So I Just Played: X-Com: Enemy Unknown

Posted by Tarfuin (44 posts) -

The developers of X-Com: Enemy Unknown had an impossible task laid at their feet. First, they needed to revive the classic X-Com series of games. Not only that, they needed to do so in a way that was accessible to new players. They also needed to stay true to the brutally difficult and unforgiving roots of the franchise. That all sounds difficult enough, but on top of that this game needed to be a commercially successful AAA turn based strategy game. Any one of those things is almost impossible. All together? Forget about it.

X-Com Enemy Unknown delivers with a bullet on each and every one of those points. I can’t speak specifically to its appeal to original X-Com players, because I wasn’t one, but from what I hear this version is a pretty well realized modernization of the game. Furthermore, this game delivers in so many other ways that I didn’t think were even remotely possible.

At its core, X-Com is almost two games wrapped into one. The first game is the on-the-ground battles, where you take your 4-6 member military crew into hostile territory and engage in turn-based combat with aliens. The second game is the overworld aspect, where you upgrade troops and equipment, manage staff and facilities, and allocate finances with a budget that is always woefully less than you need. Both aspects of the game are incredibly addictive and satisfying for completely different reasons.

How did a 25-year-old become a major military commander anyway?

The overworld stuff is great because it directly affects your on the ground performance and vice versa. You spend money on upgrades for your troops so they perform better. Your troops gather resources in the field for you overworld operation. Those resources feed into more upgrades and so on. The real resource in the overworld, however, is time. Everything takes time. You can only do one scientific project and one engineering project at once, and each one could take weeks to complete. In the meantime every day that passes is another day the alien attacks on Earth become more aggressive. Time management and choosing which projects are of the highest priority is extremely stressful. If things aren’t going well on the ground because of a lack of resources or poor performance by your troops, some nations might withdraw their funding from the program, leaving you even more strapped.

Whoever wrote Mo Money Mo Problems clearly never played X-Com.

On the ground, the entirety of combat is one long exercise in patience. The game is turn-based, and each turn your troops each get two actions. These can be move and shoot, move and move again, or move and be on alert for enemy (overwatch). Shooting typically ends that troop’s turn. Patience is key because you never know where the enemy is going to come from, and you sure as hell don’t want to reveal a bunch of enemy troops on your last troop’s final move, because now it’s their turn, and they see you. As a result, each turn usually is a series of baby steps forward until you lose your patience a bit, and when you lose your patience, you die.

Your troops start out as basic military and can level up. Once they level up they become a specialty such as sniper, heavy, or support. Each specialty has its own mini skill tree as it continues to level up. An interesting implementation here is that each level a troop earns gives you a choice between two different new skills. You get to pick one and only one, and you can’t spend later levels on previous skills. This means each new level presents you with a choice of two skills with some brutal tradeoffs.

For example, my favourite class is the sniper. The sniper can not shoot their sniper rifle after moving. This is a pretty big pain, because keeping them positioned well in battle is key. At one point your sniper will rank up and get an option to gain a skill that lets them shoot after moving, which sounds amazing. And yet I never take that skill. I take the other one, called squadsight, which allows the sniper to take a shot from the perspective of any of their allies on the battlefield. Basically as long as you have one of your troops with the barrel of their gun pressed against the enemy’s head, the sniper 100 yards away will have that same 100% chance to hit. It’s these kind of really tough choices at each level that make the classes really dynamic.

51% chance to hit through a solid steel wall. Squadsight Baby!

X-Com rewards perfection, and punishes even the smallest of mistakes. Even if none of your troops die on a mission (and that’s a big ‘if”) you might still have problems. Each character has a health bar, obviously. If an alien hits your Assault class troop for half his health, your troop trucks on like a good soldier with no ill effects until the end of the mission. I’ve always found it odd that characters in games don’t get worse in performance even if they are within an inch of death, well X-Com has me covered. If any of your troops takes damage in combat there is a good chance they’ll come back to the base “wounded”, which means you could be without their services for anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks, depending on how badly they got roughed up. Because of this mechanic and the odd death, you really need to keep a stable of 10 or so capable troops ready to jump in at a moment’s notice, so when things are going well it’s still a good idea to shuffle in a new recruit every once and a while to get them seasoned.

The excellence of the gameplay in X-Com had me wonderfully addicted for several weeks, but something I wasn’t expecting was the emotional impact it was capable of. The military personnel in the game are not essential to the story, so literally any one of them can die at any time. This is refreshing from a story standpoint because you never get the feeling that any character is untouchable purely for story reasons. You become attached to the soldiers who have served you over the entire campaign. They get nicknames, and you feel really attached to them. The game doesn’t put this on you. You cultivate this attachment yourself. Your squad is badass! Your squad can do anything!

Wu Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with!

Then it happens, you make one tiny move and put them further out there than you should have. Bam! They’re dead. One of the most tragic parts of this is that the game rolls right on as if nothing ever happened. This character you’ve invested so much into has just been wiped off the Earth. They’ve rescued countless comrades and saved many missions from failure. Then they die, you plod on an finish the mission and you see this.

Casualties: 1. Rating: Good.

No it is not good! In what way is it good? The worst part is, I don’t even remember her name anymore. So thank you, blonde female Russian sniper class. You were truly the greatest of them all.

Lieutenant Omega filled in admirably, but the hole in my heart cannot be so easily mended.

So there’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown for you. A turn-based military strategy game with overworld meta game elements. It successfully stays true to the hardcore original series while welcoming new players and appealing to the mainstream audience. Above all that, it illicits strong emotional connection where there shouldn’t be any.

#1 Posted by BBOYS2231 (164 posts) -

Great read. I was never into these types of games growing up, but bought X-Com on a recommendation and really enjoyed it (still have yet to beat it). Pro-tip: Name your soldiers after friends and family. You'll be extra careful going forward!

#2 Posted by Noblenerf (301 posts) -

If you enjoyed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the expansion Enemy Within will be well worth a purchase. It adds many interesting things to the game that may shake the foundations of a players' strategy to its very core. Just remember, your soldiers never asked for this.

On the ground, the entirety of combat is one long exercise in patience.

I find the combat to be more a strategic use of caution, rather than patience. Always have your squad covered from all possible attack angles and always have a back-up plan, or else your squad will pay the ultimate price. Certain mission types as well as Enemy Within extend this line of thought further.

Above all that, it illicits strong emotional connection where there shouldn’t be any

This is XCOM's greatest accomplishment. The soldiers, the battles fought, the victories and losses, as well as the ultimate outcome (win or lose) are incredibly touching and impactful experiences. It is a remarkably well-designed game, and a testament to Firaxis' talent at game development.

I'm very much looking forward to XCOM: Enemy Unknown's second expansion. Firaxis always releases two, right? ...Right?

#3 Edited by Slag (3903 posts) -

@tarfuin: Nice writeup!

bonus points for the Wu-tang reference.

#4 Edited by Rorie (2529 posts) -

My main frustration with these games (including the old ones) is the base-building stuff. I would love for there to be variable difficulties for the tactical combat and the strategic base-building stuff. Enemy Within, especially, commits the foul of giving you shit tons of cool stuff to buy but giving you so little money to use that I wind up broke by the 2nd day of every month. If an alien conspiracy were really out to take over the world, wouldn't the U.S. alone be funding XCOM to the tune of billions of dollars? I mean, I've had both the MEC and gene therapy facilities for months of game-time in my run-through of Enemy Within, but I have exactly zero soldiers outfitted with any of those upgrades. Just no cash, even with the African base bonus and selling as much damaged equipment as I can. It's all going to satellites and gear upgrades, mostly.

It's a shame because I really like the tactical combat. The base-building stuff just winds up being stressful enough in terms of balancing my resouces that I just can't enjoy it.

Staff
#5 Edited by Arabes (338 posts) -

@rorie: It wouldn't be much of a challenge if you could just turn all your soldiers into Mecs and Gennies by the end of the second month though would it :)

The problem that you've encountered is the big problem with xcom overall - on classic difficulty or higher there is only one way to play the strategic game - build satellites.If you are not sinking all your money into satellites right from the start then you'll lose lots of countries. This can be offset by carefully planning when to take the alien base at that will reduce panic across all countries so if you hold off on that mission until the end of a month when thing have gone shit ways then you can recover and keep funding coming in.

The upshot of this is you don't really start to get upgrades, mecs etc until you have full coverage (around month 3 or 4 if I remember) at which point money starts to become largely meaningless and you have won the game. Bar being a complete dolt, once you have full coverage it's just a matter of waiting for research etc as at this point you can't really lose. It's pretty anticlimactic.

I'm probably in the minority but I think that the original did the strategic layer much better as it gave you way more options and much more flexibility. In the new game if you don't build in optimum order from the start then you are screwed.

#6 Posted by Tarfuin (44 posts) -

@rorie: I can't speak for Enemy Within or the originals, but I did find myself strapped for cash pretty frequently in EU and while it was a pain at the time, I thought it made the game more fun and challenging overall. I really had to make trade offs that were meaningful. I didn't just get to buy every upgrade that looked good. As such, I totally missed out on the grappling hook on my first playthrough because I couldn't afford to waste time and money researching it. I tried it my second time and loved it for my sniper.

As for the realism of funding, you have a point, but I mentally got past that myself by assuming that taking alien technology and turning it around into functioning plasma rifles was probably insanely expensive. Also think of all the money that would be getting sunk into relief efforts worldwide. Sure, military would be a top priority, but everybody would probably be spread quite thin.

Thanks for the comment! People don't often put as much thought into the base management part of the game.

#7 Posted by thomasnash (528 posts) -

@rorie: I've found that the turning point for me was realising that it's ok to sell stuff that isn't "useless" if you need a cash injection. For example in the early game I am always going to research weaponry-armour-lasers in the first month, with some time for the arc projector etc. So if you've got an Alien Power source sitting around that you can sell for $90 at that point, there's no real downside to doing so because you're not going to be able to research it until much later anyway, and by the point that you need them to build stuff with you'll be getting loads of them anyway. Similarly things like Sectoid corpses. In the early game you have tonnes of them, and if you're really hard up then selling a few of them to get an MEC soldier isn't a bad trade - if you're that poor it's not like you're going to be amnufacturing large quantities of those things that help your jets dodge UFO fire, is it! Although this is a slightly riskier strategy because the supply of sectoids can dry up in the late game, which can be a bummer. I normally like to keep at least 10 of any enemy corpse in reserve for if I need them later.

#8 Posted by Marcsman (3094 posts) -

I enjoyed it.

#9 Edited by AndrewB (7439 posts) -

@rorie: I can only really speak to normal difficulty, since I typically get nearly wiped out on the very first mission on any other difficulty setting and that's no fun, but my strategy of making sure to rush 4 satellites in the first month of gameplay, plus the bonuses to cash you'll see from North America and/or Africa really helps. You're going to be strapped for cash every second for many months while you focus on getting more satellites up, but satellites mean more money and less of/no chance of a continent pulling out of the project. Even if one does, you should still be able to make due with very careful planning and strategic cutting of losses.

Towards the end of the game I'm typically swimming in cash and the biggest holdup is alien weapon fragments. I'll admit that I've had more playthroughs with Enemy Within than with the base game, just because it fleshes things out so much more and makes it more fun (had a couple of "anything goes" runs, one with only meld-enhanced troops, and now working on a squad of all MECs, or as much as is possible within the limits of resources and the story).

#10 Posted by ch3burashka (4991 posts) -

I'm pretty sure I keep fucking up. At the moment I have 6 dudes (3 Cpl, 3 whatever's under that) and at this point there is no foreseeable way I can get new recruits and level them up. I'm on Game 6, probably will go to Game 7.

Fun tangent: In Game 1 or 2 I had a Canadian sniper, Renee Croix I believe. She is the only character I remember and for whatever reason I'm getting team member withdrawal, what with her being gone forever and all.

#11 Posted by Tennmuerti (7956 posts) -

@rorie:

Like others have said: A - prioritize satellites B - sell all of the things.

A. For satellites make it a planned goal to construct an additional satellite uplink (or nexus) at the end of every month (connected to others obv.) and use up all of their capacity. This means 3 satellites before end of month 1, 7 before end of month 2, etc. Faster satellites means you get a snowball effect of more money coming in, meaning more satellites and spare cash for upgrades. After monthly satellite quota is filled and planned for, you can splurge on other things. That's a general rule of thumb anyway.

B. Sell, sell, sell things on the grey market. Not just the stuff theat the game tells you is ok to sell, but also sell stuff like intact nav computers, power sources, even corpses if you need to. Intact alien UFO parts sell for a bunch. It gives you a great kickstart to the economy and the necessary funds for satellites. Missions like the alien base assault, or the chinese agent final one can be done early, they will have weaker enemies, yet contain the same amount of stuff to sell. An alien base is a huge cash boost.

Spending all the money at the start of the month is totally fine (if you have included the engineers/uplinks/satellites). During the rest of a month your cash sources are UFO landings, council missions, and abductions that reward 200 moneys. The monthly income at the start of the game is a fraction of what you can simply make through missions or selling shit.

It's also best to choose initially what you want to prioritise, getting 1-2 mech troopers set up or going for biological upgrades, not both. It will safe time/money, initial hard to come by base space, and frustration of not having enough for both. Once the satellite economy kicks in you can easily scoop up the other upgrades. Another way to save money is to only have 1 interceptor of a region with satellites on it and try to concentrate satellite coverage in specific areas, rather then scaterrshot them all over.

There are other money tips to be had, but that's all I can remember at the moment.

#12 Posted by Tennmuerti (7956 posts) -

@tarfuin: Holy shit this is the first time I am seeing plasma weapons and titan armor in the alien base assault cut scene. Usually you can just go in with laser stuff and carapace armor, no need to wait so much. :)

#13 Posted by huser (1017 posts) -

@rorie: The funding is definitely wonky given the relative costs of some items or vehicles and I can't argue with the notion of being let into the candy shop but not being given any money to buy anything. That said, I would guess a high supersonic, VTOL-capable, potentially stealth, troop transport costs a lot, beyond a secret mountain base. Also, the US (and every other country) is definitely doing its own thing in response to the alien invasion. That they buy gear off you and then it's later reported that troops featuring that gear have been seen suggests that XCOM is not the only one killing xenos. Just like Marine cadets helping take down Cobra...

#14 Posted by EternalVigil (239 posts) -

@rorie:

@rorie said:

My main frustration with these games (including the old ones) is the base-building stuff. I would love for there to be variable difficulties for the tactical combat and the strategic base-building stuff. Enemy Within, especially, commits the foul of giving you shit tons of cool stuff to buy but giving you so little money to use that I wind up broke by the 2nd day of every month. If an alien conspiracy were really out to take over the world, wouldn't the U.S. alone be funding XCOM to the tune of billions of dollars? I mean, I've had both the MEC and gene therapy facilities for months of game-time in my run-through of Enemy Within, but I have exactly zero soldiers outfitted with any of those upgrades. Just no cash, even with the African base bonus and selling as much damaged equipment as I can. It's all going to satellites and gear upgrades, mostly.

It's a shame because I really like the tactical combat. The base-building stuff just winds up being stressful enough in terms of balancing my resouces that I just can't enjoy it.

As someone whose played through Within about 3-4 times now, I understand where you're coming from. From a narrative perspective it's really odd that an organisation funded by all the major powers of the world is always strapped for cash. But it makes sense gameplay wise because if you had too much money to throw around it would make the game really easy, as you could have everything built that you needed to win.

The thing about the new stuff is, while all that new stuff is really cool and fun to play around with, it is absurdly powerful in the early game, which is probably the hardest section of the game. It's why the MELD cost is arguably even higher the financial cost. Having a single MEC out against the early aliens is pretty nuts as they can tank so much damage and can usually kill in one shot. Not to mention some of the abilities can reduce/repair the damage taken which makes them really hard to take down. Some of the gene mods completely change how you fight, as they become much more versatile. Having all those available from the get-go would make the game incredibly imbalanced. I've kept playing past where I could beat the game to explore all these new additions, and 6 MECS is massive overkill, even on the late game guys. Against the early-mid game guys, I don't think you'd ever be at risk of losing anyone unless you were very careless.

In terms of financial and base-building management, I've come to the conclusion that for the first few months, that the highest priority is satellite uplinks and satellites, as if you can get all them out relatively early, it really reduces the problem of running out of cash too quickly. I'd also suggest when it comes to selling stuff, don't be afraid to sell corpses or UFO tech, if your not going to be doing anything with them in the foreseeable future, as you can easily replace that as missions are pretty frequent. Taking out EXHALT cells also gives you a cash reward, and their guns are worthless, so you can sell them too!

Originally the base-building stuff was the hardest part for me, and it took a long time to learn what was the best way of using my resources, nowadays, I can usually get where I need it to be pretty well, and I can get the stuff I need when I need it So it's a lot more tolerable. By the time I roll into endgame, I keep up ending up with the problem of having too much cash and no way to spend it, as I've researched everything. I would like to see how the game would if they shifted the difficulty of that part of the game up or down as right now there isn't any real great way of doing it with the second wave options.

#15 Posted by Tarfuin (44 posts) -

@tarfuin: Holy shit this is the first time I am seeing plasma weapons and titan armor in the alien base assault cut scene. Usually you can just go in with laser stuff and carapace armor, no need to wait so much. :)

I'm thorough ;) Also I picked a lot of money generating options early so I had lots of money to gear them all up.

#16 Posted by Tennmuerti (7956 posts) -

@tarfuin said:

@tennmuerti said:

@tarfuin: Holy shit this is the first time I am seeing plasma weapons and titan armor in the alien base assault cut scene. Usually you can just go in with laser stuff and carapace armor, no need to wait so much. :)

I'm thorough ;) Also I picked a lot of money generating options early so I had lots of money to gear them all up.

It isn't really about money, more about the time. You can just wait, level up, build up, research and gear up forever without advancing the story. I'm just surprised that you waited so long at all. The alien base can be done month 2-3, significantly accelerating the rest of the game due to the cash influx it provides. Also on impossible you want to do it asap for the funds and the panic reduction so that you don't get boned with countries leaving you.

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