Sunday, October 14, 2012

X-Com Enemy Unknown: An Introduction

Why introduction you may ask? Well, because there a lot of in-depth reviews already and I'm a bit pressed for time these days, so this is just a brief over-view for those not familiar with X-Com- mostly for Bronte who asked :)

Okay, so here we go.

Why should you care about X-Com Enemy Unknown?

X-Com UFO Defense (the original) was released in 1994 by Microprose and has since deservedly become a cult-classic. The game-play was challenging and tense, and it was one of the best turn-based, tactical, squad-based, strategy games I have ever played (wow that's a mouthful). Technically I played the sequel Terror From The Deep (1995) which, I'm told, was harder than the original. In the run up to the newest addition to the X-Com franchise, Enemy Unknown, there was a lot of hand-wrangling and speculation about how it would treat the legend that has become X-Com. Re-making a classic is never easy and can go horribly wrong (Jagged Alliance I'm looking at you) but the biggest problem is always going to be the fans. Some people remember things so fondly that no re-make will ever come close. That's the great thing about memory- we tend to forget all the bad stuff after a few years.

In any case the developers this time around assured the populace that they too loved the original and that they were going to capture the feel of it and make us proud. 2k Games, Firaxis and Sid Meier all teamed up on this one so hope was running high. What was that feel, you ask? The original was good because it was tense, it was hard, and it was cool (aliens were invading earth for pete sake!). You started with a bunch of noobs, knew nothing about the aliens, and were out-gunned, and out-numbered at all times. The turn-based tactical part of the game saw you commanding a squad of 8 men and women who you could re-name  (which was really novel at the time). You would, then, have a squad of people named after yourself and friends and it worked remarkably well in that it made you really care about them. You would assign individuals different weapons (heavy guns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, etc) and watch as they gained in experience and skill through play (better hit points, aim, load capacity, etc). You would wail in agony after a 90-minute mission when your favorite guy got ambushed and killed and as there was no mid-mission saving allowed you were basically screwed.

The greatest part about the original X-Com, and why it became a cult-classic is because it got people talking. How did your favorite squad get wiped out? How far did your name-sake make it? What was your longest mission- hunting for that last stupid alien hiding in the far corner of the map? The game inspired our imagination and had us sharing our stories long before the internet (yes, there was such a time) and forums made it easy to do so.

That's all fine and dandy, you may be saying, but what about the new X-Com? 

The new X-Com involves both a turn based, tactical game and a strategic overview game. In the tactical game you control 4-6 squad members who you can customize (names, looks, nick-names, etc) but who earn there roles in combat (they will be randomly assigned one of the roles Heavy, Support, Sniper, or Assault after a few missions). As far as I can tell these are random assignments and not based on anything they do on the battlefield.

The tactical portion of the game is top-down, and cover-based in that you move the cursor around and the various levels of cover are shown by shields. It is hard and you will need to follow basic squad-level tactics in order to succeed. If you aren't in cover, and if you aren't providing supporting fields of fire you will die. In fact you will still die even if you are. It is challenging and the AI is pretty good. They will seek shelter, and they will try to flank. In the beginning they out-gun you, and you will always be outnumbered. There is no such thing as being too cautious. You have to think and go slow or you will get wiped.

The strategic part of the game remains essentially unchanged from the original. You have to find out who the aliens are, what they want, and how to beat them. You do this by bringing back alien corpses, weapons, ships, and live beings to research on. As you go, you develop your technology so eventually you are a bit more evenly matched. In the beginning your crappy armor and shotguns do little against their plasma-based weapons.

You are the commander of X-Com, a kind of united nations for alien-busting and you are answerable to the nations of the world. You have to keep them happy to keep your funding up and you do this by responding to alien attacks, building sattelites to monitor the country's space, and running missions for 'the council'. There is also a bit of base-building in that you have to upgrade your research/engineering/hangar facilities and construct alien containment chambers, sattelite arrays, and the like but it so minimal that to call it 'strategic' is a bit of a joke.

Does it live up to the original? 

Yes.....and no.

It isn't a clone of the original and that's good. The original was slow-paced and could be exceedingly frustrating and the graphics, of course, are a bit outdated. The new X-Com is pretty, and has been streamlined and optimized so it could be released for consoles as well as the PC. I've discussed this prior, and in fact I said they 'dumbed it down' and I stand by that. I am, however, an obsessive nut for micro-management in games so the streamlining annoys the crap out of me whereas others may not mind so much.

Ultimately you have to ask does the new X-Com deliver as a stand-alone game while allowing those of us with warm, fuzzy memories of the original to feel good? The answer is yes. The tactical portoin of Enemy Unknown is challenging, tense, and it is one of the best turn-based, tactical, squad-based, strategy games I have ever played (sound familiar?) despite it's multitude of bugs, and flaws. The strategic portion of the game is anything but with it only serving to offer up more tactical battles. With today's technology and such a great development team I am very dissapointed that this part of the game was left to suffer.

The Good:

  • Tense, atmospheric tactical squad-based gameplay that punishes you for your mistakes.
  • Good graphics, sound, and effects with a fully destructible environment.
  • Engrossing 'just one more' game-play (to be expected from anything with Sid Meier).
  • One of the few truly turn-based games available today.
  • Some skill advancement choices for your troops.
  • Classic and above difficulty and/or Ironman mode makes things quite challenging and adds a lot of tension and excitement which I usually get in Player-vs-Player games.

The Bad:

  • Suffers from a multitude of bugs which is a joke for a AAA title (73 officially recorded here).
  • Strategic portion of the game is virtually non-existant and leaves the player mostly a spectator to what is happening.
  • So much more customization and player choice could easily have been included.
  • Troops 'skill trees' are lack-luster and offer little choices (two choices per 'level').
  • The panic system can see you 'lose countries' (a critical part of the strategic game) without giving you the chance to alter the outcome.
  • Suffers from 'stupid syndrome' in the amount of things that make no sense.

The Verdict:

Addicting as hell, and worth a play if you are a fan of X-Com or tactical turn based squad combat games. If you like strategic elements, or 'the big picture' more than tactical combat stay away and avoid disappointment.

Hopes for the Future:

An expansion which adds some real depth as the game doesn't have much re-playability at the moment and after a 100 or so tactical battles it may start to bore.

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