Tuesday, 16 October 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Video Game Review)

Perhaps the best thing you could say about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that it's a different game from UFO: Enemy Unknown. It's not simply a rehash with a new paint job to try and justify its price but it never departs from that title so much that it seems like an entirely different game. However, this doesn't necessarily mean it's better. For almost every one it takes forwards, XCOM takes another step back.

If you're not already in the know, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of the classic turn based alien invasion simulator. Earth is under attack from skirmishing extra-terrestrial assaults and as a result the countries of the world form an international strike force to combat them. It was infamous for two things - Having to deal with minor details like wounded soldiers being off for weeks at a time and budgeting your resources plus dying a lot. It spawned two successful sequels, and several not so successful ones no one talks about, before 2K decided to give an almost entirely unrelated FPS title the name. The fans cried BETRAYAL! and Firaxis swooped in to offer up a more classic turn-based remake to placate people - XCOM was the result.

Perhaps one big complaint you might have heard if you've been browsing forums is the frequent complaints of editing out certain abusively fun tactics and "dumbing down" the game. Both of these are unfortunately true. No longer can you send out a dozen grunts armed only with stun rods to take back a muton alive as a rite of initiation, rig people with deadman switches to suicide bomb things and both action points and the deployment of multiple Skyrangers is a thing of the past.
However this dumbing down isn't entirely without reason. It makes the gameplay not quite as unwieldy as before and is never so bad it feels like it's reduced the game to a poor man's Squad Command. In place of action points is a system players of Infinity (the tabletop game) will find familiar. Each unit is given the choice of two actions, moving a certain distance then firing, sprinting for both actions or firing/punching/grenading for both; and operating at a much faster speed than the original. Similarly both the interface for using abilities and equipping guns to people have both been slimmed down, allowing for more direct control over actions and simpler movement but denying you the option to arm one guy with six heavy plasma weapons and fire them in sequence. Troopers are also now randomly divided into classes, but that's not as much of a problem as it sounds as each has their own high level gamebreaking ability and you'll always find a use for each one.

In short - each engagement will pass by at a speed much faster than in UFO, and much of the logistical elements have been scaled back. You still have to worry about building new bases to launch fighters, satellites, and new guns but you don't have to concern yourself about things like insurance policies and fuel. On the one hand this will likely incite neckbearded rage over the lack of in-depth details and the abilities to exploit things. On the other it makes the whole game much more streamlined and less of the dreaded time vampire UFO had a reputation for being.

The problem is that this was the start of Enemy Unknown's biggest flaw - the lack of a true fear factor. While Murphy's Law still hangs over everything, there seems to be so much less to go wrong. Even ignoring the issues of no longer having to worry about spending so much money you can't fly your troops into battle; the aliens themselves generally seem less capable. While you will still get troopers dying in droves and chryssalids taking entire magazines to put down you don't get the same problems of hurtling yourself into the unknown. Rather than firing from halfway across the map and causing you to exclaim "WHAT THE BALLS WAS THAT!?!" as your pointman is incinerated by a bolt of plasma, aliens introduce themselves. No really, the aliens won't do much until you effectively stumble across them. Then they'll spend a couple of seconds of a cutscene growling at the camera and go onto fight you - Openly and directly, not like the sneaky underhanded gits players of the 90s were terrified of. This might seem fairer overall but it seems to reduce the aliens from a genuine threat to an obstacle to just be overcome. This in turn removed one key element which made the old title so effective - Immersion.

In UFO you never felt like you were simply a player, you were the guy running the XCOM base. Sure the graphics were stylised and okay for the time and the maps an eyesore at the best of times - but the difficulty, struggle and occasional unfairness made the game feel all the more real. Like you were playing against another person rather than an AI, one who knew what they were doing and took advantage of every opening they could.
What also helped outside of turn based combat was the lack of cutscenes, voices and character focused storyline which made you feel like you were the central focus. Unfortunately Friaxis didn’t seem to quite understand this. In story mode you’re frequently watching a story play out with characters, an engineer, military man and scientist, talking about each development and conversing with the people supporting your cause. You end up feeling like a cog in the machine, taking orders from someone higher up and waiting to be sent out to do your tasks again once they've come to a decision. Even Jon Bailey doing is best Optimus Prime impression doesn't justify their inclusion.

Yet with the bad modern updates comes the good ones - Specifically in the form of the alien designs which completely outdo anything seen in UFO. Gone are the cartoonishly simple looks, replaced by those far more visually disturbing. For example the sectoid greys now lack the facial mouths and noses of their old designs, pulsing buts, veins and truly alien looking eyes. A few, such as the chryssalids and mutons, completely depart from their old designs looking gigeresque or cybernetically augmented; giving them a unique appearance which helps add a renewed sense of mystery to the remake.

At the end of the day even with all these problems, all these flaws and everything to count against it XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still completely worth buying at full price. Why? Because at its core it has more or less managed to keep what made the game’s good. You can still play for ten hours and quite easily lose, either due to a sudden spike in invasions or simply using the wrong strategy at the wrong time. Plus even when the game is at its worst, most frustrating brick-walling difficulties you can always find things to amuse yourself with, like calling a grunt “Sid Meier” and finding his stats suddenly boosted to the level of a supersoldier.  Even while I was picking out flaws in the game I never felt like they were truly detracting from the experience of playing it.

The only sort of player who will likely hate this title are those with a borderline pathological hatred of turn based strategy. Otherwise, whether you're a fan old or new you should definitely take the time to buy this one while it's still on shelves.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown and all related characters and media are owned by Firaxis.

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