X-COM: Enemy Unknown – Not a Review

I have X-COM and it’s glorious. (As a reminder, yes, I do use the hyphen as twas intended by God itself.) That screenshot up there? The one where you can’t hardly make out any detail because it’s zoomed so far out? That is beauty. Dear Bioware, when you release the next Dragon Age, if I can’t pull back on the camera like I can do here, then you have utterly failed. I don’t care if the story is the second coming of… uh… something really good, but not as cliche to list here as Lord of the Rings. Just say’n.

Oh, right. X-COM. Ahem. It’s going to be awhile before I’m comfortable reviewing the game, so in lieu of that, I’m going to offer this quick impressions post and then, in forthcoming posts, document my progress, diary style, as my crafty crew of squaddies face off against gruesome death and dismemberment at the hands of an alien menace bent on world domination. Woo!

To set a baseline here, I think there are generally two kinds of X-COM players: Those who like the light strategy and emergent storytelling that the series hangs its hat on and the deep strategy folks who like wide open spaces they must navigate, moving carefully forward, spending hours micromanaging every facet of their squad. The original X-COM had a way of sating both these crowds and there’s nothing wrong with either track, but this game was built to appeal to the former much more than the latter.

Like any good alien-smashing squad, let’s take this point-by-point, starting with the stuff that will likely bother some folks…

The environments do feel confined and, I’m not sure, but I suspect there’s not any randomization to them at all in terms of terrain, alien, or squad placement. (EDIT: I’m largely wrong about total lack of randomization. It’s not as random/expansive as UFO Defense, but environs in Enemy Unknown are sufficiently random here to ensure you’re never quite sure what you’re walking into.) A sectoid isn’t going to gun you down from behind the moment you step off the Skyranger. Generally you’ll first sight aliens in a pack together and, by appearances, only then will they react to your presence and start setting themselves up. I’ve only done about nine missions, but my sense is you will always have a chance to set up before walking into a trap. This is a stark contrast with the the original game where such things not only happened, but happened with frequency. The narrow battlescapes of Enemy Unknown will bother your hardcore strategy people. If what you want, however, is to start a mission, have it feel tactical, be capable of surprising you, and let you wrap up it in 30-45 minutes. You will be very, very happy with this. The game is not plastic or scripted. It’s just not as expansive as the original.

The squaddie customization is surprisingly thin. I know they want international flavor, but not being able to change the gender or nationality of a squaddie sucks. There is precisely zero harm in letting a player put together an all-female squad or an All America FUCK YEAH squad, you know? When I can change a squaddie’s name, face, armor color, etc., not being able to edit gender or nationality is annoying. (And for a game so focused on having international flavor, for all the voice sets to be stunningly American is rather lame.) So Brandon is now French. Matt is, I think, German. Roberto (our friendly neighborhood Guild Wars 2 NHS guild master) hails from Egypt, which is almost like Brazil, except totally not. Etc. It’s a little thing, but it’s a little thing they should patch. (I do like that squaddies have to earn nicknames by reaching the rank of sergeant. Bill doesn’t just get to be The Straw.)

That is all rather superficial, I know, but what will grate on some players is the loadout options. Each soldier (barring specific class upgrades) has a set of armor, a primary weapon, a pistol and an auxiliary slot that can be used for med kits, grenades, stun guns, ets. From a realism perspective, it breaks credibility that a SHIELD-like fighting force of ultimate bad-asses can’t carry a grenade while wearing a protective vest (or, for that matter, that they can only carry one grenade). From a tight, refined gameplay perspective it forces you, in a good way, to consider each squad member’s loadout without making you spend a half hour just gearing up. It’s very easy to get your entire squad loaded for bare, mission over mission. It’s much harder to know the ideal loadout. There is still strategy to it, just not the kind you’ll spend hours and hours honing. As a guy who cannot devote my life to playing a game anymore, I dig that. I understand, hardcore folks, why you’d be put off. (Hey, there’s always Xenonauts to look forward to!)

I’ve only gotten through a month and a half of in-game time, but the process of managing X-COM is incredibly well done. All the elements X-COM vets will remember from the first game are there. You research in labs. You construct new facilities and equipment in workshops. You have to keep everything powered. You gear up your crew and craft. You check budgets. Set priorities when determining UFO coverage areas and whom to help when multiple mission options are available at once. And you sell excess items and materials when you’re strapped for cash, a decision that can come back to haunt you.

There are oddities and elements that are over-simplified and sometimes the game doesn’t tell you what you need to know in a timely fashion. I found out the hard way (after research and manufacturing), for example, that these protective vests my scientists came up with can only be equipped in the same augment slot that you would otherwise use for grenades, stun guns, med kits, etc. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have made five of the damn things. Complicating that, you can no longer sell equipment you manufacture so now I’m just stuck with them.

In the original game you could carry on multiple research projects based on the number of scientists you have. Here it’s just one at a time, though the research speed changes based on available resources. Conversely, you can build as often as you want (pending available space and money) with your engineeers without them being tapped out. Projects do have a minimum required number of engineers to build, but let’s say I have 10 available, I can still build two projects at once even if one of them requires all 10 to build it. Evidently they multitask better than scientists.

The point is, there are some odd choices (that are likely done as they are for balance reasons), but the elements are all there and they all work well in concert with each other. You’re still making decisions. Loads of them. It’s just streamlined enough, however, to make it feel like you’ve got everything under control and you don’t need a notebook sitting next to you to keep track of everything you’re doing.

Finally, there’s the most important element: Squad-level tactics are absolutely aces and, as a result, Enemy Unknown is rife with wonderfully emergent gameplay. In a recent mission I had advanced on a group of sectoids and floaters (my first encounter with the latter). I had taken out the sectoids and caught three of the four floaters in a well-placed rocket shot from Lt. “RocketMan” Castillo (that’s a default name and nickname). There was one floater left, having taken a position above the field of battle and just waiting in overwatch mode for a squaddie to come out from cover. My sniper had a clean shot at him, and she hit, but the floater still had a point of life left on it. This is an ideal time to go for the stun and opportunity to interrogate the beastie back at HQ.

RocketMan has my ARC stun gun and can get close enough in one move to use it, but if I send him he’ll surely be shot in the face because Mr. Floaty is in overwatch and is just waiting for the opportunity to put a guy in the morgue. Pretty sure I heard somewhere that getting shot in the face is generally bad. I need to get the floater to blow his shot before I move my man in, so who’s going to play bait? Why, hello there Sgt. “Wolfox” Amorim. Why don’t you run out there and see what happens? It would work, except I’m really not into getting my guys killed. We here at X-COM HQ frown on that sort of senseless loss. But, you know, just across the way sits Lt. Binky. The man I was sure would be killed first has been making a name for himself in the support class, a class that features a smoke grenade. With one move into nearby cover he can toss that thing between Wolfox and the floater to provide extra cover.

Now, understand, I had no idea if this would work. None. But it made sense, right? Binky tosses the grenade in a prime location between Wolfox and a strong cover area on the other side. I direct Wolfox to go. The Floater sees him in the smoke and fires, but is unable to hit. With the floater now helpless, RocketMan is able to run up and knock the sucker cold. Mission success! Everyone gets out alive. (Well, Squaddie Thrower will be in the infirmary for a couple weeks. Jesus, man, walk it off already! There’s no room for pansies in this crowd.)

Old. New. Hyphen. No hyphen. This is X-COM. It wasn’t scripted. I had an idea. I had the right guys, in the right position, at the right time to try it out and my little soldier avatars executed it flawlessly. Binky could easily have missed with the smoke grenade. The floater still could’ve capped Wolfox, despite the extra cover. And there was a 15% chance RocketMan would miss on the stun. I had no idea what might happen.

When a plan like that comes together, it makes for a great gaming moment. And the great part of that equation is that every single time you take your squad out on a mission, X-COM affords you a chance to have that moment. Or your squaddies will totally cock up your brilliant plan and your strategy instead collapses in on itself like a dying star… But that’s the story of another mission. (*sniff*) This is the game’s genius and that is why, streamlined mechanics or not, I’ll be playing it for a long, long time to come. (Yeah, yeah, barring unforeseen bugs, overly repetitive gameplay that hasn’t stood out yet, etc. Stop with your nay-saying and let me enjoy the moment.)

Well done, Firaxis. Well done indeed.

EDIT: These impressions are based on the PC version (purchased on Steam). I’ve been playing at Normal difficulty and not on the hardcore mode that restricts ability to save.

 

 

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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