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Mini Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Given that this game has pretty much taken over all my spare time since I got it, a mini review had to be on the cards.

Well, what is there to say? This is a remake of a classic PC game from the early 90s, one which I played briefly on the PS1 and didn’t like much because 1) it was originally a PC game and was hard using a pad 2) it was too hard and too slow paced for the young me.
It wasn’t until a friend showed me what could happen later on in the game when I became interested again but by then, I was unable to put in the time to fully get into it.

Fast forward to the present and my tastes in games have broadened considerably and turn based strategy RPGs is one of my most beloved, yet criminally ignored genres. The biggest splash came several years ago with the release of Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3, still one of my favourite games of this console generation! but aside from the odd re-release of classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and a couple of PSP Super Robot Wars games, there hasn’t been much to get excited about when it comes to Turn Based SRPGs. Then came XCOM!!!

For those who are not in the know, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is NOT the FPS reboot version but instead, sticks true to the original, right down to the basic premise. You command a secret organisation which is to defend earth from hostile aliens. You’re responsible for balancing the budget, decide what gets researched take out UFOs and send a crack squad of troops to take out any hostile ETs and protect civilians. Against you is an alien force with numerical and technological superiority!! Most of your time will be spent on the field with your squad which starts with 4 members but can grow to 6. There are 4 main classes of troops, Heavy (the big gun with low movement), Assault (up close and personal. Pretty useless from range but fast movement), Sniper (do I need to spell this one out?) and Support (healing and general usage). Your troops all start as rookies though, and need to be promoted before they can specialise. Squad members can also be customised to a limited degree and renamed at your leisure so you can fill it up with friends names and label your “red-shirt” with the name of someone you’re not fond of (disclaimer: I don’t do this!)

All units can perform up to 2 tasks per turn. One of which is moving a short distance (unless you teach them specific skills) so basically, think of it as being able to move and then <action> or just <action>. Everything is automatic in the game so you don’t have VC style controls where you can move your units to specific locations, nor are you expected to manually aim at the targets. Instead, you are shown a percentage chance of how likely your attack is to hit and it gets modified depending on various elements.

Outside of the main battle element, you need to spend your given budget on expanding your base and surveillance tech, researching alien tech and also provide limited control to your fighter jets which take down UFOs over the countries which you have satellite surveillance. It’s not glamorous but it needs to be done! Initially, the game is ridiculously hard as you are completely outmanned and outgunned but as you progress and your technology gets better, the game does get somewhat easier but this is no walk in the park! There are 3 difficulties, normal, classic and impossible. I’m on classic and it’s pretty tough. You can make it even harder by playing on ironman mode, which limits you to a single save and you aren’t allowed to quit midway without saving!!!

That’s the game in a nutshell, so how does it fare?

LOVED!

  • Super tense SRPG action – Well, this game is awesome just for being a turn based SRPG, though the RPG elements are rather thin on the ground.
  • Bros forever! – You really care for your units. They lack character, like those in Valkyria Chronicles for example, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t care for them. Losing a veteran to a lucky shot really hurts!!
  • Turn the tables – No matter what the enemy, until you upgrade your kit, you are incredibly vunerable. Units can (and will often) be killed with a single shot from an alien weapon so when you see your tactics work and the enemy overwhelmed while you are on inferior tech, it’s really satisfying. Though taking them out with better weapons is also good!

HATED

  • Screw physics! – Now this isn’t a complaint about the sci-fi tech in the game but rather certain game mechanics. I read in an interview with the devs that they developed a tabletop game while making the game to help create rules for the battle system… and it shows!! It’s possible (moreso for the aliens) to attack an enemy with no line of sight and with obstacles in the way which would prevent you from even seeing your target. Once, I had my unit in half cover behind some debris with a car between me and the alien and my unit was still shot and killed through the car (which took no damage!)
  • Percentages mean nothing! – I mentioned above that, when aiming, you are given a percentage to explain your chance of hitting your target. Feel free to ignore it, though it is comforting at times. The reason I say this is because on many occasion, I have had a hit chance of well over 80% and my unit still misses. Worse still, I had a unit directly UNDER a floating target with a hit chance of 98%! Guess what? She missed. Constantly. The reason for this is simply how the game works. The chance of your attack hitting is not worked out each time you perform an action but is worked out beforehand and the state saved. So if you save the game before your shot and it misses, even if you reload the game, it will always miss, regardless of the % chance attached. To me, that’s just stupid!
  • Chrisalids – This will only mean something to those who have played either this or the original game. FUCK CHRYSALIDS!!! (Basically, they are fast moving melee units which can kill most of your units in a single blow (until much later) and if one of your units does die, it comes back as an enemy zombie in the next turn. Leave the zombie alone for too long and a new chrysalid gestates from it… Yeah, fuck that unit!! only the cyberdisk comes close to being as bad)

Overall, I must say that I do enjoy XCOM a lot but at the same time, like many titles I have played this year, it falls into the category of “Good, but…”
Pandora’s tower and DoA5 both left me thinking that I would have enjoyed the game more with some gameplay changes (and may have improved the game overall) and that’s definitely how I feel about XCOM. The bit about calculated hit chances annoys the hell out of me though. Of course, that won’t stop me from playing the hell out of it like I have been doing! Easily one of the better titles out this year and I’m glad it even exists. That alone is enough to mask the flaws, until I fire up Valkyria Chronicles again (even though comparisons are woefully unfair and in the favour of VC)