Sunday, October 21, 2012

PC - X-Com: Enemy Unknown

As some of the very small number of people actually following this blog on a regular basis might know, some years ago I had a  severely failed reunion with my old love; X-Com; the masterpiece from Micropose and one of the huge hallmarks of the 90’es. Depending on your country of origin, whether we called it UFO defense or Enemy Unknown seemed to vary.
What a lot more of you out there have surely noticed is the newest smash hit that has taken to our hearts and tried to proclaim itself as the best and truest follow up to the all time classic that was X-COM: Ufo Defense and the also popular sequel; Terror from the Deep.
I’m not going into a full sum up of the premise of these games as those of you who know them are likely more than familiar with the mechanic and those who aren’t would do well to just read up on my previous article as it explains it rather well. In a super short nutshell, Earth is fucked and attacked by aliens; you’re the supreme commander in charge of a paramilitary organization known as X-Com and through science, engineering and tactical squad initiatives you have to kick their ass back to outer space. 

In the eyes of a veteran…
Undertaking such a task with a game so popular is certainly not an ordeal taken on lightly and I imagine that most people reading this have the same speculation as I did; does it really hold up. Some of the newer initiatives in the area of X-Com barely deserved to bear the title, such as the Take Two Interactive project and certainly did manage to evoke some rather vocal reaction from its fans:

But we’re not about to beat that horse anymore. You want to know whether this game, this new game, truly holds up to the predecessor.

The short answer is yes.

The longer one is definitely yes.

And the longest one is; there are several aspects of this game which I can truly recommend to anyone who loved the first two, but to put it into a fair analysis, I find it reasonable to post where I’m coming from with this review. For good or ill.

What I loved in the old games (in this regard; Ufo Defense and Terror From the Deep)
The true gem of the old games mainly consisted of the ‘unknowing’ aspect. You knew so very little of your enemy to start with, you would go ‘woah’ whenever a new type of alien entered the field. You wanted to drag it home, ask it questions and then slice it up to see what it looked like inside. Then you’d take its weapon like a manic kid high on sugar finding his dad’s gun; blasting apart anything that moves.

The decision making and the importance you had to decide on various progresses. What needed to be researched? What could have funding and where did you have to cut corners?

The progress, starting from a small squad in spandex suits, firing nerf-guns, till you flew around the battlefield in metal-armor, smelting alien brains with your superior mental prowess. 

The music and sounds. Both games are ugly by modern standards (I’m sorry, but they ARE!) and yet the eerie effect is well in place, especially in Terror from the Deep.

Challenging. You had to take your time, you had to think, you had to survive. Kiddies, go home and sob over your shooters and “Press button not to die”.

What I hated in the old games
The unnecessary amount of base management. Having multiple bases was fun. Managing fuel for every single one and every single plane, with clips for every single soldier at every single base pretty easily got tedious. This is not contradicting previous statement about challenge because it was rarely hard; just boring.

The unnecessary long levels of Terror from the Deep. Again, not associated with hard, because everything in TFTD was pretty hard - but some of the levels were simply too damn long and took way too much to complete. It often clocked the game down entirely for me.

The fact that Mind Control was done as long as anyone on your team had line of sight to an enemy. Meaning both you and aliens would simply keep Professor Xavier comfy in his leather chair back in your plane and fuck up every detected brain in the level.
Even though having multiple bases was kind of fun, you grew progressively more detached from them all the more you got.
Base defense. A lot of people are on about this, regarding the new game. I’m sorry, I hated base defense; it seemed like nothing more than a detriment for the game, in the long run. In the first game, it pretty much served as the “Get your ass moving and finish this game soon, will ya?”.
So about this new thing?...

All your base are belong to us!
X-COM: Enemy Unknown makes little change to the overall premise; Earth is still attacked from outer space and X-Com, funded by various donor countries, steps in to make things right. This time around there is a much heavier emphasis on the cinematic storytelling, especially if you start out through a tutorial. 

Pretty quickly you will learn that you’re now only in charge of one single base, which is more or less managed through the same mechanisms as the classic games, except you see it from the ant-hill perspective. This was one of my original biggest concerns about the game, but having only one base works surprisingly well and keeps you invested in what’s going on in it. While you likely won’t use the zoom-in ‘Sims function’ that much, it’s good to see it develop, although the fanatic micromanagement people will more than likely feel left out.  A nice addition is how your selection of base placement gives you various bonuses, such as the US improving your air space and interceptors, and south America letting you autopsy aliens instantly.

The primary resource for building is money and power. Funny enough. Whereas living quarters and general stores were necessary foundations for the first games these are entirely gone now, and friggin good riddance! Your facility-progress hinges on building power plants now to power them up and maintaining a budget with their maintenance in mind. Scientists and engineers  are added to the base on a monthly basis or through building more labs or workshops. Some missions will also reward you with some; you simply don’t buy them anymore. We also assume your base has enough room for all the junk you drag home, and of course you still have the option to sell the alien trash you don’t need. Sadly, you’re no longer allowed to sell whatever manufactured gear you no longer need.

Keeping up with tradition, your objective is to make the world feel safe. If you fail, panic starts spreading in various countries and if it grows to a certain point, they will back out of the project and leave you with less funding. Lose enough of them and the doomsday clock ticks in and you’re out. For this purpose the aliens will often strike at various places in the world at the same time, and since X-Com only has one Skyranger now, you can only respond to one location. The remaining locations will have panic spread across all countries in the region. Alternatively, you can launch satellites instead of bases; a launched satellite will make the people below it feel safe, but you have to defend it by keeping Interceptors nearby, otherwise the aliens will quickly shoot them down.

While certainly simplified this is an easy solution to the lacking bases and launching enough satellites is not something you do in an instant. During my first playthrough I barely acknowledged them, meaning I was kicked out swiftly. In my second playthrough I focused all on satellites and Interceptors during the first two months, meaning my soldiers were horribly equipped and got splattered to pieces. But once the system got up rolling the money piled up and things went smoothly.

For science!
The research department is as you know it, albeit it seems a bit like a downer. While you enjoyed the nice illustrations of autopsied aliens in the first two games, this time around you get some text and a very repetitive cutscene of an autopsy. Interrogations aren’t much better off, which is a bleeding shame as it holds so much importance for the series. Also, the results you get along the way are much more serious minded and bland then in old days, in which you could research what drugs aliens took and some really pointless, but interesting, topics about their culture. This time around you get the bare essentials and usually a bonus to other research topics. Some will provide you with interesting upgrades, however, so science still plays an important part.

Your engineers still build your new toys but at a much faster pace now. Some of the projects are instantly completed, to be honest, which seems somewhat odd when you order a truckload of plasma weapons. Often you will also end up at a stage in which you just let the engineering-department pick their noses because you have the gear you currently need, unlike in the past where they would always manufacture lazer-weapons for you to sell.
This time around there are also the classical scienceprojects that will push on the main story and gradually introduce new enemies and aspects of the game, followed up with some short cutscenes. Neither the graphical nor voice-aspect of these are particularly good, but they aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be.

The field of battle
Where the new X-Com likely takes on is the improved battle map and despite some strange Line of Sight glitches there are buckets of fun to be found here. My second biggest concern for the game also involved this aspect when you could tops bring six soldiers with you on missions, compared to the 15 or so you’d bring in the past. Still, this works great as you eventually start growing a lot more attached to your soldiers, and if you’re like me (and a surprisingly large part of the internet) you name them after your friends and poke them on MSN when they die. As an additional detail soldiers now level up and receive specializations in various areas of the game, such as the detonating Heavy class, the healing Supporter or the deadly long range Sniper. As they progress in rank they gain new and rather interesting abilities that can make a huge impact on the game, especially on the harder difficulties. A true downer is the fact that these classes are assigned purely at random and you have no control over what you get. Thus, in my second game I ended up with six Heavies among my soldiers…

The enemies are wide and varied, and while going into detail would be truly contradictive to a game named Enemy Unknown, just allow me to say you’ll likely be pleased if you were a fan of the first X-Com. They are scary and certainly able to instill terror in you as well as your troops, and many of them play intelligently.
It’s the small mechanisms that will likely divide the waters between the fans in this regard. Time units are gone and replaced with a pseudo D&D system, involving each soldier taking one move-action and one standard action per turn, or replacing his standard action with another move action. The latter can be viable as cover is imperative in this game; without it you’re a sitting duck and some of the alien weapons are perfectly able to cripple your unarmored troops. Also there is no inventory, your soldiers have unlimited ammo but have to reload for a standard action when running low (and believe me, this can be crucially annoying) they can usually only bring one utility item, be it a stun-gun, med kid or a grenade. That’s right; only one grenade. No more grenadiers. This is an aspect that somehow simplifies the game a tad too much, in my book, but its impact is not as big as you’d imagine. Instead you spend time managing your soldier’s special abilities, such as double firing, running and firing or when to set them on overwatch. Now you can actually tell them to simply stay put and fire at whatever moves.

This also means  stunned aliens stay down, you can no longer pick them up and carry them around (and honestly, why would you?) you can no longer just blast terrain as all shooting (except explosives) have to target enemy units, and gradual progression is no longer an option. The latter is in this regard monumentally stupid, as you can send your soldier running to a wall, have him spot three aliens around the corner with a perfect shot to him, and yet he continues running straight to the designated spot. One would think he would be wise enough to make a stop and reconsider…
On the positive note the tension is strong, the music is great, the sounds are just right and the actions is big.  Cars will catch fire and explode, killing people nearby. A missed shot with a plasma-rifle will disintegrate a whole wall, a bazooka shot will send aliens flying miles away and the sexy Archangel armor lets you soar across the battlefield with a roar. 

The maps are just big enough to be entertaining, not often drawing out for too long, and compared to the hell that was TFTD they’re short and entertaining, while offering enough variety to feel different. Some levels, such as alien bases and landed, intact UFO’s will indeed test you and your patience, if you want to play it by the book, and that is undoubtedly part of the charm. There has also been left room for some new missions, such as disarming bombs and protecting a key civilian while travelling through an area.
You will beyond doubt make mistakes along the way, and if you play on the Ironman mode things quickly get brutal. If a high ranked soldier dies he’s gone for good, and some of the later aliens are more than capable of seeing to that.

Of course the much beloved terrorsites are still in place, and keeping civilians safe is the same hell that is used to be, especially if you rely on explosive firepower.
Luckily, laser weapons take over rifles, plasma take over laser and eventually you’ll be able to turn alien brains into porridge on the spot. Even the old tanks are still around.The progression is definitely there and seen from a macro perspective, X-Com never outstays its welcome. Once you start growing slightly bored with its premise, the game is just about to conclude.  

So all in all…
I have tried showing you there are plenty of elements that haven’t made it into the game and whether this is a good or bad thing is first and foremost highly subjective. In my personal opinion this game is certainly worthy of its title and near what I had hoped for in all these years. Even then it makes brilliant sense to support these guys because for once we actually get someone giving a damn about the gaming community and listening to our voices.

If you’re still in doubt about it, why not give the free demo on STEAM a try? Frankly, I’d say anyone whining about it without having given it a try; well… It’s quite hard to take seriously. I have no doubt that some will be blown away as soon as they hear ‘unlimited ammo’ and ‘only one base’ and I suppose that’s fine. But it’s a good game in so many other ways that it certainly deserves a try out.
A thing worth considering as well, is getting this for the PC-platform. Last time I checked, the first handful of MODS had already seen their light. I can only imagine that in the hands of skilled modders this game could get much closer to what you’d like it to be.


Great combat
Great atmosphere and music
Very true to the first games, especially UFO Defense.
A lot of annoying micromanagement from the first games is gone.
The levels are much shorter and still a load of fun.

The lack of inventory management seems too simplified.
Soldiers don’t know how to stop their advance once they spot an alien.
No option to customize your soldiers’ specializations.
Limited customization, visually and gear-wise for your soldiers.

Is it worth the money?
Definitely yes!

Will I play it again?


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