XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Review] – World turns18 Oct 2012  by
Back when I was a wee lad of about 10, we got hold of Terror from the Deep, the aquatic sequel to UFO: Enemy Unknown (which was better known as X-COM: UFO Defense across the Atlantic, and I’ll grudgingly call it that to distinguish it from the similarly-named 2012 game). The problem was that we got hold of a CD-ROM version of it, and this was awhile before we actually had a CD drive. Solution? Find someone who did have a CD drive, and copy the entire game onto floppy disks.
As I recall, the game ended up as a zip file spanned across around 60 floppies. Guess which family member got to sit there for a few hours, swapping disks and tapping the space bar when commanded by the DOS screen to do so. You know what? It was worth it.
See, there’s one experience everyone inevitably has when they first played either UFO Defense or Terror from the Deep. It squats in your hindbrain like some grinning predator, rearing up whenever anyone mentions the series. Ask any veteran, and they will tell you some variation on the following story.
I started the game. I plonked down my base and fiddled with the construction options, perhaps starting work on a new laboratory or some better sensors. I named all of my hardy soldiers after friends and family members, because if anyone’s going to save the world from the alien menace, it’s going to be us. I dispatched fighters to shoot down the first alien ship that popped up on my radar. I sent in my troop transport to deal with the crash site. I moved the first person down its ramp towards the black, unexplored area…
…and bolts of flaming green plasma streaked out of the fog of war and cut him down dead. And then the second man. And then the third. It was a horrific cross between the D-Day landings and The X-Files, starring people in my old photo albums.
XCOM, as a series, is merciless. You’re up against an unknown force with superior numbers and superior technology; you are going to suffer an extraordinarily high number of casualties, and you are going to be very afraid of the darkness that represents the limits of your soldiers’ vision.
So you learn. You group soldiers together and move carefully, reserving enough points to make an escape or a desperate shot viable. You don’t rush in (although no tactics ever make clicking the End Turn button less terrifying). You take down UFOs, you capture their tech, and you use it against the invaders; you as a player adapt to the tactics required to survive, and XCOM as an organisation adapts to the alien technology. The aliens adapt too, sending in stronger, previously unseen alien creatures, and you take further losses. And so the cycle repeats, escalating each time, until one side finally crushes the other.
In short: my memories of XCOM past are mostly those of fear, desperation, loss, and fighting tooth-and-nail for every victory. It’s also a series that was better at letting you build your own stories than it was at telling one – your soldiers might not have had any personality in the game’s barely-present narrative, but they damn well did in your head.
Wisely, Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t a straight remake of the original game with prettier graphics and a cleaner interface. It’s a reimagining, taking the most important feelings and experiences that the original games had to offer, and finding a way to recreate them for a modern audience.
I’m going to commit heresy now by saying I’m thankful for this. Much as I love the original games – and I really, really do – they could be a bit… unwieldy. The interface was a nightmare. Scouring the gargantuan maps for the last surviving alien was an exercise in boredom that would probably get at least one of your soldiers killed because you stopped paying attention. Moving the huge swathes of men at your command every single turn took forever. And Time Units, while fine and dandy back then, meant that every single time you wanted to move a soldier you’d have to do some rudimentary maths to make sure they could still shoot after they’d finished waddling to their destination.
These things are gone, and – much as I do occasionally miss them – the upshot is a turn-based tactical combat game that delivers the same mind-numbing terror with every move and with every turn end, but does it more quickly and cleanly than its predecessors. Smaller squads, smaller hand-designed maps, and a number of other changes make everything a lot easier to get into.
Time Units, for instance, have been replaced with Action Points, of which each soldier has two. Moving a set number of spaces takes one, and firing (or going into the “fire if an alien moves within range” Overwatch mode) takes however many you have left. In other words, you can either move once and fire, move once and drop into Overwatch, or move twice as far as normal but be totally defenceless. Here’s the kicker: in this one paragraph I have basically taught you how to play XCOM.
What gives Enemy Unknown its own character is the way that it so regularly lets you break these rules. Once they rank up by killing their first alien, each of your troops is assigned a class – Heavy, Support, Assault, or Sniper. From then on, whenever they’re promoted again, you get a choice between two abilities. Normally, a Sniper can only fire his rifle if he hasn’t moved that turn (as it presumably takes time to aim) but once he reaches Corporal rank, you can break that rule by giving him the Snap Shot ability, letting him fire after moving but with a penalty to accuracy. Alternatively, you can give him the ability to shoot any enemy that anyone in the squad can see, which has equally obvious uses.
The Heavy can be allowed to fire twice a turn instead of moving. The Assault can Run-and-Gun, firing after spending both Action Points moving. The Support can retaliate with Overwatch when an enemy fires, in addition to when an enemy moves. Etc. etc. In this way, you build up your squad, customising them to fill in tactical niches, and assemble a team capable of fighting the aliens on their own terms.
Except that Enemy Unknown is just as merciless as its predecessors, and things never quite work out like that. A soldier getting hurt necessitates a lengthy stay in the base’s hospital while they recuperate, meaning that – unless you’ve been cycling in raw recruits to get them some experience – the next time you’re fighting aliens, you’re going to be without a few of your star players. It’s even worse when someone dies; losing a Colonel who’s got over 50 kills because of a stupid tactical blunder is like being punched in the stomach. Not just because they were a useful member of the squad, but also because you knew that Colonel. You’d worked with them. You remember when they got shot and panicked and took down that Muton with a hail of terrified gunfire, and now they’re gone forever.
At this point I’ve attempted maybe six campaigns of Enemy Unknown. My first was a failed Ironman game (in which you can’t reload past saves) on Normal difficulty. The second was a successful attempt at the same. The subsequent four were all Ironman games on Classic difficulty, and they have all gone horribly, horribly wrong, for reasons ranging from poor tactical decisions, poor decisions on the strategic map, and appalling luck.
Yes, luck: sound tactics and solid strategy will only carry you so far if you’re incapable of beating the odds occasionally. Every time you fire, you’re told both your chance to hit the enemy, and – if the shot hits – the chance for it to be a critical hit, dealing extra damage. The aforementioned cover impacts your hit chance greatly: someone in half-cover (those oh-so-common chest-high wall, for instance) is a harder target than someone in the open, and someone in full cover (perhaps pressing themselves against the side of a bus) is more evasive still. Being out in the open is not an option, in short; moving from cover to cover and trying to pin down and flank enemies is crucial from the start. Cover and scenery are all fully destructible, too, necessitating regular movement when things start to fall apart and explode around you.
But I was talking about luck. It’s perfectly possible for a soldier to be about six feet from an alien, fire off a burst from an assault rifle with a 90% chance to hit, and miss completely. When this happens, it’s terrible, not least because it tends to completely screw up your plans and may result in someone dying. Conversely, it’s entirely possible for that to happen, and then for a complete rookie armed with a pistol to take an 8% chance potshot from the other side of the map and not only hit but crit, killing the offending alien and saving the squaddie who apparently needs a guide dog.
It’s a pain to have your plans unravel because of poor luck, certainly, but desperately trying to fix it when things go wrong is half the joy. You pray you’ve got another soldier in range to make that important shot, or that the aliens will miss, or that you can force one or two to panic and retreat. If you’re thinking that turn-based games can’t be tense or scary, then you’ve never had a wounded Major suppressed by Muton fire and two steps from a Xenomorph-like Chrysalid, with the rest of the team too far to be of any real use. Does moving through an eerie room in a survival horror game give you sweaty palms? Try bringing yourself to move that Major, knowing full well the Muton’s reaction shot could kill her.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been talking almost exclusively about the tactical combat rather than the strategic map that ties it all together. Well, that’s because the strategic game – in which you build up your base, research and build new technologies, and plan your campaign against the alien hordes – doesn’t quite match up to the older games.
Back then you’d build multiple bases, watch the globe for UFOs, send out Interceptors on scouting missions to find alien bases, specifically target supply ships and ships on “diplomatic missions” that were trying to get your funding cut, and generally wage war. Here, you… well, you still build up your base, research technologies, and so on. You’ll still click Scan For Activity and wait with muted terror to see if you research laser rifles before the aliens launch a terror attack on Mumbai.
But it doesn’t feel like you’re engaging in a war with a force that has its own agenda and its own mission. It feels like you’re clicking a button and waiting for a randomly generated mission to pop up. With UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep there was always a sense that there was far more going on than you could see; that the aliens were building up their forces, and their outposts, and seeking out your bases, and actively working to undermine you – just as you were doing to them. But here, you just feel entirely reactive. You’re largely just waiting to see what mission pops up next, and that’s possibly the second biggest disappointment in Enemy Unknown.
The biggest disappointment is the utterly atrocious camera. For most of the game it’s fine, and does its job admirably; you’re unlikely to notice this problem for the first few hours. It only suffers when you’re dealing with interiors that have multiple floors – like, for example, the larger UFOs you’ll be tackling from the mid-game onwards – at which point moving individual soldiers becomes an exercise in frustration. It’s not a game-breaker, but it’s bad enough that I’ve sighed and quit upon seeing a large UFO appear, figuring I’ll deal with it when I’ve got more patience.
The important takeaway is this: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not X-COM: UFO Defense HD Remix. This is a discrete and distinct game in its own right, with its own touches of genius design and its own little foibles. It takes generously from the rest of the series and modifies things with lessons learned in the past two decades, and it’s never anything short of reverential (if you don’t crack a grin when you see the name of the final mission, you’re probably not a series fan) but it is, nonetheless, its own entity that stands alongside its predecessors rather than replacing them.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is as brutal, as tense, as merciless, as satisfying, and as clever as the rest of the series, and despite a few disappointments and a few problems, it’s a fantastic experience and a wonderful game. If you’re new to turn-based tactics then this – being both simple and deep – is an excellent place to start. If you’re an old hand, then rest assured: the series is in good hands.