These days it seems like almost every big title is a remake, reboot, or re-imagining of an older franchise.
These days it seems like almost every big title is a remake, reboot, or re-imagining of an older franchise. Love it or hate it, that’s just the way the industry is going right now; and believe it or not, the resurrection of some classic franchises results in a great game. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of those rare reboots that really captures the feel of the original, without becoming a point-for-point rehash, or a poorly conceived cash-grab for the nostalgia crowd.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s plot revolves around a mysterious alien invasion. You play as the commander of an international anti-alien military task force charged with eliminating the alien threat by any means necessary. As the game progresses you learn more and more about the aliens’ technologies, as well as their plans for the conquest of earth. With the help of their research and engineering teams, the player defends earth from these mysterious invaders, and uses the aliens’ own technology against them.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy, with some elements of base-building, resource management, and RPG style character building. If managing a small squad from the unit classes, equipment types, names, and even the hairstyles of each member sounds like a lot of fun to you, then you will enjoy the heck out of XCOM. The amount of aspects you control when it comes to your squad is impressive, but I can’t help but draw correlations to Barbie dress-up games as I pick out my sniper’s hairstyle. Let’s change the subject to something more manly: the combat. Each unit can be selected individually and given orders to move, shoot, or use special skills. Units have several restrictions based on how moving and shooting effect one another. For instance: some weapons cannot be fired after moving, and if a unit sprints (moves it’s maximum distance in one turn) it cannot fire. Moving a few grid units, then selecting an enemy to fire at seems straightforward enough, but there are a ton of variables to consider when choosing where your squad should move, which enemy they should shoot at, and even whether they should move or shoot at all can really make you appreciate the fact that it’s turn-based; it’s kind of nice that the enemy can’t blow you to bits while you stare at your screen in contemplation of your next move.
The base/resource management side of the game is great too, for people who like that sort of thing at least. Your base is shown as a large structure in which you do not see the fourth wall which would block your view, similar to an ant farm. As you progress through the game you must excavate deeper underground and build various facilities such as laboratories, workshops and containment centers for captured aliens; each of which has its own unique set of costs and benefits. Each action takes a set number of days to complete, which adds another layer of cost/benefit analysis beyond just the number of resources each project will take, because it forces you to decide between a weaker, but faster upgrade, over a stronger project who’s benefits may not be seen until several missions later. A lot of the game’s non-combat elements revolve around keeping the countries that provide you with funding happy so that you don’t go broke. You do this by launching satellites, saving civilians, and shooting down UFOs. The combination of all of these out-of-combat elements create a sense that something is always happening and makes for a deep and engaging experience. The campaign itself is a good length (I took about 30 hours to complete the game), and has great replay potential.
The big selling point for XCOM: Enemy Unknown– at least for me – was permanent death. If a soldier dies on a mission he is gone for good; if he was a particularly useful and high-ranked soldier then you are going to be upset. Additionally, with the inclusion of character customization options –nicknames that your soldiers earn and even a goddamn memorial for fallen warriors – you are going to be absolutely devastated when your best guy gets taken out. It’s a really unique set of mechanics which makes your team feel like real people that you invest in emotionally. The downside however, is that you can easily invest too much into a single unit only to have him killed, thus losing your most valuable asset. In other words, you are going to reload some hard missions over and over again to make sure you don’t lose your favorite squad member.
With all that said, let me address my biggest gripe with XCOM: the difficulty settings. Basically changing the difficulty settings does two things: it makes your soldiers less likely to hit enemies, and enemies more likely to hit your squad members. It certainly makes things harder, but in a very artificial way; I would have preferred more, or smarter enemies.
I have heard the complaint that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is much shallower than the original 90’s iteration, and I agree; however, gamers cannot expect the same level of depth that those games bring and still get modern production values associated with AAA titles. XCOM: Enemy unknown may not be as deep as the original, but it’s a damn shade deeper than a lot of big titles out this year.
They’re good. What more can I really say? The avoidance of the “brown and bloom” color palette that has been dominating games lately is a relief. Everything has a very sleek, shiny aesthetic to it which really ties the whole thing together visually, and makes sense in the game’s universe. The shininess, and rounded edges which all of the equipment and technology in the game seems to share, sort of makes everything look like it was designed by Apple, which - to be honest - is probably an accurate depiction of earth’s future.
With a game like XCOM, or any other game in which the player camera is zoomed out so far away from the action, one might assume that the attention to detail isn’t going to be as high as that of an FPS, where you can see every inch of the environment up close. This is not the case. XCOM’s character models are highly detailed, and look great. Character animations are good as well. Soldiers will fidget around and poke their heads over cover while they are not being given orders, giving them a lot more personality and life. Some of the animations associated with the supporting characters during cut scenes are a bit rigid and unnatural, but these issues are few and far between. That is not to say the game is not without a few glaring graphical bugs. Sometimes when a character stands by a wall it will flash in and out of existence until you move the camera around, or move that unit. Also, a lot of times when one of my soldiers died, the camera would zoom in on their dramatic rag-dolling death scene and their hair would disappear. This may not be a common bug, but definitely a hilarious one. The environments are highly polished and have a degree of randomization, when it comes to the placement of cover and props, so even though there are about ten “base” environments you will rarely play the exact same level twice.
Sound design is really one of those things that a player only really notices when it goes horribly wrong. So in a way I mean it as a compliment that XCOM’s sound is something I never really thought about during play. Most of the soundtrack could be called synthetic sounding, which fits the theme of the game, without distracting the player at all. To give a point of comparison, the theme music sounds very similar to that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The benefit of such a monotonous, robotic soundtrack, is the way the game can use a new sound to really startle you. As you move through the mission areas and encounter enemies, a discordant piano sound will play, startling the hell out of you. While actually in combat against alien enemies, the tempo of the music ramps up, and once they are defeated the world becomes almost silent. The contrast between the combat and non-combat music creates an interesting sense of urgency, which is really quite funny when you consider that this is a turn-based game, and you could theoretically wait hours before making your move.
As an aside, I wanted to mention another of my little nitpicks which relates to sound: soldiers in XCOM all come from different countries, the game even goes so far as to put a little flag for the soldier’s country of origin on their armor, but every single soldier has an American accent. When a game has this level of detail, things like that become more of an issue.
Should I Buy It?
Short answer: yes. The long answer is: yes. If this is the kind of game you are into. Turn-based combat has sort of taken a back seat when it comes to AAA titles in recent years and XCOM is a breath of fresh air in that regard; so, if you have even a passing interest in the genre then this game is a must-own, even if it’s just to show the people in the industry that these kinds of games are worth making. If fast-paced FPSs are more your thing, XCOM may change your mind, unless of course you are one of those people who flips over a chessboard if things start taking too long, in which case you may want to skip my review of Chess Sim 2013 next week.
I can say with confidence XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of my top 5 favorite games this year. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
> Great review, very interesting. Re-releasing, re-hashing, re-editing seems to the curse of the modern age, and it unfortunately permeates into all types of media, games, music, film - it it really that much easier to resell some old idea or franchise from the past than to simply pay some talented people for new ideas?!
> I liked your point about game complexity. Despite having infinitely more computing and memory resources, most re-released games today are criticized for being less complex then their predecessors. This just seems wrong - is it really so important to become part of the "pretty poly" brigade? Is it our fault as consumers for refusing to buy any game that doesnt present itself to us in full make-up, high heals and lingerie?
Video Games are a visual medium. Why not make them look good? Although I admit a really pretty game with shitty mechanics is still shitty, I still want my games to look nice. If this was the exact same game but wasn't quite as shiny and tarted up I still would have enjoyed it. If it looked as good as it does, and was as deep as the old games, it would be a masterpiece. I think XCOM found a good middle ground between graphics and gameplay.
Great review, very interesting. Re-releasing, re-hashing, re-editing seems to the curse of the modern age, and it unfortunately permeates into all types of media, games, music, film - it it really that much easier to resell some old idea or franchise from the past than to simply pay some talented people for new ideas?!
I liked your point about game complexity. Despite having infinitely more computing and memory resources, most re-released games today are criticized for being less complex then their predecessors. This just seems wrong - is it really so important to become part of the "pretty poly" brigade? Is it our fault as consumers for refusing to buy any game that doesnt present itself to us in full make-up, high heals and lingerie?