Wednesday 9 January 2013

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The Title Screen

Released in 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a strategic RPG with turn-based, tactical combat missions. Developed by Firaxis, it was released for PC, PlayStation and Xbox. It currently has had two DLC implemented, with the expectation of more.

Disclaimer: Features violence in a futuristic setting, with some moments/concepts that may be unsuitable.

The First Thing
I'd heard XCOM: Enemy Unknown was 'critically acclaimed' and the re-imagining of a franchise that began over 20 years ago. Therefore, I was a little surprised at the apparent lack of effort I found in the introductory experiences. The menu is poor and uninteresting, the opening cutscene is brief and uninformative, and the base management tutorials are not particularly useful either. I realise a Video Game should be about the gameplay, but it did leave me with a first impression of confusion and mild disappointment.

Plot & Devices
When Earth is attacked by an unknown alien race, the Council Of Nations activates XCOM: an elite organisation of the best minds and resources solely preparing for an alien invasion. It is up to you, as the XCOM Commander, to make the choices necessary to learn all you can about the invaders and then defeat them. The entire planet is in jeopardy, and XCOM is the only defence.


The story is progressed through in-game events, but does not really explore the basic premise in any detail. Since the NPCs have limited dialogue and never express any personality, there is no character development either. Short cutscenes accompany important story milestones, but are mainly used in a summary capacity rather than a form of progression. The focus of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is definitely on the gameplay, with the story existing as a framing device.

The Game
XCOM: Enemy Unknown's gameplay is split between combat and base management. Combat missions feature tactical, turn-based gameplay with a squad of soldiers and differing objectives. Meanwhile back at the base the player must deal with management decisions that will determine what resources/equipment will be available throughout the game. The different sides of the game are not independent and decisions/actions taken in one will affect the other.

When at base the player will have to manage operations and the allocation of resources. The player is more-or-less free to do as they wish, but will not proceed very far through the game if they engage in frivolous decision making. Materials are salvaged from combat missions and can be used in a variety of different ways. Base management typically involves:
● Assembling items to be equipped by soldiers in combat missions.
● Choosing research tasks.
● Constructing Rooms for the base to use the resulting benefits.
● Managing Soldiers loadout and customisation.
● Managing fighter planes to be used when a UFO appears.
● Waiting for the Aliens to attack.

The base

The world is divided up into sections, with each area possessing a 'panic level'. The aliens usually attack multiple locations at once, meaning the player must choose where to defend. Defeating the Aliens will reduce the panic and grant a reward from that specific area, but the panic will rise in the undefended areas. Satellites are used to extend monitoring ability and grant monthly rewards. Rewards from missions and countries vary from money to more personnel/resources.

When at base there is a representation of time; about one real second equates to an in-game minute. Certain activities and events require time to pass before they are available and some of the more complex constructions such as satellites can take quite a while before they are ready. Researching different projects costs resources and time as well and although it is hard to say whether time is an actual resource, it does add a forward thinking element to the game. If a player finds themselves with nothing to do, then the mission control's "Scan For Activity" should be used to fast-forward's until an event happens.

Scan For Activity

Combat missions utilise completely different gameplay. Set in an isometric perspective, the player directly controls each soldier in a turn-based, strategic style. Soldier have two action points that can be used per turn and different commands consume either one or both points. For example moving a short distance uses one point but moving a large distance costs two. Shooting usually uses one action point and this means a soldier can move a short distance and then fire, or move a long distance with no shooting. When all soldiers have used their action points, the player's turn is over and the aliens have their turn. Soldiers do not need to be used in any sequence and some actions can take place in the opponents turn, such as instructing soldiers to shoot anything that enters their range.

Commanding a soldier to shoot presents a choice of available targets and the % hit chance of each shot; with line of sight and range affecting the %. A successful hit has the chance to critical strike for extra damage. Cover provides a defensive bonus, but does not impede offensive actions as soldiers/aliens can lean around/over. It is never wise to be out in the open, and the player will often have to think ahead before issuing a command. When a soldier loses all their health, they either die or fall into a critical condition and will die in three turns unless stabilised by a medical pack. Afterwards soldiers injured in combat are unusable for in-game time, depending on how severe the injury was. Dead soldiers are gone forever.

Soldiers are categorised into classes (Heavy, Sniper, Support etc) and taking part in combat missions will award XP. When a soldier levels up, a new ability becomes available for use in combat. Some weapons/items are class restricted and a balanced squad is generally preferable. Enemy AI will behave differently on each time, although they will always be in the same starting place. Any unexplored terrain, or area that is obscured from all soldiers, will be shrouded in Fog of War and hiding enemies inside.

Movement and Shooting interfaces

The soundtrack is pretty standard and the voice acting is flat and clichéd; but the sound effects are decent. The graphics are not of high fidelity, but I suspect this is due to effort placed into the cutscenes. There are many little cutscenes in the game, which feature the actual customised soldiers of the player; which is a nice touch. The controls and interface was specifically written for the PC version, so there are no porting bugs. The mouse control is excellent, although occasionally combat camera controls feel a little clunky.

Wrap Up & Negatives
It is a buggy game. Nothing especially game breaking, but bugs in combat missions are definitely annoying. Being able to be randomly shot through walls completely undermines the importance of line of sight and cover. There are also some questionable design decisions, such as aliens receiving a free move when they are discovered. Since their starting position is unknown, it is common to be caught in a bad position and suffer high damage in that free move - which seems a little unfair.

As the game progresses, the punishment for failure becomes too severe. So much time and resources go into soldiers that the player will be very tempted to save and re-load if things go wrong. The combat is supposed to have random elements, but it can be very annoying to miss a shot with a 95% hit chance, and then have the enemy kill your soldier instead. Losing hours of work due to an unlucky dice roll is not enjoyable and just encourages further abuse of the save system.

Although base management is initially a little overwhelming, it can easily become routine and boring. Quite often I found myself with nothing to do and using the "Scan for Activity" to move time forward. It strikes me as strange design to have events that take days to complete, but then using a 'fast forward' button. This could just be my interpretation, but I just felt 'time' was a delaying tactic to pad out the game, rather than a mechanic.

Be wary of that Alien free move

I definitely have mixed feelings. The combat is reminiscent of the Fire Emblem series which I very much liked, but the base management side mostly bored me. I am not sure why XCOM: Enemy Unknown received so much critical praise, given the bugs and questionable design decisions, but if I had to guess, it would be that people are crying out for a change from the sequels and FPS AAA releases of late. So when something seemingly different comes along, it receives enthusiastic attention.

It is two games in one and if you hate tactical combat, or the base management, then you will not like half of the game. Personally I thought the combat was great (aside from the bugs) but the base management side was routine and tedious. It is worth trying because it is a refreshingly different AAA release, but I would advise trying to pick it up at a discount. Firaxis are continuing to develop DLC, but there does not appear to be much general support as most of the bugs are still in the game at time of writing.

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