Terror From The Skies! XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3
As a 30-something year-old gamer, I’ve had a chance to play a lot of games on different platforms over the years. XCOM was a game that stuck in my memory as one of the most frustrating and most challenging games that I’ve ever come across. Hundreds of hours were spent building facilities, researching technologies, and assaulting endless waves of enemy extraterrestrials in hometowns around the world, only to have it quickly undone by countries losing faith in my abilities, government officials being replaced by alien duplicates, or some other mishap that ruined my funding and forced me to start a new game. But when I did things just right and managed to fight off the aliens and drive them back to their home world, there was no match for the sense of satisfaction that I felt, which is exactly the same feeling that I got when I played 2K Games wholly revamped XCOM: Enemy Unknown!
Developed by Firaxis (creators of Sid Meier’s everything since 1997), the 2012 release contains just about every major feature that was in the original 1994 turn-based strategy game, with a few extras. The story is simple: You are the commander of an elite organization known as XCOM. Tasked with the defense of Earth’s nations from an invading alien force, you will deploy troops into the field to fight off alien attacks, manage the construction of new facilities in your bases, oversee the development of new technologies and research based off of recovered alien artifacts, and try to bring every trooper under your command home safely.
Unlike many modern games, your actions in everything you do have very real consequences. Mismanaging your funds or failing to research the right technologies can leave you with insufficient resources/weapons to combat the growing alien threat. Ignoring the needs of a member country can cause them to leave the global alliance which funds you, and subsequently bring down the amount of dollars that you receive monthly to maintain operations. Each mistake can slowly add up to the point where no matter what you do, you will fail, forcing you to start a new game from the beginning, regardless of the number of hours you spent building your organization from the ground up. However, before you start to think about how fun that doesn’t sound, allow me to explain exactly why this game will keep you on the edge of your seat for hours.
Like its predecessor, having a good strategy, managing your resources, and thinking ahead are all key to winning in XCOM. Your three primary resources in the game are Scientists, Engineers, and Soldiers. Each of these resources has a symbiotic relationship with the other. For example, Scientists rely on Soldiers to bring them artifacts for study, while the Engineers rely on the Scientists to research technology in order to design new equipment, which the Soldiers rely on to survive in the field while battling aliens and retrieving artifacts for Scientists. In order for each department to do their job effectively, you, as the base commander, need to manage those resources to ensure that a consistent flow of work is moving along. As technologies become more advanced, they begin to require more manpower, and subsequently, additional facilities such as laboratories and workshops need to be built-in your base to make way for additional personnel.
In order to satisfy your scientists, you’ll need to research items and specimens brought back from your outings with the alien invaders. Alien alloys, weapons technology, corpses, and even live specimens will be necessary to further advance the strength of your forces in the long run. The speed (which is measured in days) at which your scientists research a given item is entirely dependent on how many laboratories and scientists you have. Technology credits can also be acquired by capturing live aliens and learning what they know. These credits give you an additional speed boost in learning a specific technology. Once a technology has been researched, it can be taken to the engineers that will build whatever items the research has unlocked using materials gathered from your exploits, and of course, a little cash.
Engineers not only construct the weapons and armor for your troops, but they also develop the base facilities as well. This is done in the Build Facilities menu under the Engineering option. A grid will be laid out before you showing you your already existing facilities, as well as areas that can be excavated to make room for more add-ons such as Satellite Uplink stations, Workshops, Alien Containment, similar to that of the original game. Once you’ve selected a facility and placed it on the map, it’ll take a number of days to complete depending on how many engineers and workshops you have.
Of course, your soldiers are the backbone of your operations, and require not only the best equipment that you can research, but training as well. When your soldiers start out, they do so at the Rookie level. As they gain more battle experience, the soldiers will begin to start moving up in rank, unlocking bonuses and abilities that are dependent on what class they’re designated after their first mission. The four classes available are Heavy, Sniper, Support, and Assault. Each class carries its advantages and disadvantages: The Heavy class is able to use heavy weapons and rocket launchers; however, they aren’t able to move as far as most other soldiers. The Sniper has the advantage of longer range, but can’t attack once they’ve moved. Support class act as your medics in the field, capable of distributing med-packs as well as providing a support role by using smoke grenades to obscure an alien’s view from a potential target. Support units can also use assault weapons in a pinch and are able to move farther than your other units. Finally, your Assault class is your general grunt capable of using assault weapons and shotguns. They also have the ‘Run and Gun’ ability that allows them to take an additional move and still be able to fire in a given turn; however, this ability has a two-turn cool down time.
Classes and RPG elements such as earning experience and selecting perks and abilities is something that’s new from the original XCOM experience, and it is a welcome one. By having a clear definition of character roles, it allows you to create well-balanced teams without having to read up on character statistics to figure out what weapons are best suited for them. Furthermore, the addition of perks and abilities that are unlocked as a soldier ranks up allows you to create some additional diversity in your teams.
The revamped XCOM also introduces an incentive/reward system for utilizing your characters and keeping them alive; whereas in the original game, the benefits of ranking up a character were less obvious, making them mostly fodder. When a solider is killed in action, it’s both disappointing and frustrating having lost the time and effort that you invested in them, but by putting a real value on your soldiers you’ll be more mindful of using tactics and strategies to keep them alive. This also motivates you to keep a running rotation of soldiers going through the game, giving as many of them as much experience as possible. Gamers will likely make a grave mistake of relying too heavily on the same group of soldiers early on to get them leveled up, leaving the rest of your squads at the lower ranking Rookie and Squaddie levels. In doing so, you run the risk of having to use lesser experienced soldiers later in the game if a good chunk of your veteran squad is wiped out. Be mindful of this and make sure that you lay out your teams to include both higher ranking soldiers and lower level ones so that everyone is getting some fight time in. The last thing you want is some low-level rookie going up against a Sectoid Commander or a Chryssalid and being turned against you.
With your engineers and scientists busy, and your soldiers at the ready, it’s time to start scanning for trouble in the Geoscape. The Geoscape is a world map located in Mission Control where you’ll scan for abductions, UFOs, and pass time waiting for items to be researched or facilities to be built. Scanning for alien activity speeds up the clock (which is otherwise run in real-time) so you don’t have to wait long between events. When an event occurs, you’ll either launch interceptors to take down a UFO in transit, or dispatch your squad on a mission. Usually, you’re given a choice of one of three locations (each in a different country) to send your troops in the Geoscape view.
The reward for a successful mission on the site you choose is that it will reduce the panic level of the representative country; however, the other two sites that you passed by will increase in their panic level. If the panic level of a country becomes too high, they will pull themselves from the XCOM project and you will lose their funding. Maintaining balance between what countries you defend and which ones you let go can become quite tumultuous if you let it get to you. The best way to approach this is keeping an eye on the cashflow: whichever country is giving you the most gets the priority. You’ll have to come to terms early on with the fact that you’re going to lose countries throughout the game, and you can’t save them all until you destroy the enemy outright, so it’s best to hold on to as much of your funding as you can for as long as possible. With that said, you’ve now got boots on the ground, so let’s go to battle!
The battle scenarios for XCOM: Enemy Unknown are varied to keep things from getting too monotonous, which was definitely a problem in the previous titles. The Alien Abduction scenario is essentially your traditional ground battle to eliminate the enemy forces in sparsely populated locations, whereas Terror scenarios take place in major urban centers. Terror scenarios are more difficult in that you have to be mindful of civilian casualties, so firing off a rocket launcher on all four corners of the map is probably not the best idea. If too many civilians in a scenario are killed by aliens or friendly fire, you’ll lose the mission. You can save civilians by approaching them, which will prompt them to leave the map; however, you’ll find that going out of your way to try to save them all instead of taking the fight directly to the enemy can actually be more of a problem as you may spread your squad too thin, or run the risk of the aliens getting the drop on you. You’ll run into ambushes often enough that you don’t really want to go out of your way to give the aliens time to set one up.
Bomb Defusal is another scenario that you’ll run into as well. This objective-based scenario is fairly straightforward as you need to find and defuse a bomb that’s been placed in the zone. Energy nodes are placed around the map that feed energy to the bomb. These nodes can be disabled to allow you more turns to locate the explosive and take it out of commission. If the counter reaches zero, your squad and everything around it go boom! At the end of a mission, you are typically rewarded with resources such as a number of scientists or engineers, a ranked solder, or cash, depending on which location you selected.
Combat in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is turn-based. Typically, two movements are available to each soldier on the field. You can either use your turn to move to a position and fire, or move twice. Certain perks such as the aforementioned ‘Run and Gun’ can allow you to make three movements. If you attack on your first movement, you will generally end that soldier’s turn (unless of course they have a perk to allow an action after attacking).
While you can move your soldiers out in the open, the best thing you can do is find cover. Any spot on a map that can block the enemies’ view (such as guard rails, cars, bookshelves, etc.) will have a transparent shield in front of it. A half-full shield indicates that your soldier will only be partially obstructed from that particular direction, while a full shield indicates that you will be completely obstructed from a combatant’s point of view. When you move the cursor to a location that has cover, it automatically snaps to that position and the shield becomes illuminated so you know that the soldier will stand exactly in that spot. The effectiveness of cover does change depending on the elevation of the enemy’s position, so be wary.
If an alien is in your field of view, a red indicator of an alien’s head will be displayed in the screen’s upper left corner. If multiple targets are in your field of view, you’ll see an indicator for each one. Once you’ve moved to your desired position, pulling the left trigger will put you into a combat mode where the point of view will change from the isometric position to a third-person perspective with the closest target selected. Using the left and right shoulder buttons will change the selected target if multiple ones are available. On the bottom of the screen, a hit percentage will be displayed to let you know the likelihood that your shot will connect. This percentage is based on the soldier’s stats, range-to-target, and whether or not they are in cover themselves. Depending on your soldier’s class, rank, equipment, and what perks you’ve selected, different attacks may be available to you. It’ll be up to you as the player to pick what you think is best suited for the given situation.
This new point-of-view mechanic for combat works exceptionally well over the previous game where the view was always in the 2.5D isometric view. It allows you to scan the area and pick your targets more quickly instead of having to scroll around the map, or click on the enemy indicator. It also gives you the perspective from the soldier’s standpoint to allow you to see exactly how effective the cover you’ve chosen really is.
One thing that was carried over from the original 1994 game is randomly generated and destructible environments. Objects such as walls, floors, cars, and just about anything else in the game can be destroyed. The advantage to this is that if you have a well-entrenched enemy that you can’t get a bead on, you can consider blasting whatever obstruction they’re hiding behind to pieces; the disadvantage, of course, is that your enemies can do the same.
The enemy AI in XCOM: EU is something of a marvel, which is both good and bad. Enemies typically behave with a squad mentality, often trying to flank or out-maneuver you to gain a tactical advantage, making combat akin to a game of chess, where you must think ahead of your enemy to gain the advantage. There are times, however, where I’ve found my squad was the victim of an all-out ambush, with enemies moving in from all sides while my team members were left exposed with little to no cover. This usually happens, it seems, when the game feels that you are not moving forward in the campaign fast enough (by not researching the necessary storyline related materials or ignoring campaign specific objectives). It’s in these cases that remembering to save often before leaving on a mission is absolutely vital, lest you find yourself bringing home a squad full of body bags.
To exacerbate matters, the game escalates your encounters accordingly based on what technologies you’re researching. If you research Laser Rifles, you start running into Chryssalids; if you research Plasma Rifles to counter the Chryssalids, then Cyberdisks start to appear. Every choice you make has its consequences, including what you research. So be prepared to escalate right back! Eventually, the game starts throwing massive amounts of enemies at you in larger ships, and you had definitely better be on your A-game when it happens!
From a gameplay perspective, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is virtually unchanged from its predecessor, although the game has received some substantial upgrades in terms of graphics and design. The graphics look great with the character models updated for a modern look, while managing to pay homage to the original character models of 1994. This is most evident in the alien designs, with all of your favorite creatures returning from the old game with a couple of additions thrown in. While the game looks great, it does suffer from some graphical glitching that takes place. Most glaring of these is the occasional issue where an alien will get stuck inside of a wall out of harms reach. Unfortunately, that also means that you’ll be unable to kill the baddie and have to restart the mission; hope you saved! Another issue seems to occur, rather frequently, when one of your soldiers is attacking in close quarters: oftentimes the animation goes wonky where the soldier fires in the exact opposite direction that they’re looking. The hit still connects, but it is kind of weird watching them shoot themselves through the gut to make the kill.
Another feature that wasn’t in the original is Multiplayer, and combat works essentially the same way that it does in a normal mission. Key differences include a timer for taking turns so you don’t have to wait while your opponent decides to make a sandwich mid-match and being able to assemble your squad from both aliens and soldiers. All special abilities — including the ones that the aliens use against you in the campaign — are available in matchmaking. Five maps are available including a Police Station level and the Grand Cemetery level, which are my two top favorites. Points are used in constructing your team and purchasing weapons, armor, and upgrades. The points can be limited to a specific amount while configuring the game, or no point limit can be set, allowing players to build whatever they want. Obviously, the more powerful of a soldier/alien or equipment, the more expensive it will be to purchase. Regardless of your progress in the single-player mode, all upgrades are available in the multi-player.
The addition of Multiplayer matchmaking in XCOM was something that I was initially apprehensive about, considering that the game has always been played solo. However, I found my time in the multiplayer to be rather enjoyable, equating it to something along the lines of chess with aliens and big freaking guns. In some ways, the game was more enjoyable than the Single-player mode in that dealing with a human opponent is often far more unpredictable than a computer.
Overall, XCOM: Enemy Unknown goes right back to the cult-classic game that started it all and transports it straight into the modern-day. Every enhancement to the gameplay improves on the original formula to make for an even better game than the initial release. While there are the occasional graphical bugs that force resets and otherwise look odd, the game is simply phenomenal. If you’ve been on the fence about this title, you’re most certainly missing out on one hell of a good time.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown receives a 4.5/5.0.
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