Wednesday, December 26, 2012

REVIEW - XCOM: Enemy Unknown.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is incomparable.  Or largely incomparable, at least, to anything aside from UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-Com: UFO Defense in North America).  If one were to try to suggest how it compares to other strategy games, there are few examples available - but that's likely because UFO: Enemy Unknown created its own standard when it appeared seventeen years ago.  

Since then, any game with remotely similar mechanics would be compared to it.  In 2008, when Internet forums were lit afire with joy at the discovery of tactical strategy RPG Valkyria Chronicles, for example, all the old-school crowd wanted to know was how it compared to X-Com

Because for those who loved the original - and there are many of them out there - the idea of a current-gen experience that mirrored the mechanics of those bygone days is a delicious dish.  The idea of a game world where you take your time, examine your assets, weigh your options, and - with a grim, nervous, self-assured hand - move one of your precious pieces into harm's way...  

X-Com - the classic experience, the gold standard - has returned in a slick high-def package, and the result is... well, yes, incomparable.  This may be a once-in-a-console-generation experience, and it's executed at the triple-A level.  Or as close to it as any such game has ever come.  


It's not for everyone, certainly.  Let's get that out of the way.  If you need constant feedback, if you need constant action and exploration and constant play, XCOM is not for you.  If you lack patience, XCOM is not for you.  

A great deal of the game is played in the mind's eye, scrying the triumphant and terrible possibilities of the future.  A great deal of it is played by just sitting there, silently, staring at the screen and at all the alien baddies - frozen in time - who threaten to swarm your team, trying to sort out a solution that won't equate to suicide by Chrysalid. 


You are the nameless Commander, obeyed by all in XCOM headquarters and lorded over by the shadowy Council of Nations that funds the project - mankind's first, last and only defense against an apocalypse of alien invaders.  You decide which research projects get funded.  You decide which troops are fielded, and what gear is available for them.  

You decide to shoot or take cover.  When you succeed - when you make it through another month without a member nation withdrawing from the project, when all your troops come home from a hard mission - it's because you made the right calls. 

The game is a constant gauntlet of decisions - huge decisions and tiny decisions - but always meaningful, potent and important choices that have a major effect on your success or failure, often between two seemingly equal avenues.  Do you build an additional satellite up-link facility, which will allow you to provide greater coverage to a Council nation (and earn more resources and personnel each month), or do you use those precious resources to provide your chronically under-equipped troops with state-of-the-art plasma weaponry?  

With so much constantly hanging in the balance, so much at risk, XCOM could easily become overwhelming, or worse - frustrating.  On normal difficulty, however, the game walks this miraculous tightrope of fairness where the player feels comfortable with owning their failures of strategy, and glorying in their victories.  

Similar to last year's Dark Souls, XCOM is a game that is absolutely unforgiving of stupidity while generously rewarding considered, thoughtful strategy and success.  

It's split, rather evenly, into two components.  There's menu-driven base management and turn-based strategy versus aliens in the field.  Here's a base: 


A base - not your base or even my base - it's unlikely two will ever look precisely the same, because each player's priorities will be slightly different, and the terrain that must be excavated beneath your base is randomized for each game. 

You may have a half-dozen valuable steam vents!  Crucial zones for construction of the mighty Thermal Generator, which is able to power a ton of satellite up-link facilities - but be sure to build it in such a way that attaches it to your other power plants for a sweet bonus.  You may ignore your satellite coverage in favor of immediately strengthening your troops, but either way your base operations are a game of patience. 

When you decide to build your Thermal Generator, for example, it doesn't just - poof! - appear out of nowhere.  "Okay," your engineers say.  "That multi-million dollar power plant will be ready in three weeks."

A whirlwind of efficiency in the real world, to be sure, but what are you to do in the mean time..? Sit on your hands.  Go out on missions.  'Cause until you get enough power running through your base, you won't be building much at all - if only you'd planned ahead, and built that generator months ago... well, that's something to keep in mind for the next playthrough, isn't it?

We need satellites over Mexico, the UK and South Africa, stat!
India?  Fuck 'em - we already lost Japan, so there goes the Asia continental bonus.

Navigating the base is accomplished through a slick system of menus that fly open in the blink of an eye and efficiently tell you everything you need to know.  Zipping back and forth from your R&D department to Engineering is an easy-going, intuitive pleasure - and a serious bonus, given how much time you spend there, and how stressful the decisions you make will be. 

While the base management is a large part of XCOM, it doesn't overshadow the wonderful combat.  Instead, each side of the game acts as a palette cleanser for the next.  After twenty minutes or so fooling around in your base, getting all your ducks in a row, arranging for this research to be carried out and that project to be completed, as soon as you get bored and want to dive back into some action, you return to the situation room and let the globe spin. 

Hours and days tick away, and - ping - we've got contact.  There are alien attacks simultaneously occurring in Stockholm, New York and Montreal - who will you save?


The game's combat is polished to a mirror shine.  It sidesteps photo-realism in pursuit of a sort of sci-fi-fantasy style, with power armor and glowing laser rifles and hissing plasma grenades that recall the heyday of G.I. Joe playtime.  

Keeping in mind, every soldier you get is randomly generated.  A random name matching those from their randomly-chosen country of origin, randomly designed. You can name them, if you want, but one discovers they have personalities of their own.  One discovers Brett Smith is a goddamned coward, but Johan Schmidt keeps his cool under pressure, and gets the job done when it counts most - and you start knowing them by name, and by reputation.

It is here, I must admit, that I fell in love with XCOM.  It is here that heroes are made, and here that war stories take shape - like The Ballad of Wildchild Sakamoto, who went on to become my star quarterback for the entirety of a campaign, and single-handedly saved the Earth from total annihilation.


In RPG terms it's very easy to understand.  Each unit has several abilities you can activate, dictated by their class and the specific skills you've chosen (always at the expense of other, equally attractive options).  Each unit has a specific distance they can cover in a turn, or two actions.  They can move twice as far at the cost of both actions, or they can move half as far before shooting.  

Your soldier's accuracy in combat is dictated by their experience, their stats, their equipment, and their proximity to their target. 

You'd think a Heavy trooper would have a better than 61% chance to hit a target five feet away.
You'd be wrong.

Every soldier can take standard shots, can hunker down to get a better defensive bonus from cover, and can be set into "Overwatch" mode at the expense of an action point, which allows them to take a pot-shot at the next enemy who moves in their line of sight (with a slight penalty to aim).  But enemies out of cover are much easier to hit than enemies in cover, so it evens out. 

That's it, in a nutshell, but it doesn't begin to describe the experience XCOM offers, which is really unlike anything I've ever played.  When my troops step off their transport and stand, facing a strip mall or motel or sparse forest, I am invariably struck by a brief and paralyzing terror.  

The enemies in XCOM are not mere cannon fodder.  These things will fuck you - and your loved ones, if present - right up.  If you ever leave a unit out of cover?  Well, sorry man.  

They're dead. 

But right now, at this moment, before anyone takes a single step, things are fine. 

No one's in danger.  No one's probably getting killed on the next turn.  Everything's cool. 

As soon as you pick one soldier and tell them to move forward (usually your lowest-ranking rookie who's not much good for anything else), you'll be gripped by a clawing fear.  If he wanders in to the line of sight of some enemies, that could be it - he might not be comin' home.  

Best-case scenario, he'll step out into the fog of war and find nothing at all.  You move your team up behind him - all in cover, half on overwatch.  The aliens' turn comes and goes.  No movement.  No sightings.  

And you might find yourself paralyzed, for a moment, before selecting your rookie and sending him a bit further into the unknown. 


Enemy Unknown is one of those minute-to-learn, months-to-master affairs where your understanding of all its straightforward mechanics - and more importantly, how they interact with each other - begins with a simple Gun + Alien = Win equation and ends up looking like something Einstein scribbled on a chalkboard.  

Take, for example, the ability called Flush.  

Flush is an activated skill that can only be learned by a tactics-centric Assault trooper (those who follow the Way of the Shotgun) or a similarly-specced Support.  It is a single shot that does relatively little damage, but has a very high chance to hit and forces an enemy to move from whatever cover they're currently behind to seek protection elsewhere.  

I hated Flush.  Never used it.  I found it almost entirely useless, only relying on it as a shot my Assaults could land from a generous distance.  And then, one day, it becomes something utterly beautiful. 


Beauty is when a turn begins, deep within the bowels of an enemy hellhole with a sniper Captain.  Thoughtfully placed at one of the two cherished "breach" positions on either side of a door, you tap X and she releases the force field blocking your way, revealing sight lines into the next room.

A herd of Muton Elites sees the movement, and sprint into cover.  Captain "Claymore" Sakaki leans around the corner and squints through her scope.  Not good odds of hitting any of them.  But she's a crack shot when a target is dumb enough to move, not suffering the usual aim penalty - so I activate Overwatch.

Cooper - an Assault from Ireland - zips around the corner.  Not very far, just into cover on the other side of the door.  He raises his shotgun (terrible chance to hit) and activates Flush.

I select the Muton furthest from my team - the one that will be hardest to reach - and tap X.

Cooper lands the flush.  The Muton breaks from cover.  Wwwhamm!  Sakaki blows its head off with a critical reaction shot.

And that, my friends... is gorgeous.


The combat in XCOM is a fabulous, aggressive, tactical, thoughtful exercise in strategy.  This is a game that sees you firing a rocket across a supermarket to level twenty square yards of shelving and foodstuffs, clearing the line of sight for an assault to dash in a deliver a fatal blow to a lumbering Berzerker.  This is a game where every shot counts, and every choice walks along a razor's edge of risk and reward.  

It's terrifying in its own, wonderful way.  A strategy RPG that feels closer to survival horror than any survival horror game in recent memory.  

My only real complaint about the game is that, on the harder difficulties, it no longer feels... well, fair.  

When you have five soldiers on the field and all of them have a 60% chance to hit a target, and every single on of them miss, it doesn't feel much like a 60% chance to hit.  It feels like bullshit.  

Players of the classic X-Com games don't mind this - quite the contrary, they love it, as it more closely resembles what must have been the horrifying, arbitrary difficulty of the original - but I don't love the harder difficulties.  

I kinda' hate them.  The game is built on the player understanding its systems and making sound choices, but once you crank it up to hard mode it really feels like XCOM starts playing with loaded dice.

It cranks the challenge, the satisfaction and the tension in all scenarios, but - for me, at least - it does real damage to the title's fun factor when every single one of your troops takes a shot at a single enemy and misses, and then that single enemy fries the face off your best soldier.  But that's fine, because on Normal difficulty XCOM is one of the best games of the year - and certainly one of the most unique. 


There's something downright luxurious about a dedicated strategy game that approaches the triple-A standard, as XCOM handily does.  It won't blow your graphical socks off, but its presentation is detailed, comfortable and purposeful.

It is a game of profound depth and craft (Firaxis has a long history with strategy games, most recently with the acclaimed Civilization franchise), and represents some very, very considered design on the part of its creators.  

In XCOM, nothing feels extraneous.  Nothing feels like it was denied due consideration before being added to the whole, and no part was permitted to remain without extensive testing of its interactions with the game's other systems.  

It's beautiful and creative and challenging and tense and balanced.  It's not for the impatient, and not for the meek.  When you step out of line - when you leave your star quarterback out in the open, without cover - you will get your face melted off, simple as that. 

But once you learn its rules, one you understand the intricacies of its systems and how beautifully they dovetail in to each other... it's XCOM.  

It's the gold standard.  Long may it reign. 

4 comments:

  1. I had to stop chasing this game's pink dragon, it dragged me to a place where my gaming habits felt like a full blown addiction, but you know, in a good way.

    I ran screaming three quarters of the way in easy mode,forgot about planes, tried it again, stopped at the exact same spot AND YET. . .i totally got my money's worth.

    I had a goddamn blast, but i fear i'll never shoot up again.

    ALSO, you were dead on about farcry 3 man, that whole game (white man's burden/henna tattoo aside) is uncut fun on da' bun.

    Did you notice that American spy guy writes all the journal entries? brilliant.

    hope your holidays were cheery and or bright.

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  2. Thanks, Larker - you too. ^.^

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  3. XCOM is probably GOTY as far as I'm concerned. The only thing I could hold against it is how buggy it can be; sometimes in helpful or humorous ways, generally in minor ways, but occasionally in ways that are undeniably concerning at best and infuriating at worst.

    It's just buggy enough that I would stay clear of Ironman mode, in the interest of not getting bent over the barrel by some glitch that ends up killing one of my prized soldiers.

    Like Giant Bomb makes a point of mentioning though, bugginess seems to be a trait that's become especially prominent this year. Even TWD was and continues to be plagued by gamebreaking bugs, like one that destroys your save. I almost never finished the game because the game ate my save for the previous episodes in the process of downloading and installing episode 4, and I couldn't fathom going through all that again.

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  4. Whew - I didn't get any bugs so far in TWD, and they never really reared their heads for me with XCOM. Just lucky I guess!

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