XCOM: Enemy Unknown successfully revives the Microprose classic into the modern age with grace and poise – yet aspects of its diehard formula may not go down well with the modern gamer, as Mitchell McCausland discovered all too well.
Reboot. Remake. Revival. It is all the rage. In the age of rising development budgets and higher rates of studio closures risk adversity has taken over the video game publisher mindset. Whilst this may sound a touch pessimistic there have been some actual boons from this shift in philosophy – one of which is the resurrection of dormant franchises. X-Com is one of those formally flat-lined series given this treatment in the form of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (XCOM:EU). With the renowned folks at Firaxis Games at the helm there is at least some hope that XCOM:EU is the one of the better revivals to come out of this generation.
Just like the original game, UFO: Enemy Unknown, XCOM:EU is a tactical turn-based squad shooter focused on strategically shooting alien scum. As the Commander of XCOM, an international military force, one must respond to the growing threat of alien invasion occurring all over the world. XCOM:EU can be fundamentally split into two core gameplay components: controlling one’s squad to carry out their objectives on the field and managing the XCOM base of operations.
Soldiers are the Commander’s core commodities. Yes, they can die. Yes, the Commander can recruit new ones. However, XCOM:EU encourages the player to preserve their troops through its class and soldier upgrade system. All rookie soldiers have no special attributes out the door. Infantry are customisable in class, loadout, gender and nationality yet it is only when the Commander gets the troops promoted via their performance against the invaders does one see the benefits of keeping a low death count. Moving through the ranks unlocks new abilities based on the class assigned to the unit, plus having a unit reach higher ranks will unlock abilities from the (Soldier Training School), which can be applied to the squad.
A nice thing to say… if the difficulty was a bit more forgiving, especially to those who typically steer clear from anything turn-based.
Thankfully, XCOM:EU’s primary hook, shooting up aliens top-down style, is quite intuitive. This reviewer had a great deal of concern about how the grid navigation and character interaction would work on the PS3, heck, on any console, as one naturally would given the track record of the genre. One flick of the thumbstick proved those concerns wrong; the cursor navigation is snappy and responsive. Attacking enemies is simple enough – have them in the troop’s line of sight (this is indicated by the number of Alien Heads on the top left hand corner of the HUD), press R2 then select your attack option.
Firing at a target is an automated process once the target has been selected. A hit success rate is given which is calculated based on the distance from the target, the state of the target and the level of obstruction based on the surrounding cover/obstacles. Never did it feel like the game was just farting out random percentages to throw a spanner in the works, which helped ease this real-time gameplay enthusiast dig into the jilted flow that comes with XCOM:EU.
Headquarters management, the other side of the XCOM experiential coin, gives one the chance to unwind somewhat from the horrors of facing the alien peril first hand. Here the player can improve their chances on the field through increasing funding, knowledge and resources. Each mission will reward the player with alien corpses and raw materials, which can be used to kick start research in the labs. With new research come new possibilities such as alien weaponry, new facilities – even mind control capabilities! However research does not unlock instantly once initiated; players have to wait a few in-game days then order the engineering workshop to fabricate the results.
There is a method to speed up in-game time, thankfully, via Mission Control. Not all missions are handed over right aft the last mission. Scanning Earth for threats reduces the wait for time to tick over significantly, whether it will be due to the pending research/ordered items/new troops being delivered or that XCOM’s satellites have detected something. Increasing the number of satellites, along with having the facilities to cope with them, will speed threat detection further.
Multiple threats can be detected at once, and fitting in with the unforgiving nature of the tactical shooter side of XCOM:EU, only one can be acted upon. Each mission has its own set of objectives, difficulty and rewards (whether that be funding or new engineers/researchers). Completing a mission will reduce the panic level in the country where the attack took place, however by neglecting the other two those affected countries will become more hysterical. Once a country’s panic level has reached maximum, they will withdraw their support from XCOM, taking with them their funding and people. This instability mechanism encapsulates the panic and fragility of war that not many games even attempt to emote.
Yet, this reviewer cannot shake this feeling of disinterest of what XCOM:EU has to offer. While mechanically it is satisfyingly tight, XCOM:EU’s difficulty jumps dramatically after the first 3 hours, reducing one’s rookie squad into sacks of laser-burnt meat. The missions become near identical in nature (read: kill all the aliens), which the isometric view of the world and the slow pace turn-based movement only exacerbates. It is weird, there is not anything wrong with XCOM:EU; it just does not resonate with me. This is worthy of the XCOM name, and there is no doubt that the turn-based aficionados will get a kick out what XCOM:EU has to offer.