Every now and then the need to think a little more that just the current few seconds of excitement takes hold. Luckily for those of us who feel this way Firaxis and 2K games have come to our aid with XCOM:Enemy Unknown! And they brought some visitors…
XCOM puts the player in charge of a group of the worlds most elite soldiers tasked with defending the planet against an alien invasion.
The first choice you are presented with is in which region the XCOM base will be set up, with each area providing a different starting bonus. Later in the game more of these bonuses can be acquired but the starting bonus is very important to the development of your XCOM base.
However, before you get to see your base you are launched into the tutorial mission. The tutorial is in-depth enough to teach all the basics you will be using in battles but avoids becoming tedious. After learning how the cover, movement and attack systems work the player is returned to the XCOM base. But the tutorial doesn’t end there, oh no.
The tutorial actually goes on for quite some time after this first mission and aims to show all the aspects of constructing a successful XCOM base. While this tutorial is pretty good and does cover all the points needed to play the game successfully, it is hindered by my love of the punishment only a strategy game can provide.
Figuring out what mistakes I have made myself and learning from those mistakes is both a frustrating and satisfying experience and I think it a shame to miss out on. I decided to return to the main menu to start a new game. The tutorial is an integral part of the game and it is done well, I just wanted to spread my wings a little sooner.
After this you are very quickly thrust into the game and begin building up your base. During the non-combat phase every action takes a certain amount of days to complete. Going to “Mission Control” and scanning for activity progresses the date, but also brings up various combat activities. Essentially you cannot build the base up without activating more missions.
This creates a great sense of struggle at all times. It seems you are never quite comfortable with what you can achieve before hordes of aliens invade a city or a UFO needs shooting down by your vastly inferior air-craft. After pretty much every activity the soldiers or planes you use will be at least out of action for a few days if not KIA or shot-down. When two combat missions turn up in a row and you best soldier is still recuperating this creates quite a problem. This is far and away the best thing about XCOM, you actually feel like aliens are invading rather than politely waiting until you have researched the correct equipment or trained up your soldiers.
On top of this the XCOM project is overseen by a council with members from all the global super-powers who provide funding, if you do a good job. Each region has a panic level at all times and if the panic level gets too high the region withdraws from the XCOM project and you lose any funding that may have brought! The panic levels are reduced by building satellites and performing missions when they arise. So, we better get in there!
The combat is challenging even on the standard difficulty but does get easier as the game progresses. The AI is on the ball and not particularly forgiving. You won’t really get away with any mistakes, or “hope he doesn’t see that move” moments. Which is good. The enemy types are also impressively diverse sporting different visual appearances and accompanying abilities. This keeps the battles fresh even near the end of the game.
Despite the great enemy design, they aren’t present until you find them. The map has a shroud which is removed as your soldiers move from cover to cover. Moving cautiously and making sure not to leave anyone unprotected your squad slowly uncovers the map. Once you’re close enough to an enemy one phase ends and another begins. Your phase of “find the alien” stops and the aliens begin they’re phase of “kill, ambush or flank all the carefully positioned troops which no longer matters because we get a free go anyway”.
I don’t like this phase.
I wasn’t overly fond of “find the alien” but the second phase really became an issue. Providing their free go doesn’t completely ruin the last hour you spent taking great care to bring everyone back alive you will probably have to move soldiers to ensure their lack of death in the next round.
It also struck me that the accuracy of the most elite soldiers the entire planet has to offer was pretty bad. The hit percentages just seemed slightly less than I expected at what I consider a reasonable range.
It seems a shame that one the most important parts of a tactical game isn’t present, the setup. The free go the enemy gets whenever you discover them is a real problem, rendering your strategic setup and caution before you know where the enemy is useless. If your soldiers could just detect or hit the enemy at slightly longer range or the enemy didn’t get a free movement phase this would all be solved. This tempted me to reload a lot to save lives and ensure mission success. However, this was a mistake.
Iron Man mode disables manual saving and loading and provides you with just one auto save that the game handles without remorse. This means if you lose a squad member or make a mistake you have no choice but to keep playing or start the campaign again!
Impossible difficulty reduces starting cash and the amount of scientists and engineers you receive. It also gives the aliens huge health increases and frankly inhuman accuracy. The AI completely destroyed me mercilessly and repeatedly and laughed at any thought I had of myself as a strategically minded gamer, which is great!
Whilst I only recommend Iron Man mode in conjunction with Impossible difficulty for those who truly hate themselves, Iron Man mode itself is a great idea and the game made much more sense with it enabled. Rather than being a perfectionist and reloading more often than I should have it forced me to live with mistakes and accept XCOM members deaths as an inevitable part of the struggle.
Audio & Visual
The soundtrack is pretty good with some nice rousing fanfares when preparing your squad for launch and some piano that would be at home in the original Resident Evil game when an alien is discovered in combat. The weapons also sound pretty chunky with good punches of base when a weapon is fired or a grenade explodes. The voice acting feels a little rigid but is way better than I would expect in this kind of game.
The graphics are nice and environments and textures are great, with enough lighting and fog effects to create a decent atmosphere.
Unfortunately for me I played the PS3 version of XCOM. I constantly felt like this game should be played on a PC not because of the lack of a keyboard and mouse but because of the horrific frame rate when more than just my squad could be seen on screen. Particularly later in the game when more enemies are present the game can grind almost to a halt. The frame rate issues can make it difficult to move your squad to the correct spot and while there weren’t a huge amount of full lock ups when they happen they set you back quite a bit of time. Hopefully at some point a patch can fix these problems.
A great tutorial, fantastic combat, in-depth non-combat game play, and reasonable audio and visuals are hindered from being truly great by performance issues and having to play “find the alien”. Despite these problems the sense of struggle and the difficulty Firaxis have created in XCOM allow it to become a must have strategy title.
XCOM is available now on XBOX 360, PS3 and PC and is definitely a must play for any strategy fan (although I recommend the PC version if possible).