sunjammer's XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) review

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This is not your dad's X-COM

There isn't a doubt in my mind that Jake Solomon and the other folks at Firaxis responsible for this gorgeous, engaging game have a deep respect for the original X-COM (or UFO, as it was known where I grew up). Considering their pedigree, I wasn't surprised to find the new XCOM a well polished, well thought out game that makes the right concessions to bring in new players and pays proper tribute to the core ideals of X-COM. The notion of Firaxis failing in this task was almost absurd to me, and the prerelease buzz of course cemented my decision to preorder.

What surprised me was how different the game is from the original, and how little the game actually wound up reminding me of that seminal groin punch of a torture device.

I loved UFO: Enemy Unknown in a way I think most people loved it back when it came out. It was a game so ludicrously generous in content, much of which was proceduraly generated, that actually attempting to complete the game seemed like hubris. In UFO, you could land on your very first mission and find an alien grenade gently rolling into your dropship door, murdering your entire team in the first turn. UFO was a roguelike as much as it was a strategy game, and like most good roguelikes, the stories show up the gameplay.

I don't mind calling UFO a poorly balanced game. It would mash you to dust or let you live for a little bit longer, and then mash you to dust. You'd fill your dropship with cannonfodder rookies to scout for aliens that your precious veterans could hunt. Why even arm them all?

UFO was a wild thing. Broken and messed up and glorious and ambitious. Even today, booting up the game it feels like it came from a different world where pain and tedium and literature are equally sought after.

XCOM is a different beast. XCOM is lean, sharp and focused. It takes the basic UFO template - run a global organization, and go on tactical turn based missions against horrendous odds - and slices off huge chunks of fat. XCOM is a turn based tactics game with an abstract yet simple economics simulation to drive it. It is immediately obvious that this game is about delivering a satisfying, punchy and muscular game of squad tactics, with the strategic overview, the "geoscape" of the original, has been relegated to a set of menus and a linear array of choices in research and engineering.

Playing through the game twice, first on normal difficulty (interestingly described as "fair"), then on "classic" (which is just a big middle finger in the face of fairness), I'm left with the impression that XCOM has more in common with Advance Wars than the original game. While a turn in the original game could go on for ages, turns practically fly by in XCOM, helped along by a smaller squad count (a maximum of six) and an action point system that limits each soldier to a maximum of two moves per turn.

With only two moves, it's wonderful how eventful each turn still feels. Both your soldiers and the aliens they face are highly mobile and beautifully animated, with great incidental animations such as kicking open doors, vaulting over low cover, or smashing open a window with an elbow before taking a shot through it. XCOM may be the Vanquish of turn based tactics. Coming almost directly off of replaying the original game and its sequel, I'll absolutely take XCOM's tactics game over the original any day. It's just plain fun to play. I've heard some complain that the new system offers fewer tactical choices, but I think that's a bit of a strawman argument; Positioning and firing solutions was always what drove the original game as well. Any illusion of choice was more about a density of required micromanagement than real task variety.

The moment to moment gameplay consists of moving your team around a playfield littered with cover points (light or full), outflanking and being outflanked by aliens while maximizing the use of equipment and soldier skills. XCOM carries a lot of references to other games, and I was delighted to see nods to some of my favorite Games Workship board games, Space Hulk and Necromunda, and even a slight tip of the hat to another favorite, Arkham Horror.

Like in Necromunda, your troops will be why you care about the game. Unranked soldiers are generic fodder, but level up with kills, at which point they are assigned a predetermined class, which again can be further customised through a branching skill system where you pick one skill over another. This system turns out to be surprisingly flexible, allowing a sniper to be deadly long range artillery or a dynamic front line warrior. Other than homeland and gender, you can customize soldiers all you like, from names to hairstyles to armor variations, and it can be tempting to create characters from your friends or relatives to bring into battle (and howl at in dismayed terror as your girlfriend gets impregnated by a vile Chrysalid), though I found myself doing this much less than I did in the original games. XCOM simply does a fairly good job of creating memorable characters from your squad members, while in the original everybody looked like a clone baby and custom names became the way to differentiate them.

That said, Batman Superman was my first heavy and he was there for the final mission. He was a good man. Pretty thick american accent for an Indian though.

The downside to XCOM is simply its linearity and unwillingness to let you mess up. While the tactics game is involving and satisfying, the strategic game is a menu juggling exercise in bar graphs and binary choices. Economy is hugely restrictive, with research and manufacture requiring assets gained on missions, rarely allowing you to make choices beyond what is actually available to you. Typically a menu will have a range of items, of which only a very few are ever available to you, resulting in the absurd choice of researching something or researching nothing at all. With only one base to build, you are never allowed to feel like you are exercising any sort of control over territories, and the prohibitively expensive satellite system requiring support from a prohibitively expensive fleet of interceptors to have real value, though with the scarcity of actual UFO interceptions even this value is dubious. The base itself is beautifully presented, but never paid much attention to since every choice is made through a row of menu buttons; You simply don't interact with your base that much, and you don't really interact with the world that much.

XCOM's strategic game is a directed experience, funneling you towards more tactical missions and more binary choices. The result, I felt, is a game that is XCOM in name and spirit, but not in practise. The original took its strategic game very seriously. XCOM seems to think it is a necessary mechanic but not much more. It's a pity, because if taken further in the streamlined direction, and with less attempts at appeasing some long gone ideal of what the geoscape was supposed to be, XCOM would have shined brighter as the turn based tactics game it is. Instead the Earth and the need to save it feels painfully abstract and gamey. You can't even rotate the earth freely to look at the state of business. That's in its own menu.

It's true that XCOM randomizes much content and is largely systems driven, but it still presents an almost predetermined flow that will always stop by the same narrative key points and always end in the same way. You will always go from ballistics to lasers and finally plasma. You'll only ever research one new type of interceptor. You'll never upgrade your Skyranger.

I had a fantastic time with XCOM. It looks great, sounds great (that music!), tells a compelling, simple story, and it kept me riveted throughout. But when my first playthrough reached its conclusion, it certainly didn't offer the compulsive "let's try that again" of the original. Instead, I now feel somewhat finished with the game, which is a strangely sad feeling. Replaying the game I found myself repeating the choices I'd made the first time around; Not because I didn't want to try something else. They were just always the obvious choices to make. It made my heart sink.

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