Wednesday, 24 June 2015

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Post-Launch Review
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Released: October 2012
Played: 7 hours of Enemy Unknown; Enemy Within complete in 17h


Alien invasion! Humanity's only hope against the overwhelmingly advanced threat is XCOM, a secret organization dedicated to researching and defeating the aliens. XCOM's commander struggles to balance technological and biological research, facility expansion, training and recruitment, and global panic while deploying squads of soldiers to repel attacks and seize research material.

At Launch

XCOM: Enemy Unknown earned average review scores of 89%. Reviewers called it an excellent series reboot, praising the depth and difficulty and hailing it as an instant classic and one of the best strategy games available.

Post Launch

Several bug fixes were released, as well as a minor free content patch adding new gameplay tweaks.
The Elite Soldier Pack adds armour models and colour options to customize your soldiers.
The Slingshot Pack adds a new unique soldier and three linked story missions.
The expansion Enemy Within adds a large array of new soldiers, missions, enemies, resources, and upgrades to the base game.

I'm not very good at strategy games - my "tactics" usually consist of "have more stuff than the other guy", and I'm not the most patient or cautious player. That, combined with not having played many strategy games, led me to decide that I'd try the base game to learn how it works before playing with all the expansion's features.

It was a good idea. I started on the default difficulty setting. I'd been told I should focus on launching satellites, so I tried, but I struggled to balance that and making sure my soldiers were well-equipped for the battlefield. For hours, things seemed to be going pretty well.
Then I ran into my first terror mission and it was a bit of a brick wall. My entire 6-soldier squad of my very best got completely wiped out and I lost an important country to panic. I couldn't deal with the huge number of chrysalids and zombies and they overran my soldiers. At this point I thought I'd pretty much lost the game, but since I was planning on starting over with the expansion anyway, I pressed on for a few more hours. Those next few hours taught me that XCOM is challenging, that you're going to suffer losses, and you'll have to deal with the consequences - which makes it much more interesting than just rolling through victory after victory! You'll probably find, as I did, that you get attached to some of your soldiers. I had a Canadian heavy that I took through the whole game, and the only time in 24 hours of gameplay that I reverted to a save instead of dealing with the consequences was when I lost her. She was my MVP, dammit, I needed her to make it to the end! (and it was a fantastic bonus that she turned out to be psychic, too)
That said, I did tone it down to easy mode for Enemy Within, which may have been a mistake. Or may not. I've had this problem with strategy games for some time now where normal mode is often too hard for me, but easy mode is too easy. That showed up here too - I crushed the final missions easily on easy, but on normal I lost a full squad in a decisive loss. But oh well, I'm supposed to be talking about the game.

Enemy Within adds a ton of great stuff. There's a new resource - Meld - which you can capture during missions, and is used to genetically enhance soldiers or to turn them into cyborg mech badasses. I actually felt bad on my first mech upgrade, though - apparently I hadn't read closely enough, so I ran the procedure, and the game told me that the removal of the subject's arms and legs and many of their internals really helps that robot battlesuit. Whoops, sorry guys. The expansion also sprinkles in some new missions here and there, re-adds a surprise defense mission, and adds as a second threat - Exalt, a rival organization working to sabotage XCOM. Exalt is neat since you can attempt a raid on the HQ before you've gathered enough intel, but if you accuse the wrong country, they'll pull out of XCOM. But the longer you let Exalt operate, the more they'll hinder your efforts.
Gameplay is split into two parts. Half occurs in the XCOM base where you conduct research, recruit and equip soldiers, build new facilities, buy gear, manage global panic, and monitor alien activity. I enjoy a good build/upgrade component in games, and the base management in XCOM is great. You have to make some hard choices in prioritization - each project costs some amount of cash, resources, and time. Maybe you need to upgrade your armour to increase your soldiers' survivability, but can you afford to spend the cash on equipment when you really need to build some more satellite facilities, or finish the armour research before the next attack hits? The pressure can be crazy since you never know when you'll be hit with another attack or assignment, and you can't prepare everything you want before the next mission starts.
The other half of gameplay is a squad-based tactical wargame, where you send your customized squad into battle to fend off attacks, rescue civilians, capture specimens, or investigate alien tech. There are a few technical issues with line of sight here, the most noticeable and annoying being stairs and ramps where a soldier can't see the alien literally a step above them. But for such an apparently simple system, there's a lot of depth. Each soldier has few options in the beginning, but soldiers who make it back from a mission can level up and earn new abilities - some passive, some active - which increase your strategic options. You can build each of the four classes in different ways such that two Assaults play very differently from each other (though it seems there's little reason to do anything but a medic build with the Support class). Though, again, there's a minor problem here - classes are assigned at random so you can find yourself with too few Heavies or too many Snipers.
As a side note, I was really impressed with the number of cosmetic customizations and gameplay tweaks with all DLC installed. You can make every soldier look and sound unique, especially with Enemy Within's language packs that let you assign different languages to your soldiers (for example, my Canadian heavy Sophie Fournier should obviously speak French, so I set it as her language). The gameplay tweaks allow you to make the game easier, harder, or more random in a variety of interesting ways. I didn't mess with them, but you can do stuff like guaranteed crits when flanking, random stat boosts on level up, require interrogation of a psychic alien to unlock psychic ability, or stretch out game length.
So, should you play XCOM? Yes, absolutely - and do it with the expansion. XCOM manages to mix squad-based tactics and a building sim in a way that doesn't just work, but feels fantastic (and it'd actually be a solid format for a Pacific Rim game). The scope and complexity are huge without ever feeling overwhelming, and you'll be faced with lots of tough but intriguing options and dilemmas. You'll get attached to your base and your soldiers, but don't be tempted to constantly load saves and shoot for a perfect run - dealing with big risks and challenges and setbacks are a huge part of what makes the game interesting. And it's also highly replayable with randomized missions and events, and a huge pool of maps.

Recommendation: play it with all DLC.

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