The return of the Alien Ghostbusters that delivers.
Platforms:360, PS3, PC
Release (US):Oct. 9, 2012
I vividly remember the time when I found out about the X-Com series and how fascinated I was with the idea of a game where you run a company that was essentially Ghostbusters with aliens. Although after playing it, I couldn’t get myself to like the original game. I felt disappointed that I was unable to actually like the game despite my fascination of the general concept. A few years down the line Firaxis, the developers of the Civilization franchise, step in and release XCOM: Enemy Unknown and I couldn’t be happier.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is turn based strategy game similar to Civilization and accomplishes the same “one more turn”-mentality that can result in the loss of many hours. The main gameplay focuses on the management of up to 6 troops against a random group of hostile aliens in a scenario and managing your base back home between missions. What you encounter on each mission is randomly generated and takes place on one of the 80 or so maps that are in the game. The combat works on a two point action system where your troops are given two action points and a variety of actions to spend them on. For example you could use one point to move your soldier into cover a short distance away and then use the second action to open fire on an enemy from your fairly protected position or set them to overwatch where they will shoot the first thing that moves into their line of sight.
Intelligently managing your troops’ actions and thinking ahead are necessary due to how high the price of failure can be should you mess up and get one of your higher ranking soldiers killed. When one of your soldiers die they are gone forever and their name gets put up on the memorial wall where you can view a list of all the people who have fallen in the war, while sad bagpipes play in the background.
Character development is fairly straight forward, as you complete missions your soldiers are promoted and gain new abilities to employ while out in the field. This allows for a wider array of tricks and strategies for you to try out. The way you choose what abilities a troop can get is fairly simple, you are given a choice between two abilities and you can only give that soldier one. Although one major criticism of this system is that there are a lot of cases where the decisions seem very one sided. Such allowing your sniper to either fire their sniper rifle after moving first (they can’t usually) with a reduced accuracy or giving the ability to target any enemy within your teams vision thus making their effective range much larger. The latter being a fairly preferable option.
Being able to have a soldier survive long enough to reach the final rank of Colonel feels rewarding and an achievement. Along with the ability to customize your soldier’s looks (armor, face, hair, etc.) and even their name, it is very possible to develop a sense of personal connection to your soldiers and that makes losing them much more impactful. For example I had a woman who was a sniper in my squad since the beginning of the game who was quite effective. Eventually I decided to try out the armor customization only to have her get torn up by a group of Cryssalids on one of the higher difficulty missions immediately after. It was a hard loss but she died for the greater good.
Soldier customization is fun in regards customizing their armor color, names and facial features but really falls flat on its face in terms of execution when configuring each soldier’s load out before a mission. The main problem being that the items you have available to equip for your team are not shared. If a one of your troops has a suit of carapace armor on and you decide to take him on the mission the game will not automatically unequip that previous soldier so that you can give his replacement the gear. This leads to a tedious job of hunting for that one guy who has the plasma rifle in your long list of soldiers just so you can unequip him. This problem gets a bit worse when you unlock the ability to send your soldiers to be tested for psychic powers. Unlike a soldier who is off duty due to be wounded in the field and gets all their gear taken away, any soldiers sent for testing will take their gear with them. Meaning that if you accidentally send a soldier with your best gun off for testing then you won’t have that gun available for 10 or so game days and will have to buy a new one with your already tight budget or just go on without the extra firepower.
The combat is only one part of the whole beast that is XCOM, base building and resource management is as much an important to your overall success if not more so. The resources that you have to work with are extremely limited. With a monthly paycheck from any surviving countries funding your project, you have a very small pool of money ranging from $500-$1000 depending on how well you are doing with the latter amount being a godsend. The game also gives you other options to raise funds by selling any surplus research materials such as alien corpses and salvaged tech to the gray market or by responding to random request from other countries for a certain amount of a random item for a reward. The game’s economy is very tight with it being common that you will spend your month’s allowance within a few minutes after earning it. This tight hold on resources makes decisions making on what to invest in much more critical. Should you invest in beefing up your troops so that missions can be carried out easily? Or maybe focus on satellites and you interceptor fleet so that you can capture more UFOs for resources. Personally I found focusing on building up satellites and satellite uplinks early to be one of the better goals due to how badly a lack of a satellite network can hurt you in the long run.
Base building also adds another layer of depth to the game in finding a layout for your base that is efficient but also within your budget range. This is handled from an “ant farm” sort of view where you excavate new areas out under your base to place new rooms that provide different bonuses to your operation such as power for the base or more engineers to research better foundry projects. The placement of these facilities is also essential due to space being at a premium as well as bonuses that are granted for placing compatible rooms adjacent to each other.
While the game certainly does layer on the systems that you are required to manage, the game does a good job with introducing the player to main concepts, like combat and the basic base operations, fairly well and brings them up to speed with the rules of the game. Although I do feel that it does a poor job at explaining the importance of certain aspects. For example the tutorial briefly touches on the task of setting up a satellite network over each country as a means to reduce the panic level of each country and detect more invasions. However the tutorial does not stress how important this task is afterwards, such as the importance of building a satellite network and the large impact it will have on the global panic level later on.
Most missions will take you around 15-30 minutes with mission structure usually consists of eliminating an enemy squad of aliens. The missions do come with some variations such as delaying the detonation and eventual defusal of a bomb or evacuating civilians in the midst of an alien terror attack on a major city. With the stakes of failure being ever present and the cost being high this makes each mission a tense and thrilling firefight that will leave you feeling accomplished and confident when you succeed with no casualties or slightly crushed if you fail and lose one or all of your high ranking soldiers.
The game also has one of the most effective positive feedback loops that I have personally seen in a while. On multiple occasions I have found myself deciding to take a break after the current mission only to return to my base and have a research project be completed and a new mission or a UFO interception popping up shortly after. It is a scenario that has led short sessions that were intended to be quick 30 minute time wasters to become two and a half hour campaigns against the extraterrestrial menace multiple times.
Despite all the positives the game is not technically perfect. On at least three occasions in my 25 hour playthrough I encountered a bug that kept the menus interactive but the game would not progress after the aliens had their turn. This resulted in having to restart the game and lose any unsaved progress to resolve the issue. Combat also feels a bit awkward at times when the cinematic camera kicks in during the death of an enemy or ally. The camera will sometimes aim at odd angles such as a large close-up of your soldier’s shoulder that covers the screen while he downs a target. These negatives aren’t enough to bring the game down overall, but do make the game look unpolished and awkward at times.
The game provides a good amount of replayability but not to the extent Civilization does. Playing through the game on higher difficulties or on “Ironman” mode (the game autosaves after every action with no manual saves) provides the game with some replay value but there isn’t a huge amount of divergence on the path to victory. The progression through tech is fairly straight forward with your progression from bullets to plasma weaponry and light armor to Titan and Psy armor being fairly linear means that there isn’t much of a concept of a build order. Rather the replayability can be derived from trying out different loadouts such as a team composed completely of unmanned combat drones or undertaking the challenge of playing through on Ironman mode where all your choices are saved and cannot be reverted.
There is a multiplayer option included with the game where two players are given a set budget of points to spend and outfit a squad made up of any units in the game, where a team of marines can possibly work alongside aliens should you choose to include them. The matches are essentially death match where the last team standing wins. Multiplayer also promotes some faster decision making than a player might be used to coming from the single player because of a timer that each player has to make their moves before their turn ends. This is an option that can be configured before the match where turns can be two minutes and higher or as quick as thirty seconds or so. Figuring out different combinations of units with the points you are given and being able to play as the aliens makes it a fun and interesting mode. It does however does suffer from some balancing issues with certain units being a tad bit overpowered. The multiplayer serves as a nice diversion with friends but not much else.
As a sum of its parts XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an excellent game that should not be overlooked. The game can be overwhelming at times but in a good way that can be a test of your own tactics and decisions, while being very rewarding when you overcome the challenges it presents you. It is a title that presents complexity and multiple interconnected systems and packages it into an easily digestible experience. Catering to hardcore strategy players and still being perfectly accessible and enjoyable to newer players and can leave you coming back for just one more mission.