XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC [reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release: October 9, 2012
Enemy Unknown is a game about defending the world on a budget. Corners will be cut, soldiers will be lost (RIP Chad Concelmo), and countries will withdraw support if you don’t help them when asked. Not since Dark Souls has a game been so gleefully vicious in punishing a player’s loss. There are many times where I was tempted to start anew, but I played the odds and pulled through. That’s the genius of XCOM: It wants you so badly to give up, but that small percentage of victory will give you the courage to continue. In Mass Effect, alien takeover was a backdrop. In EU, it feels like an inescapable reality that beats your team down, time and time again.
Being that EU is a considerable challenge full of painful losses even on easy, it is a fairly faithful remake of the original, landmark X-COM (you see that hyphen!?!). The base building, squad management, tactical combat, space battles, leveling, and most other elements of the ‘94 MicroProse cult hit appear, albeit with fat trimmed. Through the modern miracle of intelligent menu design, a fair difficulty gradient, and refined combat, the team that made Civilization a great fit for consoles has done the same for XCOM.
Firaxis has made a simpler (but not simple) XCOM
that is approachable to more than just diehard series and genre fans. As your squad members gain new abilities and passive buffs, elevation and grouping become more important aspects of strategy. Once you can use a grappling hook and make psychic links with others, the game becomes even deeper. However, EU
never comes close to approaching the complexity of other games in the strategy-RPG genre that the original helped pioneer. This design choice may divide some genre fans, but there is certainly a good enough challenge and varied tactical options to satisfy most players, especially those that worship Final Fantasy Tactics, Jagged Alliance
, or Valkyria Chronicles
One smart change is that the player now controls a maximum of six members on a mission, instead of an entire platoon. Coupled with the small maps and quick animation, this makes EU
a much faster paced and accessible action game. The action and missions themselves transpire so quickly that it’s hard to stop playing, as you rationalize taking on one more abduction in Japan. Every now and again, actions will be presented in a cinematic style that is similar to Valkyria Chronicles
. It helps highlight the turning points of a battle, racketing the tension up at times.EU
begins with a cinematic tutorial and a series of missions that feel on-rails, but the game soon opens up to let you screw up in the most fantastic ways imaginable. You’ll always have a primary goal that revolves around researching a specific thing, capturing a specific alien, and, occasionally, invading a specific location. These goals keep the player free to do what he or she wants when it comes to taking on missions or building the XCOM headquarters. You can fulfill these goals at your leisure, but you’ll always be at risk of panic striking nations.
Your base is not only where you upgrade troops and do research, it’s also how you track progress made across the globe. Since XCOM is a private military with an international council, you’ll always be in danger of countries withdrawing support if their panic level rises to five (the highest level). The only way to combat this is to do missions in that country or launch a satellite over it, which takes a lot of time and money. If too many countries pull out, it’s game over. I lost a country in every region but still managed to beat the game. The possibility of losing always loomed right over my shoulder, making for a relentlessly tense experience. A good thing, mind you.
Even after a flawless battle, there is no escaping the inevitable tough decisions you’ll have to make at the base. The hardest decisions come from invasions that ask the player to take a mission at one of three countries presented. Each offers a difficulty level, reward, and panic level. I found myself constantly conflicted. “Do I risk Australia pulling out of XCOM just so I can get some immediate cash from China?" is the type of question you’ll find yourself asking a lot. Managing your research and development is also a hard job that you’ll only figure out through time and experience. I’m replaying the game on Classic difficulty (read: Hard), as this review goes up, and am still discovering new strategies on and off the battle grid.
Missions cover bomb defusals, VIP escorts, and rescue operations, but most of the time you’ll just need to wipe out aliens in one of the game's 80 maps. This is a lot harder said than done because of monster closets. This term, made popular by critics lambasting Doom 3’s enemies that magically appear instead of approaching the player, is the best way to describe one of EU’s most puzzling and upsetting design decisions. Unlike most other SRPGs, the enemy does not move until discovered. Once discovered however, the enemy is given a free turn to move and take cover -- which for the player, really, really sucks!
The main problem with this is that you start playing the game around this design decision, which, in effect, ruins the game. It makes sense to slowly creep through a forest, hoping to get the drop on aliens. It doesn’t make sense to slowly creep through a forest, fearing aliens will get the drop on you as you suddenly freeze in time. As a defense measure, you can position your guys to go into overwatch, gunning down any creature that passes their line of sight. It’s certainly a change from the original, where aliens would be found standing still when discovered.
A lot of XCOM comes down to luck and risk. Every shot you fire is complemented by a screen with info on the percentage of the shot landing and damage it is likely to do. This is a risk you agree to take. The same can be said for the smart cover system that divides positions as no cover, half cover, or full cover, each increasing your chances for an enemy to miss. I eventually grew to accept these monster closets, but it sure is a jarring element to battle. It is made even worse with the occasional glitch. One time I had an alien suddenly appear beside me and drop a grenade. I didn’t care very much for its parting gift.
It may have taken console games a good amount of time, but I think we’ve finally arrived at the ideal control setup for a turn-based strategy game. Being able to quickly zoom out with the left trigger, rotate camera with D-pad, and switch characters with the bumpers feels natural. EU takes influence from Call of Duty in more ways than one. Just as CoD and Gears of War popularized the use of sticky actions for shooters -- as in the game guides your character/crosshair to the action you wish to perform -- EU does the same for strategy games. Getting rid of grids and adapting this new system feels natural and so damn good.
Ironically, the PC controls are abysmal. Firaxis took one step forward and one step back. There is no quick zoom button (there is one listed in the options menu but it wouldn’t work, no matter how I reconfigured it), rotating the camera is awkward, zooming is even worse, and keyboard shortcuts are not as smartly placed as they are on the controller. The menus are harder to navigate, you can’t zoom in on your headquarters, and a lot of other actions that are easy to perform with a controller are made difficult or taken out altogether. You’re going to want to play this with a controller and, yes, I know how strange that sounds. Even the PC exclusive grid mode is a nuisance that only breaks immersion and makes the game frustrating.
Once you’ve conquered the campaign (my playthrough ran 23 hours), multiplayer awaits. Playing only with friends and fellow reviewers, it was hard to get a good grasp of where the multiplayer scene can go. The mode is a mess that, like the singleplayer campaign, gives players the freedom to screw themselves. Multiplayer is just straight forward one-on-one match, but you are free to make your squad however you like. Each unit and each modification to a unit costs points which can be limited (or not) by the host. This means you can have six-on-six matches with the most powerful enemies in the game, or play a straightforward match. I found the aliens to be so laughably unbalanced that it risks making the mode completely irrelevant, unless an update gives the host more options to limit loadout choices. The map selection is small, the netcode is touchy, and there are some terrible design choices, like letting players see the opponent open doors, thus giving away positions in an already tiny map. Maybe it will grow on me or be fun with more match rules, but I got pretty negative impression from my time with it.
XCOM looks good and sounds good, but the score is too similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect. I know EU shares the former’s composer, but it still cheapens the experience and makes it feel less unique. The greater problem are the bugs that not only get in the way of presentation but combat as well. One bug kept me from being able to properly use a key feature later in the game that lets you further upgrade units. Another bug had my character’s ponytail wrap around the loadout screen and dance around, as if possessed by the God of hair (an awesome bug, I must admit.) You’ll also see lots of clipping and glitchy cinematic camera angles in combat.
So, it’s fair to say that EU has some problems. While the game lacks the polish we’ve come to expect from Firaxis, it stands up as one of the most addicting and fun strategy games I’ve ever played. The game has its issues. It doesn’t help that it ends on the worst stage with one of the worst boss battles in recent memory. Oh yeah, and you can wash it all down with a terrible ending cinematic.
Outside the endgame, you’ll rarely see all of the game’s issues grouped together in one place. Sure, the UFO missions aren’t the best and you’ll run into the occasional bug, but I am willing to accept these minor issues. That’s just how much fun the game is. If you’ve ever played a game on a PC with a loud fan or sneaked into the living room as a kid to game at night, you should be able to understand that sometimes it's worth putting up with a little discomfort for a lot of enjoyment. That’s Enemy Unknown for you.
I was disappointed EU didn’t have a great story, at first. But, somewhere along the way, my own story played out through the game’s intense missions and grueling decision making back at the base. My story is about an unlikely group of space heroes. After months of waging a seemingly impossible war, my elite squad of XCOM soldiers died. Well, all but one. Her name was Tara Long. With one bullet left in her rifle aimed at two of the toughest foes she’d ever seen, she knew it was fate when the SUV behind the Mutons exploded, sending the two to a fiery death.
As the world descended into panic, Tara led a troop of new recruits. Hamza the support, Conrad the heavy, and Tony the assault rose through the ranks and succeeded where the older soldiers failed. Let’s not forget Holmes, the sniper who once saved the day after going into panic mode, gunning down an incoming cyberdisk as his sanity deteriorated. Poor Holmes hasn’t been the same since ….
Against all odds, Destructoid managed to save the galaxy, even though we barely manage to keep this site running. That’s a story worth seeing to its end, even if I’ll soon forget it as many more stories play out in my future XCOM sessions. All the small nagging complaints I have with the game fade away when I recall all the great moments I've had with it.