XCOM: Enemy Unknown in Review

I finished XCOM: Enemy Unknown Tuesday night, so that means it’s time for a proper review. (I officially give up on the hyphen. From now on we’ll just pretend it’s there.) Before I get into that, however, a few words about the two recently announced pieces of DLC: Slingshot and Elite Soldier Pack. This is the 2k I know and loath. First, the Elite Soldier Pack is basically armor colors and a few more heads (three helmeted ones and a new hairdo). It’s content (particularly the armor tinting) that should have been part of the main game by default. Asking people to pay $5 for this is shameful. It’s the same nickel and dime for the least amount possible that we got from a lot of the Civ 5 DLC. The Slingshot DLC adds a new playable “hero” to the squad and some scripted missions. It’s not fair to judge sight unseen, but I am not enamored with the idea. I think it fundamentally misunderstands what makes this game good. It’s arguable that the weakest parts of XCOM are the parts where it’s scripted, which is thankfully uncommon, so trying to make people excited about three new council missions that have their own story arc isn’t the world’s greatest sell. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong about that.

On with the review…

Big. Damn. Heroes.

X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, is a gaming legend. As is often the case with legends that means, in addition to being a great game in its time and place, it’s remembered for being a bit more than it actually was. It was buggy, fiddly, and, even for the time, didn’t look particularly good. These things didn’t keep this game about halting an alien invasion of Earth from deservedly becoming one of the most fondly remembered games of its time. I point this out only to dispense with the notion that UFO Defense was somehow a perfect model to which any remake must slavishly adhere.

Firaxis’ new spin on the X-COM legacy, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is every bit as flawed as the original, if for different reasons, and yet it’s also every bit as memorable as its namesake (for many of the same reasons). Firaxis had an impossible job to do in making a turn-based strategy game in 2012, one that had to function equally well on PC and console, and make it worthy of the legacy. It could have been too wonky for mass audiences. It could have been too dumbed-down to appeal to core strategy gamers that still fondly remember action points and facing rules. That Firaxis was able to strike such a fair balance of streamlined mechanics and wonderfully emergent tactical gameplay is a credit to a talented and storied studio. XCOM is the game I’ve been waiting for, for a long, long time.

The fascinating incongruity about XCOM (old and new) is that it’s a game about stories where the overriding background story is just that – background. That’s because the best stories in XCOM don’t come from any of its largely random missions, only a handful of which are loosely scripted. The real stories in this game are emergent, born of a dozen different decisions you’ll make from turn to turn. Sure, the Earth facing invasion and annihilation by beings from another world, and it’s attempt to thwart disaster by having its major powers unite to form an elite alien-fighting task force (XCOM), provides an adequate backdrop, but it’s when you take your squad of four to six solders, soldiers you customize in name, appearance, and ability, that the real stories begin.

It’s a game that begs you to tell your buddies in the real world or on an online gaming forum about that time your heavy class trooper fired a rocket in a storefront wall to take away a muton’s cover, allowing your sniper a clear killshot. Or how you risked a double-move out of cover with your wounded assault trooper only to have her miss a wide open shot and end up poisoned to death by a thin man. Or what about that time you had a total party wipe when an unseen sectopod caught your squad grouped up next to a UFO power source that it caused to explode? This is a game that ten different people can play and, yeah, they’ll all follow the same rough story threads, but they’ll also have ten wholly unique experiences in the process of traversing them. Old version, new version, that is the genius of XCOM and it’s alive and well here.

No, not everything is perfect, though the line between design brilliance and notable flaw will vary based on  your expectations. If you’re a die-hard from the UFO Defense era that treasured large squads of 10+ soldiers on a mission and the more intricate group tactics they afford, or having to worry about what direction a squaddie is facing or whether they’re kneeling or not, or being able to swap large inventories between squaddies and rifle through the effects of dead aliens in-mission, then you’re not going to like the compromises made here. This is a beer and pretzels tactics game that you’ll pick up quickly and then keep playing because the mechanics in place function so effortlessly together.

Die-hards aren’t going to like the narrower environments that don’t offer nearly as much room to roam and explore as X-COM. But there’s a benefit to that too. Missions in this game aren’t designed to go on for hours and hours. Some are longer than others, but most are meant to be bit off in manageable 30 to 60-minute chunks. You’re not going to waste nearly as much time just wandering around, hoping to stumble into that last remaining sectoid before you can pick up and return to base. I call the more directed maps a net win for this reason – oh and they’re gorgeous and wholly destructible.

Speaking of your home base, if the in-mission tactical game weren’t impressive enough, Firaxis has done a remarkable job of making the strategic management of the XCOM project a seamless experience that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae  You get to make plenty of decisions in terms of what technologies to research, what buildings to construct, and generally how you can best spend the finite funding and resources at your disposal, but owing to the fact that you now run just a single base, (with satellites picking up the tab for monitoring the world’s alien activity), the game doesn’t let your time spent making these decisions become tedious. Sure the rewards for doing missions end up feeling rather arbitrary and the game could do with a bit more variety as to types of missions, but the sense of pervasive threat as you struggle to keep participating nations funding the XCOM project in the face of ever-increasing alien activity keeps the game humming along just fine. I could quibble that the research tree isn’t broad enough or that the game doesn’t last long enough, but it’s easy to forget just how crucial balancing all these different elements is to this game and just how remarkably well it achieves that balance.

Would that these kinds of fair compromises were the only issues. Unfortunately, there are problems to which even the most enthusiastic fan of the game must admit. The game is flat out buggy. I’ve mercifully been spared the worst of them, but there are bugs that can hamper your ability to properly play the game. I encountered one in the final mission that, had I been playing in the game’s Ironman mode (which prevents saving and reloading where you like), very likely would have prevented me from finishing the game. It makes playing it a gamble. Will you be among the lucky majority(?) that only sees weird graphical glitches like a soldier firing (visually) in the wrong direction or has its hairdo flicker back and forth between two styles during a mission? Or will you end up cursing Firaxis and swearing off the game forever when 30 hours of work gets wasted because a bug prevents you from opening a door you must pass through to continue on a mission? That’s a problem.

Less severe, but constantly annoying are some of the PC control issues. (I didn’t try the game using a gamepad. I’ve read that it controls better if you use one.) 95-percent of the time using a mouse and keyboard with XCOM is perfectly adequate. In a day and age where games built for PC and console simultaneously are often cursed with abysmal controls, perfectly adequate counts as a rather sad victory. There are hotkeys to control the camera, issue commands, etc. On a flat map, the mouse is extremely effective at letting you choose just the right spot for where to send a squaddie or toss a grenade. The problem is the camera and mouse combination cannot handle elevation, a rather crucial component of the game, and as a result it constantly behaves as if it knows better than you where it should place itself. Sometimes these issues are merely annoying, like how it snaps back to its default view every time you switch from one soldier to another. Other times it actively interferes with your ability to select a particular zone. Sending your team into a medium to large UFO is nothing but an exercise in frustration as you too often have to raise, lower, and rotate the camera every which way to get to a point where you can click where you want to click. Sometimes there is no way to clearly establish where the placement indicator is and you just have to click and hope that just because the ceiling obscures your view that your soldier will still end up where he should. Firaxis needs to address this problem and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

There are other nuisances to be sure, like the frustrating inventory management screen where you outfit your squad for battle. The game’s finale is jarringly scripted and offers a less than satisfying conclusion. And, seriously, why exactly is it I can change the name, ethnicity, and armor colors (with DLC), but not a squaddie’s nationality or gender? Yes, yes, it’s a game about an international organization and it should have soldiers from all over the world. That’s swell and all, but there is absolutely no reason not to let the player make this purely cosmetic choice for themselves.

Yes, these issues do diminish the experience somewhat, but these are largely distractions, blemishes that stand out precisely because the core of the game is so indelibly perfect. As you sit back in your chair wondering if you should direct your science steam to prioritize armor research, or weapons research, or start that alien interrogation; as you make decisions about whether to risk your squaddie’s life to protect a civilian from an approaching chrysalid; as you rank up an experienced team of veterans only to see them picked off one by one over successive missions — these are the critical areas that XCOM had to get right, and it clears the bar with room to spare. This is a game about choice and consequence in which you never stop making choices and the consequences always have weight. When the experience is as good as the one XCOM offers, its few missteps aren’t enough –not nearly enough– to make this anything less than one of my single favorite games of the past five years. Yes, it is that good.

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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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