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Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 22 hours
Buy If You Like: Relatively simple but slick Tactical Sci-Fi games

I do what I want.

It’s the only way to be sure.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the 1990s cult-classic tactical title of the same name. In this game, you take charge of the XCOM project, which is a worldwide military response to what appears to be an alien invasion of Earth. You engage in a series of turn-based tactical battles, which is then broken up by periods of base building and resource management inbetween alien incursions.

Combat is “team turn-based,” which means that you can move all of your own units before giving the floor over to the aliens to do the same. Individual unit turns boil down to “Move + Shoot/Ability,” while trying to make an effort to end your turn next to some cover.  As units earn experience, they gain levels and can unlock new abilities/bonuses in their class’s (limited) talent tree. There are a number of different weapons and armor types available (including special items like Grenades and Medkits), but for the most part they are limited to the class they are designed for.

If this all sounds pretty simple, that is because it is. While XCOM won a number of accolades and serious blogging goodwill for its tactical combat, its primary accomplishment is simply existing as a tactical offering at all in a desert of similar titles. At no particular point did I find myself especially challenged tactically, at least in terms of historical titles like Fallout Tactics, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Suikoden Tactics, and so on. While I did “only” play on Normal Ironman mode (Ironman meaning you cannot reload a saved game to avoid a team member death), I simply do not see enough moving parts to justify some claim to XCOM’s tactical brilliance. In particular, I have a problem with team turn-based gameplay leading to “dogpile tactics” (maneuvering units so as to unload a full turn’s worth of damage without recourse), combined with an enemy that almost always waits patiently for you to discover them before taking any initiative at all. And then there are a few of XCOM’s uniquely questionable design decisions, such as not showing the range on, say, Sniper Rifles.

Kinda overkill, but it looks cool.

Luckily the aliens give you all the time you need to get into position.

Some of the lack of complexity in the tactical segments is made up in the planning stages. Character growth and equipping is straightforward, but trying to juggle base expansion, e.g. building more research centers vs power plants vs ect, with the other demands like satellites for XCOM member states or research into better weapons can get a little dicey. While I got a handle on things by the end of my first playthrough, I was not particularly sure whether the complexity was via the underlying systems or if it were just random chance that, say, China kept getting bombarded by UFOs.

All of this is not to suggest that XCOM is a bad game. It is, in fact, a fun game that I think is an auto-buy at $15 or below. I just want to distance myself from the blogging narrative that XCOM is some kind of superstar in the tactical gameplay arena. It certainly wins the “best tactical game in years” award, but it does so due to an utter lack of competition. If you enjoy this subgenre you will enjoy XCOM, but you will likely find most of your planning taking place outside of the tactical battles rather than in them.

XCOMed

By the time this gets posted, I will probably be done with my first play-through of XCOM: Enemy Within after ~20 hours.

Taking the advice of many others, I started out with Normal Ironman difficulty which turns the game into a sort of roguelike. While I have lost quite a few agents, the majority of them were rookie redshirts I tasked with carrying around the stun gun to take the aliens alive. A sort of morbid hazing ritual, if you will. An unfortunate few were grizzled veterans who got one-shot by new alien types before I had a chance to realize the danger. Or simply victims of poor planning when the only guy with a Medkit is the one bleeding to death. Too bad all the people standing around him cannot, you know, take the Medkit from his pocket and spray him, but I suppose knowledge of medicinal nanomachine application is only imparted at the character select screen.

I always find it interesting how I start developing relationships with the randomly generated characters though. Name, gender, nickname, nationality, and even class are all randomly determined, but you can customize some of those qualities. One stun gun redshirt managed to beat the odds and survive the bagging of two new alien species… and suddenly I am taking Chloe Dupont the saucy German Assault trooper with me everywhere. Mechanically, Chloe is indistinguishable from any of the other max-level Assault troopers, but I have had more fun ordering her watching her aggressively breach UFOs armed with a shotgun and the same stun gun she has carried since her initiation than any of the others. Just yesterday there was a rather hilarious moment when I put her on Overwatch mode, and during the enemy turn one Muton Elite turned a corner only to get an Alloy shot in the face, while a second Muton triggered her auto-reaction shot when it climbed a ladder I didn’t realize she was standing next to. It was practically a scene out of an action movie.

Other times, I sorta feel bad bringing, say, any new sniper because that entire class is cursed. “Sorry, Yoshio Saito of Japan. You’re probably going to die.” Sure enough, that is the mission when the aliens start using grenades, a redshirt bites the dust, my other redshirt panics and, in defiance of his accuracy rate for the entire goddamn mission up to this point, shoots Saito in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Anyway, game is pretty fun thus far and the full review will need to wait until A) I finish, and possibly B) I try out Classic Ironman. The only negative I have is the slight impression that the game isn’t really all that deep for a “tactical” game. A lot of times I feel like I’m playing a turn-based Dawn of War 2, or one of those WW2 squad-based cover games. Also, the game is terrible when it comes to indicating at which locations (and elevations!) you can actually see/shoot at the aliens someone else sees before moving there. If you have already committed your game to having grid-based movement, give me grid-based weapon ranges and Line-of-Sight indicators.

XCOM is no Final Fantasy Tactics, or Tactics Ogre for that matter, but it is pretty good nevertheless.