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Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

Strategy games have held a position of favour for man hardcore gamers since the inception of the form.

Unfortunately, this genre has been woefully represented over the past few years as market ground has been lost to more populist fair, especially to the infinitely reproducible first person shooters.

So much so, that in a recent visit to the EB expo in Sydney 2012, there were only two notable strategy titles on show. One of those particularly caught the eye – XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s a franchise I remembered fondly; the first XCOM game was released way back into the 1990's, and the game has always had a remarkable pull and is renowned for intelligent, tough strategy fare.

The premise of this new XCOM is the well-trodden science fiction storyline of extra-terrestrial invasion. An unknown force has descended upon the earth and is wrecking havoc. Widespread panic ensues as the invading host starts interacting with the unfamiliar planet; damaging buildings, abducting locals and generally making a nuisance of itself. So the world turns to the XCOM project, a response unit of crack troops designed to react and deal with the invading force, a force with clearly superior and unfamiliar technology.

The player assumes the mantle of the commander-in-chief of XCOM, the decision-making force in the base of operations. The varied roles held by this commander include all the intricacies of managing a resistance force, including managing (and customising) the military folks, research and development including scientific interaction and the study of new technology and alien biology, and engineering as scientific discoveries are adapted to technology that humans can use. On top of that there are decisions to be made around financial matters, architectural advancements for the base of operations and diplomacy with the increasingly concerned governments.

It is all simulated well, and while these various roles may sound complicated an excellent participation tutorial provides the player with the tools required to play through the game. Indeed, an easily accessible interface combines efficiently with this tutorial, highlighting that despite its many intricacies, XCOM is one of those games that is easy to learn but hard to master.

Gameplay is fun and addictive, boiling down to two major interactive battle portions. The majority of strategy included in the turn based strategy game is characteristed with recon missions, with further interaction with aliens via fighter 'dogfight' response to UFO's. Taking your role as response unit seriously, the game gives the player important decision making very early on - granting the choice of responding (in the impressively rendered globe) to various nation’s pleas for assistance – a difficult decision to make so early on as XCOM only has resources to reply to one country who is very grateful for the help, but at the expense of panic in the ignored countries. The risk to all this being that if ignored for too long, the country will withdraw valuable resources from the XCOM unit. The fate of the world truly feels in your hands.

Appropriate country selected, the player then chooses the four-to-six man response infantry unit. Post hand picking the soldiers, the player 'dons the hat' of commander on the field. The player pulls the collective strings of these soldiers as they move around and interact with unfamiliar cities across the globe. Moving through the impressively detailed alien infested urban jungle environments – hidden in a fog of war - is treacherous and produces a number of avenues for conflict. Simple skirmish responses to eliminate aliens hostiles the bread and butter of the in game missions, but an extensive array of scenarios allowing the player to mastermind such varied tasks as exploring crashes/ shot down UFOs, analysing bases of operations, saving important civilians, capturing some of the hostiles for interrogation and research, defusing bombs as well as deactivating power cores and much more. Simply put, the player has a lot of roles and missions to perform and will certainly never be bored.

Battle hardened by successful skirmishes, your soldiers experience is rewarded with promotions which in turn leads to new abilities. Initially rookies, promotions lead your marines into four different classes – heavy weapons, sniper, assault and support, each with its own advantages and disadvantages and individual ability trees providing important tactical advantages in the heat of battle. While these classes do provide some variability, your GI's are also able to receive the benefits of your scientific research and engineering brilliance as advances from the aliens leads to the ability to upgrade armour, weapons, as well as producing gadgets. The fantastically imagined, yet strangely plausible, potential of futuristic technology is realised in the wonderful design of this game and when advances lead to customising a unit with a jetpack, the geek inside let out a loud squeal of glee. It is remarkable that each soldier began indistinguishable at commencement of the campaign yet felt a member of family by the end.

To this end, and whilst not important tactically, special praise should be given to the unit customisation where individual troops can be renamed and their appearance (maintaining the importantly rigid GI appearance) modified to represent, say, co-workers and friends and family. Taking advantage of this option is highly recommended to increase engagement with the game. A cautionary tale however: accidentally over-extending your fiance's tactical location leading to her demise does lead to an awkward conversation at home...

A second, minor piece of gameplay to consider exists in the very limited dogfight mode, where the player launches interceptors (aircraft) in a bid to bring down stray UFO's. Essentially, this consists of watching an automated aircraft, one at a time, attempting to chase an UFO on what feels like a 2D screen. The player’s interaction here is minimal and involves little more than occasionally clicking a button to authorise an expensive addition to the plane’s firepower. Whilst understandably the designers have focused on other areas within the game, I do feel that this inclusion could have been more successful with greater control of the fighters.

The game’s tactical feel is fantastic. It is in-depth, nuanced, challenging yet achievable and relies on some impressive real world flanking strategies to obtain dominance and victory. Realistically, it places a great deal of emphasis on cover and support from multiple troops bearing on the same target – the in game mechanics do reward tactical knowledge and innovation. However like all turn-based strategies, success is only truly achieved through mastering the in game mathematical system and maximising damage. So, interactive spreadsheets. Thankfully, in XCOM the game mathematics is mostly hidden by the slick interface.

The AI is mostly fantastic and responds well to a number of external challenges, appropriately deploying troops and ensuring each victory is deservedly earned. On the harder difficulty levels there is still a tendency towards some silly decisions, especially in relation to a tendency towards fog of war induced over-extension of troops, allowing players to exploit towards not only survival but a position of dominance and close range flanking. A minor point that doesn't detract too much from the experience, but noteworthly nonetheless – real strategy veterans are going to feel that the AI here it a touch too streamlined for its own good. That said, for most players the difficult levels have been performed to outstanding level.

Art direction is frankly outstanding and truly worthy of a triple-A title. Cut scenes are beautifully rendered in HD glory to capture the attention of the player, drawing them into the fictitious world as they sprint towards the next cover, or land back via the airborne troop carriers. Individual maps, without the cut scenes, are also gorgeous and fun to interact with.

For all the good, though there are a few issues that were difficult to overlook. Glitches and bugs in the programming mean that enemies and friendly alike can sometimes shoot through walls and doors. These glitches don’t really affect gameplay in the broad sense though, and are easily forgotten when caught up in the atmosphere generated through the musical score, professional, emotional voice acting and clever intricate storylines.

One big side note through: I did encounter a bug in the ironman campaign (which allows only a single game file automatically update), where the game continued to freeze at an important tactical location causing it to crash to desktop – causing me a wasted afternoon of gameplay and much frustration. An important, high profile title should not suffer these bugs. Such is the appeal of the game that I was well and truly hooked and was happy to commence a new campaign – replayability is very high - but it could be enough to turn off for other players.

Overall, XCOM is a massive and fantastic hit. It is a challenging, fun, endearing and wonderfully performed turn based strategy that should provide a benchmark for the genre in the coming years. I can only hope this is the beginning in the turn of tide towards a renaissance in strategy gaming.

- Owen S






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Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)
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