Ozzallos Wednesday October 24 2012 at 7:50PM
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Gaming, like cinema, has its share of cult classics. Back in the day when polygons and anti-aliasing were the next big thing there was this company called Microprose. Defunct today, they were undeniably one of the industries leaders in combat simulators. Classics like Gunship, Silent Service and others were hallmarks of this developer, but none were so enduring as a little game called X-Com: UFO Defense. While there were numerous spinoffs of this series,  they never reached the acclaim as the original and like many of the Highlander movie sequels, are best buried in napalmed earth and consecrated with salt so nothing may ever grow there again.

Long story short, the original X-Com was a turn based game featuring tactical squad based warfare and base management pitting you against an overwhelming tide of alien invaders. Even in moderate difficulty levels, the game was ruthless. Troops you had been weaning up from green recruits to power armor badasses could be erased from the map in the blink of an eye. Aliens could invade your base just as assuredly as you could theirs. Manpower was plentiful, but it was the material and knowledge you were scraping tooth and nail for while your soldiers paid for it all in blood. It wasn't without its flaws and the sprite graphics are now light years out of date, but it was a masterpiece in its own right.

Yes, I still have my original manual and 3.5in floppies.

Any fan of the original has a right to be pessimistic concerning anything claiming X-Com's lineage. It's all sucked for the most part and now there is a new attempt to usurp that sacred ground: Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown. New graphics. New gameplay. Cross platform marketing. Should you go out and buy it right now or does Firaxis deserve to die in a fire like Team 17 does for Worms?

Friends, there'll be no fires or pitchforks today.

  • Review

The first, most obvious update to this iteration of Xcom is the use of Unreal's graphics engine, creating full 3d environments for your base and combat environments. While the this improvement largely goes to waste in the base view, it absolutely shines in squad based warfare. The more or less isometric tile based movement is still present, but your troops operate in a fully 3d environment that layers cinematic camera angles when the action occurs. It's all eyecandy from top to bottom and exactly how you would want a modern rendition of this classic franchise to look. Even better, PCs with modest hardware should be able to run X-Com full out since we're not exactly talking 60fps first person shooter combat.

So the graphics are good to go but realistically, that should be a given in this day and age. How does the game play? Is it faithful to its namesake? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. For the most part.

Let's get this out of the way first: Time units are gone. While combat is still turn based, you now have two actions allocated per soldier per turn; nothing more, nothing less. You can move twice with your two actions or move and fire, but you only get two and firing automatically ends the soldier action period unless you have a special condition preventing it. Does it work? Yes. Am I overly fond of it? Honestly, no. Still, it's fun for what it is and we'll get into my nitpicking later.

Terrain and cover feature prominently, just as it did in the original games if not moreso. Cover is everywhere and if you don't use it, the aliens will happily hand you your ass since they're intelligent enough to use their turn to flank you and take shots from directions you aren't covered. Your cover is also quite transient in nature, meaning that any prolonged stay in one position during a fire fight is likely to reduce said cover to burning cinders or worse. Most of your favorite aliens will be present minus snakemen. I suspect creating a slithery 3d model was simply too much trouble so you'll be seeing humanoid opponents for the most part. Just to assuage your concerns, yes, Chrysalis are still an unholy pain in the ass.

Combat is only half the game, of course. Research and development are completely intact, requiring time, material and manpower to move up the tech tree and produce vital weapons, armor and systems in order to repel the alien menace. As added icing on the cake, you get cut scenes of weapons testing and- get this -messy alien autopsies with quality voice overs. Graphics and presentation are two things the new XCOM in spades. Your soldiers can also be customized in both appearance and armor configurations, further adding to your attachment to that poor team when things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Further diverging from the original, all soldiers now have a specific class upon hitting the Squaddie rank. I found it adds quite a bit of flavor; more so than simply stat building until everything maxes out ala UFO Defense. Like any RPG you've played, these classes have specific roles, can use specific weapons and items that can have a drastic influence in your combat tactics in the field. Bad news: You can only have six soldiers on any given mission. They also level after a fashion, gaining unique skills as they progress... Assuming they stay alive long enough to do so.

Overall, it's an amazing amount of win for a franchise plagued with fail, but it's not all perfect. Most of my gripes can be categorized under a single overarching topic:


These days, developers are increasingly programming to the lowest common denominator and when you're talking about selling across multiple gaming platforms, that means optimizing for the generally more limited hardware of the console. It's a trend worming its way into an increasing number of games and XCOM unfortunately suffers in the same manner.

First, the game rushes you a long at an unnatural pace, as if to force the action in an manner reminiscent of catering to players with a short attention span. Yes, you can build your base, you can research your finds, but the game will invariably force you to move along with Alien Abduction episodes, pushing you to make the best bad choice of three abduction sites. The other two not chosen invariably increase that regions panic, ultimately leading to a scenario of too many fires to fight if you don't move along to the game's forgone conclusion. Base construction has been somewhat dumbed down, which doesn't really matter because aliens won't be invading yours anyway. On that note, you only have one centralized base with little more than prepositioned fighter interceptor nodes in the various regions you control.

Combat suffers as well. Maps are noticeably smaller and by the time you work your way up to a medium UFO, you'll find the UFO interior is the map with your Skyranger setting down at the craft's doorstep. You are also now limited to six soldiers unstead of the 10+ of the original. The previously mentioned two action turn mechanics for you soldier reduce the game to that of the level of checkers in my opinion. It's still fun in its own way, mind you, but somewhat thoughtless.

Protip: Use one action to move to cover and the other to Overwatch. This will win 80% of your battles.

Speaking of cover, it's virtually impossible not to trip over it in mass quantities. Where durable cover was a rare luxury in UFO Defense, it's everywhere you look in Enemy Unknown, lessening the amount of battle field uncertainty. Sure, you'll find times where dashing across an empty parcel of real estate is required, but it's not nearly as nail-biting as the original game.

While not wholey tied to 'consolization', UFO interception events are actually worse than the source material if you can believe it. Instead of a radar display to indicate the action, ugly 3d wireframes bobbing back and forth from a single viewpoint fill this particular role and about the only fighter customization you can equip are one-shot powerups just waiting for a button press. On second thought, it absolutely reeks of consolization now that I think about it. UFO interception is probably the lowest point of the game, really. At least the original had an excuse-- Namely a 66mhz processor with 4 megabytes of RAM and a litebrite for a graphics card.

Other aspects of the game merely annoyances. Rarely will you ever catch an alien squad with its pants down during your action turn. You will see them and they will instantly react with a free action move to disperse and cover. Aside from the rocket launcher, you can't simply shoot away at barriers via free aiming. All shots must be taken at visible targets, otherwise you simply cannot deploy your weapon. Finally, most soldiers get to carry one primary rifle, a secondary pistol an have a single inventory slot.  That's it. On one hand I think it balances out the walking armory syndrome from the original X-Com, though on the other, I'm relatively sure our regular army can carry more than one grenade.

But hey, at least you have unlimited ammo :\

With the bitching out of the way, it's still a fun game. Most of what you have come to expect from UFO Defense and Terror of the Deep has been translated faithfully in Firaxis rendition of XCOM. There are still the moments of desperation and terror. Moments where you absolutely shit your pants as you walk into combined party of Mutons, Chrysslis and Cyberdisks. Moments where you will cuss out your soldier for missing a 95% shot. You will be forced to make command decisions with dire consequences. Resources are even more strained than the previous X-Com. Do you build another lab to speed up research for more weapons or use that money to build armor? While the pacing of the game may be more console-like, its also easy to absolutely shoot yourself in the foot through poor resource management.

So yeah, I think I can safely say you should buy this one. Sure, I've got my gripes and i don't think it has the depth of the original, but even that is balanced out by the various mission types. Where the original had either terror or search and destroy, Enemy Unknown fills the content gap with Bomb Disposal, VIP Escort, Terror Missions and of course the classic Search and Destroy. And hey, there's even multiplayer. It's not the XCOM I would have made, but it's still a pretty good effort. Maybe wait a few weeks for the bleeding edge price to drop off and it will be well worth the money.