Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

One of the joys and miseries of being an old school gamer like myself is that I have a tendency to look at remakes as “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”  Too many are shameless cash grabs (The Bard's Tale remake stands out as one particularly noxious example). Few are a genuine improvement or re-imagining of the original title, which makes them all the more precious when they do come out.  For me, one of the series that I both hoped for and against coming back as a remake was X-COM: UFO Defense.

I was pretty sure that there were only a couple people around who could have made it great, and I was pretty sure that they wouldn't be involved in such a project.  So imagine my near-ecstatic reaction when I heard Firaxis was getting in on the act.  If anybody could pull off a proper revival of XCOM, I thought, it was “The House That Sid Built.”  By and large, they've done right by the old fans as well as brought out a title that new fans can sink their teeth into.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts you in the comfy chair of a military commander who must build up a covert fighting force, take on a looming alien threat, reverse engineer all their cool gadgets, and prevent them from conquering the planet.  No pressure there, really.

And rather than go with a real-time scheme, the game is unabashedly and unashamedly turn based.  However, it's less detail oriented; more streamlined than the original.  It manages to feel like a good remake and an all-original game at the same time.

The game's visuals are top notch, as one would expect with using the Unreal engine on a PC.  Character models are highly detailed, though the humans do seem a little bulgy and blocky compared to several alien varieties.  The environments are excellently rendered, though they do seem a bit repetitive at times.  For all that, though, you get some awesome visuals.  It's one thing to simply hunt down aliens on city streets.  It's quite another to take them on in the middle of a cemetery with fog and rain, or with the trees of a remote forest burning from the flaming debris of a downed UFO scattered about.

XCOM's use of particle effects, lighting, and other visual effects aren't simply for show.  They're used to draw you into the world.  While some folks might get a little bored of watching brief mini-cutscenes when they successfully take down an alien, or when they get one of their troops killed, it's a neat little visual boost to the gameplay to me.  Part of me wishes they'd packaged in a simplified version of the Unreal Matinee tool to let players cook up machinima that captured the feel of the combat between the aliens and the humans.

As for the character customization options, they're pretty damned impressive.  It's not quite at the level of Skyrim-type facial tweaking, but you've got plenty of options to make your troops look like absolute bad-asses.

Likewise, XCOM makes excellent use of sound to help further texture the experience.  Glass breaks as windows are shot out.  Alien grenades chirp ominously right before they go off next to one of your grunts.  The screams of the dying, alien and human alike, punctuate each battle viscerally.  The voice acting is pretty good, though it does get a little repetitive at times.  Likewise, the soundtrack occasionally dips into repetition, though it is very well written.  I think that, for this kind of game, sweeping orchestral scores are difficult to pull off.  This one does a good enough job to improve the overall experience.

When it comes to gameplay, it's almost easier to check off the things that the game could improve, since there's so much that the developers got right.  The pathing and map elevations could use some work.  There were a couple of instances, particularly in the larger UFOs, where the map kept suggesting paths to drop my troops down a level when I didn't want them to go that way.  There were also instances where it was hard to get a good idea where my troops could take position, again because of the map elevations being slightly wonky.  I also would have appreciated being able to set a waypoint or two along my soldiers' paths so they could avoid running into the hanging clouds of toxins left by dead Thin Men, or potentially exposing themselves to reaction fire from the aliens.

The action points used in the original game have been replaced by a two segment action bar.  You can make a move, then fire or use a special ability, make a double move, or just go straight into overwatch.  I think the two segment bar is perhaps a little too restrictive.  Firing your weapon is generally a full action that wipes out your entire bar, even if you haven't moved, which diverges enough from the original game to make me a little discomfited.  A more nuanced system could have been done, but I imagine that this was more of a concession to the console ports than anything else.

That being said, XCOM still has more gameplay and heart than most other strategy games you'll find out there.  A lot of it centers around trade-offs   Defend this country while another is attacked.  Advance to this position or hang back.  Build research labs or power generators, construction facilities or satellite guidance.  Research this item or not.  It's going to be tough, and it's not going to get easier.  The game really encourages you to build up multiple teams of troops, ready to deploy at a moment's notice.  One of the things I miss from the original game is the ability to deploy multiple squads on the same mission.  I suppose that balances out the fact that your base can't be invaded, though it also brings to mind the fact you can only have one base at a time.  I understand the necessity of having to make those trade-offs  but I don't like the game bashing me in the face with it through the bolted-on storyline.  That's probably the only genuine weakness in the game.  I understand it's for the species, boys and girls.  I don't need well voiced but poorly fleshed out characters to hit me over the head with it every time I check research progress, or go to buy new gear, or check on how close a country is to folding.

What the game gives you is a fast-paced, squad level, turn-based strategy element as the primary gameplay mode.  You are going to face increasingly dangerous foes, killing them as quickly as possible, hopefully capturing one or two of them along the way.  You are going to have to be mindful of cover, weapon ranges, morale, ammo, and objectives.  Not every job is a straight “kill'em all” sort of affair.  Sometimes, you have to extract a specific NPC.  Or save a bunch of civilians from being indiscriminately slaughtered.

You will build a sense of protectiveness with those gutsy damned grunts under your command, be they ever so randomized and virtual.  You exult when they pull off an incredible reaction shot that keeps a squadmate from coming under threat.  You start sweating a little when they take a bad hit and are close to dying while your medic is pinned down.  If you play long enough, you feel shock when they go down from a plasma bolt, or a ill timed car explosion, or choking on alien poison.  Shock and not just a little anger, at yourself for letting the aliens get the drop on you, and at the aliens for blasting one of your men.  And if you're in Ironman Mode, where you don't get to save between turns, it's ten times more powerful, because you can't bring them back.

It's in those moments that I think XCOM doesn't punish the player for making a mistake so much as motivate them to finish the job successfully.  To make sure that their soldiers' sacrifices are worth something and not wasted in a failed effort.  And if a particularly beloved and valued member of your forces goes down, those stinging salty drops of water coming out of your eyes are called tears, and they're perfectly OK for a moment or two.

My faith in Firaxis was not misplaced.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a worthy tribute to its progenitor and hopefully the start of something brand new for players who've been dying to get a good squad-based strategy game that lets them not only think, but feel as well.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
- Excellent use of the Unreal engine
- Beautifully developed art style all around
- Fast paced and engrossing gameplay
- Excuse me ... *sniff* Got something in my eye there …

The Bad:
- Weak storyline bolted on; shallow NPCs
- Map positioning is occasionally flaky
- Soundtrack could use some expansion

Score: 9.5 / 10