Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown (PC)

Firstly I have not had the pleasure of playing the original UFO games from Microprose back in 1994.  I watched a friend play them a lot and I could see that they rewarded strategic play and massive amounts of micromanagement, but also they held nothing back on the player.  It was a fact that more often than not you would lose a game of UFO or X-COM several times before you ever got close to defeating the alien menace.  The original has been including on nearly every list of top games of all time and is greatly loved by those gamers who nervously scoured a crashed alien spacecraft knowing that any second their squad could be cut down by alien laser fire from the shadows.

I take it as a benefit to not have to compare the latest entry in the franchise from Firaxis to its titan of a predecessor.  XCOM is not a true sequel or remake of the classic, instead going for a more streamlined experience that carries that same feeling and difficulty of the original.  As such I feel many fans of the original have unfairly compared it to X-COM and allowed that to sour their experience of a game that only has good intentions.

The antfarm style base isn't to everyone's liking but it works
So down to the basics.  XCOM Enemy Unknown is a isometric turn based strategy game that puts players in the shoes of "the commander" a man or woman selected by the shadowy council of nations to defend earth from alien invaders using the resources of the top secret XCOM project.  As commander you will be responsible for what research projects are given the go ahead, building equipment for your agents, dispatching interceptors and building new facilities to expand your base.  Your other duties as commander involve you leading your troops during missions to eliminate the alien threat.

Essentially the game is in two halves.  The base management is full of far reaching decisions that can drastically alter the fate of your troops in combat.  You only have limited resources and far too many things to spend these on.  Do you focus on improving your weapons at the cost of body armour, upgrade your interceptors at the cost of fewer satellites, build more laboratory's to increase research rates but have less engineers to build equipment faster.  Even the mission selection has you making tough choices since you can only choose one abduction site to respond to at the cost of increased panic in those countries you leave to fend for themselves.

Constant research is a must to succeed
Panic is a difficult thing to manage in game.  As countries suffer attacks from alien forces the nations panic level rises and if it is allowed to reach maximum then they withdraw their support from the project.  Losing a country means less monthly income and lose too many nations and the game ends in failure.  Panic can be reduced by responding to abduction events, terror events and special missions from the council.  Launching satellites will help bring in more cash and allow you to detect UFO's over their country which can help reduce panic also.

The base section alone has plenty of options to play around with.  Upgrading soldiers via the officer training school can increase squad sizes, increase their experience gain and improve their starting rank.  The foundry allows you to improve your weaponry, build unmanned drones which can replace an injured squad member, construct new armour and weapons, improve fighters and satellites and even mount new weapons.  Research can unlock more items and new gadgets for the squad and research is improved by performing autopsy's, interrogating captured aliens and studying recovered equipment.  Capturing aliens will be your biggest font of knowledge as these unlock some of the more powerful items for construction.

Intercepting UFO's is a key part of acquiring new equipment which plays as a sort of bare bones arcade game.  Your fighter will attack the UFO while it defends itself which is all random and the only input you have is to abort the attack or if you have researched and bought some, activate targeting boosters so you can hit more often of dodge attacks.  Its probably the weakest part of the base management part of XCOM but it could be improved in the future.

Sectoids are the first enemy encountered but tougher ones follow
The other part of XCOM is the tactical combat section.  Responding to alien abductions or going on missions to take the fight to them involved picking your squad (upto a maximum of 6) and customising their loadout and physical appearance before taking off in the skyranger.  You get a briefing and loading screen in the skyranger as it shows your squad mentally preparing for the fight ahead.

Soldiers come in four flavours.  Assaults are run and gun specialists who favour shotguns and assault rifles.  They have abilities that allow them to avoid fire and take multiple shots per turn.  Heavy soldiers wield large LMG's and utilise rocket launchers and suppresive fire to support the squad.  Support soldiers can deploy smokescreens and have multiple uses of medikits to keep the team going.  Lastly you have the sniper who is deadly at range, but needs close support when aliens get too close.  Technically there is a fifth class in the rookie but upon surviving their first mission they gain a class anyway.

The combat in game is taken in turns between your troops and then the aliens.  Movement is broken down into a grid and units can utilise cover in the enviroment to reduce incoming fire.  The terrain is largely destructible as weapons fire can break down walls and knee high cover, while explosives will create new entry points into buildings and do massive damage to bunched up enemies.  The levels allow you to scale smaller buildings to gain a height advantage which needs to be taken into account when fighting foes who move very quickly such as Thin Men.

New armour types open up new strategies
Combat uses line of sight and percentage hit rates based on numerous factors such as the experience, skill, weapon, cover and will of the firing unit to determine if your shots hit.  Some equipment can improve your to hit chance while others improve defence and hitpoints.  Expect soldiers to die though as XCOM is unforgiving as hell.  Make a mistake and the game will punish you for it, my first loss was my Nigerian assault trooper who had earned the nickname "lightning".  I moved him forward to scout the enemy while attacking an underground base.  As he peered over the wall he spotted three Crysallids who promptly swarmed him and murdered his ass.  Then to add insult to injury they laid an egg inside him which raised him as a zombie which I had to put down the next turn.

XCOM is made of these moments really.  Victory by the skin of your teeth, the sting of losing your best heavy to a Muton attack or the bitterness of failure as a squad gets cutdown by the superior alien technology deployed against them.  The game does suffer a few problems though such as walls be visible but the game not counting them as being there so you can shoot through them.  Bizarre hit rates that somehow miss, an example being snipers missing at point blank range with a 100% hit chance.  Other minor gripes are the lack of accents for troops not from north america, creating humorous scenarios where your Egyptian support trooper will shout "ooorah" after killing a sectoid.  Squad sizes could be a little bigger and loadouts could be a little bigger but overall these are minor issues which can either be patched or improved with DLC or user mods in the future.

Laser fire lights up the maps beautifully in a life or death kind of way
There is a multiplayer mode to XCOM which plays in a points based squad battle between two players.  This allows you to play around with the alien forces and create mixed human and alien squads, but really the mode isn't that great compared to the singleplayer.  It may have been cooler to allow cooperative play through the campaign or scenarios which again may be added in the near future.

Graphically XCOM uses a cartoonish chunky styling for its characters.  It works pretty well and isn't a massive drain on GPU resources.  Weapons are large and chunky but still look cool while the aliens themselves are all well designed updates of the original X-COM forces.  Levels are varied enough with some great lighting and shading effects from fire and alien lighting such as consoles.

The sound aside from the aforementioned accents is pretty good.  The alien invaders sound otherwordly with their unique screeches, hissing, roars and ethereal sounds.  Weapons are loud and powerful sounding that you could believe that when that Sectoid gets hit it definitely felt it.  The music score is suitably atmospheric for the tense moments before making contact, ramping up into sci-fi combat beats when the plasma bolts start flying.

Overall XCOM Enemy Unknown is one of those truly awesome games that only come around once in a blue moon.  Yes it isn't the same kind of game as its predecessor but it still does a damn good job of bringing the fear to a new generation of XCOM operatives.

SCORE 10/10 - Buy this game it deserves the sales and the developers deserve the support.


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