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Michael Graening's blog

11:15 AM on 11.06.2012

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unkown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a recent game published by 2k Studios developed by Firaxis studios. Firaxis is more well known for their work on the Civilization team, another high quality title from the team. XCOM: Enemy Unkown is not quite a remake and not quite a reboot, officially a “re-imagining” of the original XCOM series. Whatever you may call it, it’s a quality title.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a Strategy Role Playing game, a series that’s lately been regulated to handheld titles. While the games offered are without question good titles it’s a genre that hasn’t really hit on the modern console or PC experience. XCOM: Enemy Unknown changes all of that as it’s available for the PS3, 360, and of course PC. SRPG are typically turn based games that take place on a battle field consisting of a collection of squares/titles to deterimine where units can go and how far they can move. XCOM: Enemy Unknown continues with this basic model. You will begin the game with a team of 4 soldiers, eventually you can up to 6 soldiers. While this number feels small, and is, it forces you to make choices into what your starting composition will be. Each soldier will gain one of four “specialties”, being Sniper, Assault, Heavy, and Support. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses and more importantly, their own skill tree to select from as your squad earns promotions.

Due to the difficulty to raise a soldier to a high ranking, it makes the importance of keeping your soldiers alive that much more important. A factor that is largely lost to modern games is, your squad can die in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. When they die, that’s it, there is no resurrect or magic or game play mechanic to bring them back. This concept at the core is what drives XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While there is it’s own storyline that plays out, it’s largely a background to the story you’ll create with your squad. In the game you can change the name of your squad, so you can name them after loved ones, friends, family, celebrities, or whatever your mind can think of. Allowing you to create a degree of personal connection to them. You don’t just want to keep your Assault soldier alive because he’s reached the Major Rank, you want to keep him alive because he’s your best friend. These self created storylines add an extra layer to the game. While certainly not required to make the game enjoyable, they add that extra layer.

In order to level your characters you need to kill Aliens during the missions. This is relatively straight forward, move to a position to have a line of sight on the alien then issue some form of an attack command. Be it a standard attack from your equipped weapon or a special ability opened up by your class or secondary equipment. Your main weapon will have a core chance to hit that is alterted slightly by the attributes of the soldier attacking but more so by the cover an alien has and if you are flanking the alien. This also applies to when Aliens attempt to attack you. Meaning if you want to keep your team alive you need to avoid being flanked and maintain keeping cover. As you play on harder difficulties, the more defensive you will want to strive to be to keep your squad alive.

Combat takes place by “XCOM” and Aliens taking turns having their move turns. On your turn you can issue commands to your soldiers. In general you get two actions per soldier. A soldier can move and fire or move and throw a grenade or move twice. Without specific skills from leveling you can’t attack then move, so attacking ends that soldiers turn. Snipers also have their own change in that a sniper can’t move and fire their sniper rifle on the same turn without a specific upgrade. Likewise a Heavy soldier has the option to attack with a rocket that deals damage in a large AOE, this can also only be done prior to moving and consumes both move commands. Due to the Fog of War, where you can’t see the entire map at once. You’re rarely want to use both move commands to rush into the unkown. As this risk leaving your soldier unable to either run back to friendlies, fire to kill an alien, or set to “Overwatch” where they can trigger an attack on an Alien that attempts to move to try to get into better position.

While XCOM doesn’t over a great deal of depth to strategy compared to some other SRPGS, as there is no combo system to try to pair up with your soldiers to do additional damage. The basic mechanics of establish cover and punishing Rambo like behaviors of charging ahead prevents the game from being to easy. Even the most defensive of players is sooner or later going to have to take a calculated risk or fall victom to a attack with a 80% chance to hit failing to hit. The random chance will keep you and your squad on your toes as you a try to keep your soldier alive.

Outside of the direct combat of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is base management. Between missions you will have to control your base. You begin with a fairly small bass with just a few key facilities and a satellite over your a country in your starting destination. Satellites are a key component to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Not only do they provide vision over the region you launch them over, allowing you to stop more Alien attacks. They also the only way to increase your monthly income. Launching a Satellite over a region will give you a monthly allowance as long as you can keep the country feeling safe. The amount of Satellites you can have is limited based on the buildings and positioning of the buildings in your base. So you have to find a balance in how to spend your money, spending it to increase monthly revenue as well as spending it to make your soldiers stronger as the Aliens send out more powerful opponents. Doing everything correctly will help you keep the “panic” level down. If a single region Panic reaches to high of a level, most commonly by you not taking missions in their area as you will often be forced to select one mission between multiple regions. Completing the mission in the region you select will reduce panic there, but can raise panic in the other regions. Some missions can reduce panic globally and some can reduce panic across an entire continent, while others only impact a specific country. If any country pulls out of XCOM due to high panic, you will not be able to get any benefits from them. Most notably in income, but also in contributions of engineers and Scientist as well. Balancing how to spend your money, and time, is a difficult task to master in your first play through.

As good as the core of the game is though, there are a few issues that hold the game back. These show up primarily during combat. Like most SRPGS their is high and low ground, however the games engine sometimes struggles to understand when you want high ground and when you want low ground. Forcing you to try to mess with the UI a little to make sure you end up where you want. It also allows you to enter buildings in some missions and the camera attempts to make the ceiling and walls transparent so you can see inside once you enter a building. In general this works fine, but occasionally it struggles and won’t make it transparent and block off your view making it difficult to get into the position that you want. Again, you can try to manipulate the UI a little to help solve this and typically will work. But these little hiccups do become annoyances, but they don’t take away the countless things the game has done well. Outside of gameplay, the customization options are fairly limited. You can change the First and Last name of a soldier. You can cycle through a few head styles, a few hair colors, skin color, but the choices are fairly limiting. And there is no option to change body style. All the males are are large men while all the females are quite petite. You also, somewhat understandably from a “game” perspective, can’t change Gender or nationality of the recruited soldiers. It would be nice to be able to have some way to recruit specifically what you want, i.e. say you want to recruit a Male soldier from Germany instead of just getting a random lump of recruits and hoping one fits your desires. It would also be nice to see some more Armor coloring options, in particular offering some camouflage options.

Graphics: 7/10 graphically, this game won’t do much as a modern game. It has a nice art style, it’s dark but not so dark that everything blends together. The Aliens have nice looks and nice animations.

Sound: 7/10 the voice acting is nothing great and soldiers only have a few phrases, the music score is okay but nothing stands out that much. It’s ultimately not memorable, neither great not terrible

Gameplay: 9/10 it’s a very fun SRPG. The base section allows for some replay-ability option by letting you choose to focus on different aspects at different times. Be it trying to rush to get a powerful weapon, setting up satellites quickly, or trying to get powerful armor for your soldiers to keep them alive.

Mike Factor: 8/10 XCOM: Enemy Unknown is just a very fun game. It does very little wrong and does a lot right. A fairly simple combat engine, the incentive of keeping soldiers alive, and the base options allows each game to have it’s own unique twist to the overall game. It’s simplicity can become a bit of a drag, as it doesn’t have the complex natures many SRPGs have and with only four soldier classes there isn’t a great deal of variety. However these are issues that should Firaxis and 2k choose, can be fixed with DLC or an expansion pack. And even without them, they won’t stop you from getting an enjoyable 20-30 hours of the game.   read

11:13 AM on 11.06.2012

Review: Star Wars: The Old Republic post patch 1.3

Let me preface this review by letting you know the type of MMO player I am. I’m a PvE player who enjoys CO-OP play, but I do play on PvP servers. I fall somewhere in between casual and hardcore raider. PvP is a fun diversion here and there, but ultimately something I don’t care about. If you’re a hardcore PvP player, I can’t give you much insight. If you’re a dedicated end game raider, I don’t have that level of dedication. Secondly this is a review based after the 1.3 patch. With that out of the way we’ll move on to the review.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (ToR) is an MMO based on Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic franchise. The Story takes place about 300 years after KoToRII. While it’s not critical to play either of the other games, playing them will help you understand the importance of some events, references, and characters. Plus they’re individually great games, but that’s not relevant. At its core ToR does little to change the fundamental aspects of MMO’s in the post World of Warcraft world. You’ll have your series of Hotbars filled with skills that share a global cool down and many have individual cool downs. Skills have a range of activations times from instant, to a “pre-cast” charge, or a channeled spell. It does all this fairly well and clean, it can be a bit overwhelming if you aren’t used to MMO games, but through the course of leveling a character you’ll get used to it. What does separate ToR from the rest of the MMO’s beyond the Star Wars license is the Voice Acting and Bioware’s conversation system. Almost every line of dialogue is voice acted. While quests may still be kill 12 whomp rats and collect 20 thing-ma-jigs, adding the Voice Acting breathes life into the quest. They feel less mundane and gain that little extra purpose. The Conversation system is like it is in Bioware’s other games; it allows you to tweak your character towards the personality you want. While like in Bioware’s other games the change isn’t great in terms of how it progresses the story you’ll still end up at the same key points, but it can alter how you get to them slightly. These combine into making general questing to be a bit more fun than in other MMO’s for your first character, however when you roll new characters you’ll find yourself pushing spacebar often to skip the conversations and speed up the process.

Getting into the classes, ToR follows the “Holy-trinity” of RPGs, DPS, Tank, and Healer. Both Republic and Imperial have 4 classes each with 2 “advanced” classes that alter what skill trees you have access to you. While Republic and Imperial classes are visually different and have different names they are effectively mirrors of each other. A Sith Warrior will have the same skill tree as a Jedi Warrior, but they’ll have different animations to go with them. Most of the classes depending on which skill tree you follow can fulfill any of the roles in the holy-trinity. So you can look how you want as well as well as play the role you want. While the only classes I leveled past level 30 have been .Imperial Bounty Hunter and a Jedi Sage, I have played each class and each one is fun in their own way. Each class also has their own unique class story that ties into the overarching story of ToR. While each story is good, the general consensus is that the Jedi Knight and Imperial Agent have the two best stories.

Once you get ready to begin the actual game with your Class picked you’ll be dropped into a starter world based on your class. These serve as nice tutorials to getting into the game and introducing you to the Universe as it stands in the game. These will end with you getting your first Customizable weapon and getting your first companion. Companions are becoming the new staple in MMO’s, they are AI controlled characters that will fight alongside your player allowing for faster single player progression. However you can use your companion if you’re teamed up with one or two other people. The Maximum party size is 4 and a companion counts towards that limit. While you can extend the party size by creating an “operation group” companions are not allowed in those. In addition to aiding in fights, companions server two other roles. One is being your “friend”, when you make your choices in the conversation system choosing things will raise or lower your affection with your active companion. For some companions this can lead to a romance option, for every companion this feeds into that second role, Crafting. Crafting is done via your companions. Every class gets access to 5 unique companions and both Republic and Imperial have a droid that will join you fairly early in your journey. You will send your companion out on “missions” that will take a set amount of money and occupy a set amount of time. Doing so will let your companion return with either crafting components to make new gear or items or things to sell for profit on the Galactic Market (ToR’s Auction House). This can create a fun diversion from core gameplay, a great way to make money, or just a cheap way to gear your character and alts.

As you continue leveling with your first character you’ll seldom find a lack of things to do. Be it crafting with your companions, playing your story mode quest, doing any of the “daily quest”, or playing through a quest line on the planet you’re on. ToR offers a lot to enjoy through a leveling experience, and often more than you can do in a single play through giving still some new things to experience on a second character. One of the more enjoyable things to do is “Flashpoints” these would be like dungeons in other MMO’s. With the Introduction of the Group Finder in patch 1.3 doing flashpoints has become much easier. You’ll select the Flashpoint you want to, queue up for a group and wait until it finds a group for you. You can continue questing while waiting and when it finds a group for you, you’ll be given the choice to “shuttle” to the Flashpoints start. The Flashpoints are offer unique stories that can only be completed with a group. They tell the story of what’s going on in the overall world that isn’t covered in your class’s unique story. Feature bosses with your standard flair of unique tactics that you’ll be required to use to beat them. All in all, they are very fun and a nice diversion from your class storyline and planet questing.

Another thing to do that gets mixed reaction is space combat. I personally love it. It plays a lot like Starfox games of past. If you aren’t familiar with Starfox, it’s plays like on rails shooter, like many Arcade Shooters where you don’t directly control movement. Your starship follows a predetermined flight path and you’ll shoot down fighters, gun turrets, mines, and various other things along the way. You have limited control of moving your ship on the screen to avoid incoming fire. As well as true to Starfox fashion, be able to do a barrel role. While the limited amount of space missions and the long time it can take between unlocking the new missions can make them feel very repetitive they’re a completely difference style of game from everything else and can earn you a decent amount of Credits and Experience as you do them.

All in all everything from level 1-50 is a tremendous amount of fun. The storylines are interesting, the questlines are interesting, Flashpoints and space missions are fun diversions while you need them. However, it’s that game that’s left after reaching level 50 is where ToR begins to struggle. While end-game will improve with time and content updates, it’s not there now. PvP is an option for those who choose it and joining a nice PvP guild and coordinating with microphones is great fun, it’s not for everyone. For PvE players there are “Hard Mode” flashpoints to get better gear by playing a harder version of many of the flashpoints. There are also Operations that would be like raids for WoW players, another End Game progression. However with the limited options, and limited gear choices, the desire to play these can quickly fade. Ultimately it’s up to the individual and it’s where the people who enjoy a ToR as more or less a Co-OP KoToR III and who enjoy it as a mmo will separate.
One thing that ToR does do for the end-game player is adding the “Legacy System”. In short it’s a system of post lvl 50 progression that is shared between all of your characters on a single server. While you won’t start gaining any legacy experience until you progress far enough with a single character in their respective classes storyline (Generally happens around early 30’s to mid 30’s). As you gain Legacy levels you’ll unlock the ability to purchase upgrades for your characters. These are generally tools to help make leveling an alt faster, but some are helpful to a level 50 character as well. It can be things like gaining more experience while doing flashpoints, reducing the cool down on quick travel abilities, allowing speeder training an earlier level, or increasing the chance to have critical when crafting gear. This offers a nice thing to word towards and a decent Credit sink to make leveling alts a lot more fun. Legacy also allows a few other things, namely when you reach level 50 with a race you can now use that race for any class, allowing you to play a class with a race that isn’t originally unlocked. Say a Sith Jedi, if you wanted. Bioware promises to continue to extend what Legacy will allow and we’ll watch and wait and see what they do with it.

All in all ToR is a very fun game and well worth the subscription cost. However with a full free-to-play system on its way, it’s completely understandable for people to want to wait for that to give it a full try. It’s enjoyable to a single-player KOTOR fan and it’s enjoyable to your average MMO fan.
Graphics: 8/10 – While there are better looking single player PC games and now a couple better looking MMO’s, it’s still one of the prettier MMO’s out there. The animations for spells are fairly crisp and find a balance between flashy and distinguishable. However the Star Wars Universe in some ways does hinder the potential for the game and it’s diversity.

Sound: 8/10 – Bioware games traditionally have nice music to accompy them and ToR isn’t an exception to it. While the battle music can become repetitive the rest of the music makes up for it. Of course you also have all the voice acting to take into account as well. It all adds to create a world that feels alive.

Gameplay: 7/10 – It does nothing to change the standard MMO flair. Set up your cycle of skills to use and rinse and repeat. It’s fun, but nothing revolutionary. Space combat adds a little variation but can become repetitive in its own way.

Mike Factor: 8/10 – In its current state I feel ToR is best described as a co-op KoToR III. It doesn’t have everything it needs to break away from the pack as a standout MMO but it’s more than a Single player game that requires an online connection. It can be enjoyed as an MMO, as a single player game, or as a Co-Op game. There is a lot to enjoy and a lot to look forward to being improved. Its unfortunate the budget of the game required it to be released before it was fully ready. As Bioware adds the end-game content it can stick out as a great MMO.   read

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