X-COM: Enemy Unknown Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
A tear was shed today for those who have fallen. Those that despite their courage, strength and valor were taken from us by this new menace. It hurts, but my friends we must stand tall, together we can rise up and face this threat, look them straight in their alien eyes and shout that we can win this battle.
Beyond the obvious strategy elements, X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a game brimming with emotions - whether you are a crusty old-school gamer, overly attached to isometric and pixelated living, screaming at the existence of this modern infidel or simply someone unfamiliar with the game’s heritage. Soldiers trained since your inception as the commander of the X-COM task force set up to counter the alien threat can be felled by one terrible decision in the field. These soldiers whom you can name and customise their appearance become your compatriots and watching them die leaves you screaming at the screen. So, if you really want to ensure complete emotional turmoil, you should play it on the game’s Ironman mode which overwrites the save after every action, ensuring that there is no return, no redemption, just screams.
A bit of history, a bit of context. UFO: Enemy Unknown, known as X-COM: UFO Defense in North America, is a turn-based strategy game released in 1994 for the Amiga and MS-DOS. Its unique blend of turn-based strategy and resource management was met with widespread critical appreciation and has become one of the games that defines PC gaming in the nineties. Spawning two excellent sequels as well as some less welcomed spin-offs it has become a series that still has a huge fan-base some fifteen years since the third game X-COM: Apocalypse, was released. These heaving masses have been watching this reboot by Civilisation developers Firaxis with suspicion and perhaps some unnecessary derision. Here is the quick conclusion for those in such a position: X-COM: Enemy Unknown is not a modern clone of UFO, nor should it be, but that does not preclude it from being a brilliant game in its own right. It may be a strange, distorted, offspring but the result of this mutation is a wonderful strategy game that maintains the essential principles the original upheld and still manages to plough new pastures in a genre that has fallen on barren times in recent years.
A millenia could be spent discussing the minutiæ of differences between this release and its ancestors, but it is the sweeping changes, noticeable from the beginning, that really strike home the game’s redefining intention. The slick tutorial, that gently releases you into the various strategy elements of the game with several in-game set pieces, starkly contrasts with the just do it attitude of the original. Here you are also introduced to your team, a stern German scientist, a morally concerned engineer and your chief military advisor who keeps you up to date with the current planetary situation. This team acts not only as your advisors relating to their field of expertise, but they also provide snippets of conversation relating to the story as it evolves, commenting on the dangers of using such powerful alien technology and theorising why such advanced aliens are invading in the first place.
The refining and rationalisation of the traditional alien invading plot is however a dangerous one. Where the original simply stated aliens are invading - go stop them, X-COM: Enemy Unknown wants the player to become more involved in the plot. The issue here is that it simply does not stack up. Why is an international organisation set up with the sole purpose of countering the alien threat so horrendously underfunded it cannot afford to hire new troops? Why are the task forces that are sent on missions limited to such small numbers? Where are the rest of the world’s armies while this is all taking place? It seems that the developers of X-COM: Enemy Unknown have taken the tongue in cheek plot of the original and tried to polish it into a realistic story without realising the impossibility of the task. These narrative issues may be irrelevant to some players interested only in the strategy element of the game, however those looking for depth and intelligence in the storytelling will find it lacking.
It is on the field of battle though that the game really takes shape. Called out to prevent abductions, investigate a downed UFO or prevent a catastrophe, your team of up to six members must hunt down and exterminate the alien threat. Viewed at a familiar isometric angle with obvious echoes of the original, the camera can also be spun at ninety degree intervals to get full coverage of the battlefield. Gone are the action points of the original which were used to define how far a soldier could move and how many shots they could fire, instead the system has been refined to a simple move and then shoot format. During each turn every soldier (discounting some of the abilities described later) can move a short distance then perform an action, be it shoot, go into overwatch mode or a variety of other abilities or equipment based activity. Overwatch is the replacement of the original’s luck based reaction shot mode, which sees your soldiers firing upon the aliens during their turn if they happen to move into range.
Overwatch is just one of a huge array of seemingly minor refinements that slant the game to a more understandable and thus more mainstream format. Randomness is still a huge element of the game, but instead of the mystical calculations that were hidden away in the original all the statistics are laid out in the open. X-COM: Enemy Unknown will inform you of the percentage chance every shot has of connecting and how much potential damage it may do, and will even provide a breakdown of the calculations if requested, thus giving the player a far greater overview of any situation.
The largest factor when considering the chances of a shot hitting is cover. The cover system turns out to be a genius addition to the game since, not only does it affect every decision made on the field, it also helps to focus the gameplay and alleviate some of the control problems that often reside in strategy games. Controls are satisfyingly responsive and there is surprisingly very little lost in translation between PC and console versions as the cursor locks on to the nearest point of cover ensuring that your commands rarely go errant. The battlefields are often littered with cover and it is essential that you leave some of your soldiers behind at the end of your turn as the aliens will not fail to eliminate anyone left in the open.
The aliens also make use of cover making battles a wonderful game of tactical unit placement. There is an incredible sense of satisfaction when outflanking an enemy and laying rounds into an enemy’s open side. It is a fantastic risk versus reward system since you can never be sure if your own team will end up in a far worse situation themselves. Remember, one foolish move will almost certainly result in a member of your team taking damage and most likely, particularly early on in the campaign, dying.
Missions are shorter and more action packed than those in the original games. This is a combined effect of smaller battlefields and the six unit limit, but also because the game drives you in the direction of any hidden enemies through sounds that give away their approximate position. Usually battles are wrapped up within twenty minutes making the proceedings far more inviting for shorter play sessions and gives the game a more arcade feel. This arcade sense is further emphasised by the movement of the camera which will swing to more dynamic positions to emphasise the action, particularly when shots connect and bodies are ripped apart in a flurry of bullets and gore. It is a far cry from the bizarre spinning deaths of the original.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown also contains elements from modern RPGs with each soldier gaining promotions providing a boost to all their statistics (aim, will, health and defence). After the first promotion they are assigned one of four classes, seemingly at random, which not only defines their progression for the rest of the game (or until they die horribly) but also the type of gun they can carry into battle. Soon they are also randomly generated a nickname which adds to that sense of attachment for each soldier. Each promotion also grants the unit a new ability, ranging from boons to various statistics to extra skills to use in the field. While in some ways it is a shame that units are limited by their classes, when you begin to grasp the interplay between the separate types and their abilities it actually feels refreshing and verging on genius.
Understanding these abilities is the key to survival, particularly later in the game when the aliens start bringing out the more vicious units. The heavy class, for example, carries a machine gun which can suppress enemy units. While not doing any direct damage, this suppression ability limits the aim and movement of the foe and provides the chance for another unit to sneak around their cover, flanking them. When the soldier reaches the top rank of colonel, they become a force to be reckoned with. Insane levels of accuracy, health and a wealth of clever abilities make them almost unstoppable. If anything there may be some balancing issues here - a team of top-level recruits are exponentially more deadly than rookies to the point that it sometimes feels a touch overpowered. That being said silly mistakes, or runs of misfortune, can still easily result in them being cut down in battle, and that kind of loss is extremely hard to bear.
It is possible to claim that most of these changes are slick refinements that focus the strategy elements into a more accessible product, however at the same time some may consider it simplification or worse: dumbing down. Both would have valid points. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the game is the realisation that a vast array of strategies and techniques are simply not possible in X-COM: Enemy Unknown. Inventories for example have been completely stripped back, resulting in the ability to equip units only at the beginning of each mission and no juggling between soldiers is possible. This effectively means if your medic perishes you are left without any aid for the rest of the battle, your other soldiers left only to stare at the equipment hidden in his corpse. Another example of the oppressive feeling of simplification is the lack of free aim, this means enemies’ cover cannot be deliberately destroyed by tactical shots (although sometimes fortunate misses have this effect). It would have added an inviting extra level of depth, if the game let you take full advantage of the destructible and sometimes explosive terrain.
It would be easy to mistake the battlefields of X-COM: Enemy Unknown as randomly generated. The seemingly haphazard arrangement of cars, trees, bins and all manner of potential cover feels like it is created on the fly, however this sentiment turns out to be incorrect as you begin to notice repeated levels creeping into the game. While the locations and types of aliens do change, being presented with an identical arrangement of furnishings feels surreal and strangely disorientating, especially since often they are meant to represent different parts of the planet. It is also disappointing to note that Firaxis have a rather skewed vision of the world with every location feeling particularly American in both climate and culture. Perhaps I am being sceptical, but the innocuous ‘Check for Downloads’ button on the mainscreen suggests to me that the deliberate step away from randomly generated environments of the original series is a direct result of this. I expect we will see DLC battlefields in the near future.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a difficult game. There is certainly no pandering to a casual audience here. Even on the normal difficulty foolish moves will result in deaths and failure is always an immediate threat. Players familiar with the series will more than likely wish to start on the ‘Classic’ difficulty which takes delight in being completely unfair. In this mode the aliens are more accurate, do more damage and dodge more shots. They are effectively better than your soldiers. This means that only clever tactical decisions and utilising each member’s unique abilities can overcome the odds. That heavy sense of desperation and jaw-clenching determination of the original has been thankfully recreated in this release. Those with a complete deathwish can even lift the notch one higher and attempt ‘Impossible’ mode. Be warned though, I failed to even finish the first mission on this difficulty!
An X-COM game should never simply be a turn-based strategy game however. It is the unique blend of the these mechanics with research and resource management that is the real reason behind its success. In X-COM: Enemy Unknown the single base area, where this management takes place, feels slightly underwhelming compared to the rest of the game. Sure it looks pretty, with players able to pan and zoom around to feel more involved in the surroundings, however the whole experience certainly leans to a more simplified style. Most of the familiar systems from the original game feel as if they have been tacked on to satisfy the fans, rather than being fully developed. When the base has to be expanded to provide more facilities,players must dig away underground and the interface here feels rather sloppy. Rather than being a delicate game of space management, it turns into a more frustrating battle to build everything possible and find ways to power them. The same can be said about the system for organising your fleet of interceptors, used to shoot down UFOs, and selling your collected alien wares - less refinement, more unnecessary simplification.
Research is essential for progression. After successfully completing a mission, the soldiers bring back everything left at the scene including alien equipment as well as their corpses. Each discovery opens up a new avenue for research which, once completed, provides anything from new equipment for the troops to new facilities. The UFOpedia, the collection of research notes, is significantly smaller than the original with less emphasis placed on virtually irrelevant topics and instead every completion provides some tangible boon.
At any point in the game, up until its conclusion, there is always a main mission that you must achieve in order to progress the plot and the game always makes it clear what must be achieved. Usually this involves capturing live aliens, researching priority topics or building some equipment. Unlike the original series, where months could go by with seemingly no chance, X-COM: Enemy Unknown gives the player a constant drive and as such the game evolves at a much faster rate. A whole campaign can be completed in thirty or so hours, but I can imagine serious players being able to reduce this time to single figures. However, without ruining anything, the concluding mission is decidedly limp and lets the rest of the game down slightly. Replayability is slightly dented by the repetitive scenarios, but the various difficulty levels and tactics will provide for at least a second run-through.
If that figure seems a little sparse for a strategy game (Civilisation V, for example, has already cleared away well over one hundred hours of my life) then there is a multiplayer element that could provide a satisfying time-sink. This section is strictly limited to one vs one, last man standing scenarios, with players picking a squad of up to six units to face against each other. Squads are selected on a points basis, with superior abilities and equipment costing more, in a similar manner to that of a Warhammer battle. Most of the depth of this mode comes from building the team rather than the on field strategy, as finding a fully functioning side that fits under the points cap can be a challenge. At present however there seems to be some setups that are dominating the multiplayer landscape leading to some rather uninteresting and uninspiring battles between identical teams. Perhaps the most interesting part of multiplayer is the ability to play as the aliens, bringing with it a whole extra area of abilities to learn and utilise in various nefarious ways.
Multiplayer is an entertaining diversion from the main campaign, but I can imagine most players will only dip into it a few times before discarding it. It lacks the depth of other comparable strategy games (admittedly a small list, including Frozen Synapse for example) with only five available maps and the single last man standing mode.
Perhaps Firaxis’ greatest achievement in creating X-COM: Enemy Unknown is that they have managed to update one of the most beloved game series of all time without simply cloning it (if this is what you are looking for, check out the impending Xenonauts). It has made a complicated strategy game make intuitive sense, even on a console, which is remarkable in itself. Fans may wail about all the missing features and lack of complexity, yet X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a wonderful and highly addictive game in its own right. After a few hours of playing most of the changes and refinements begin to make sense and areas that seem lacking can easily be shrugged off. Improvements could certainly be made, particularly in the base and resource management area and randomly generated terrain would have vastly improved replayability, but, in a world where the turn-based strategy games are sparse to the point of non-existence, this entry is extremely welcome. Fans of the original or turn-based strategy in general would do well to pick this up immediately.