A Successful Resurrection Chained Down by It's Own Apathy
I am of the mindset that the XCOM first person shooter that was proposed two years ago was not a bad idea. Breathing life into a franchise that’s been long dead is tough, often foolhardy effort made in order to capitalize on some lost nostalgia of a very small portion of gamers. That being said, I understood the blowback that 2K received when the news hit, understood the clamoring for something more traditional, understood why pause needed to be taken and an announcement made to cool the flames that was bombarding the IP. I don’t have a long lost love for XCOM, I’ve barely played the original and only know the sequels by name and legacy. I’ve spent more time watching friends dust off old PS1 memory cards and wade through their 10 year old campaigns then actually playing myself. It’s odd that I decided to pick this game up at all. But I did, and I’m better for it.
Now full disclosure, I played through the game on normal, no ironman. I don’t have a strong love for the strategy genre, though there are a few games which I find to be absolutely essential to anyone’s playlist. XCOM is punishing. It is unforgiving. It is often pragmatic and offensive. It makes you curse at the game’s programming when things go wrong(and they will) and yell in exaltation when things go as planned. It is hard, sometimes unfairly so. More than anything else, it is unique to the player. No one playing this game is going to experience the same thing as anyone else, and that’s important. A strategy guide will only get you so far as the decisions you make while playing shift your effectiveness in a number of different ways. Let me paint you a picture:
I started off my game investing in European sciences, allowing me to research alien technology at a faster rate. This meant I didn’t have the air superiority necessary to protect the open skies, nor did I have the resources that come with being able to ensure the rest of the world that aliens could be efficiently detected. I scraped by, selling technology and corpses that I dragged home from missions. I had to make the very real decision on whether to research that new alien engine or provide my troops with armor. Money was always a problem and no countries, not even my home base of Germany, was willing to provide it. Every day was a scrap. I was underfunded, didn’t have the worldly connections necessary and constantly understaffed. Were it not for a core group of soldiers bringing back whatever possible from alien skirmishes; my organization would have folded within months. But we did bring them back. We brought the back alive. We developed the technology that the rest of the world wanted. And soon, in time, they came to my door asking for weapons, armor, salvage, and would pay a pretty penny for it. Finally I could afford the spoils of my labors, outfitting my troops with the highest of tech, leveraging our services for engineers and scientists to make research move faster. My attrition paid off. Now all I had to do was keep my troops alive as we fought back the alien menace. And that would be a challenge.
You see XCOM is fairly random in nature. Each level generated uses prefabricated tile sets which are arranged in a seemingly random fashion, allowing things to stay familiar, but keep the player on their toes. Enemy types and placements are all random as well, so you literally never know what’s going to be beyond that fog of war. You have to move slowly, methodically. You can’t rush, even though you want to, as the moment you lose your patience and advance to quickly, you’ll be staring down the barrels of the alien horde; exposed, vulnerable, wide-open. Even when you’re careful, you still need to figure out the risks of your strategy. I made heavy use of snipers throughout my play through, building and augmenting them to allow high ground to be an essential requirement. However, you have to be careful about placing them outside of cover, as a well placed shot from across the map can leave you dead and gone.
And death is permanent boys and girls, make no mistake. You have to take care of your squad, keep them in cover, keep their health up, because if they go down they’re not getting up again. I know the agony of having a veteran solder turn a corner, rush a lone Muton, get right in its face and active their doubleshot…only to miss. Twice. And that Muton will not miss from close range. And suddenly your squad has a massive gaping hole left within it, one that the enemy can, and will, drive a small mech through. Squad wipes are common. Rookies are unreliable. You do the best with what you have, and often, what you have is not good enough.
It’s thrilling. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. The tension the game builds is not commonly seen in any game these days; it is functionally oppressive. It keeps you plugging away because you know if you can just capture that sectoid commander, you can start working on psychic abilities. If you can down that battleship, you can steal their warp core and make something deadly in the skies. If you can get to that VIP in time, you’ll get a boat load of cash that will keep the lights on for another few months. If you can…if you can…IF you can.
The problem is, and this is the thing that pulled this review down a star, you often can’t. The math in this game is fuzzy at best, often punishing good strategy due to bad dice rolls. You will find yourself creating formations in certain structures that should decimate whatever the game can throw at you, only to have every member of your squad, no matter how seasoned, miss their shots. I have squad wiped a few times because a shot that I needed to hit, even though it was 95%, missed its mark. Now, you can attribute that to simply probability, 95% isn’t a guarantee after all, but you will run into your fair share of high percentage shots missing in rapid succession for no good reason. During one mission, I had my Colonel sniper, the highest rank that you can have, with accuracy bonuses, the most powerful gun in the game and the high ground, miss his target 9 times in a row. It makes very little sense and it is infuriating every time it happens. The other major problem is the bugs, and oh brother, let me tell you there are a lot of them. From enemies not populating areas, to entire enemy squads magically warping out of your characters, to automated machine warriors turning into headless female units that can’t be controlled upon a mission load, to hard locks, to never ending enemy turns, this game has a plethora of issues that really should have been caught before release. This game is in DIRE need of a patch.
There are other little issues here and there, but they’re not that big of a deal. The tutorial is long and doesn’t explain some of the most core mechanics (their explanation on overwatch, easily the most important game mechanic in the game, is terrible and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how it really worked), the pacing is slow, but that’s only annoying during certain missions where you will be spending small groups of turns pushing your squad foreword rather than positioning them strategically, and the story is fairly minimal beyond, “stop these aliens”. But the presentation is nice, the voice acting is quite good, the controls are fairly intuitive as long as you’re using a pad (this game was CLEARLY made with game pads in mind, as KB/M controls suffer quite a bit) and overall, it keeps you engaged. Though it is often unfair, it’s never enough to make you want to stop playing. As I said earlier, I played through the game on the normal difficulty and the 3 act of the game slows down considerably once I had all the upgrades from research and engineering, but it was always a joy even when things got “predictable”.
This is a game you should buy. The last time a strategy game did what it does this well was Valkryia Chronicles, a game which I think everyone should play. The good is fantastic, and the worst of the bad will, with any luck and hope, be gone in a month’s time. It is worth your time, it is worth your money, it is worth your anguish and jubilation. XCOM don't care, but you should.
Buy this game.