Arts video game review

Old school tactics, new school graphics

Firaxis reboots the turn-based classic, Terror from the Deep, with Enemy Unknown


XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Developed by Firaxis Games

Published by 2K Games for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360

One of my earliest memories as a gamer is from the age of 10, playing XCOM: Terror From The Deep (1996). I didn’t own the game — some neighbors did — but when I’d finished my chores (and sometimes when I hadn’t), I’d bike over to their house and hijack their computer for as long as was socially acceptable (and sometimes longer) to fight the alien invasion.

It was a grueling game, even by the XCOM series’ legendary difficulty standards. Some campaigns would end on the very first mission, with a lowly alien grunt grenading my starting squad of troops on turn one, right after they disembarked from my troop carrier. There was no tutorial, no hand-holding, no gentle ramping up of the difficulty levels. The game was plainly unfair — you learned about new game mechanics only after watching a new mind-controlling, bullet-impervious, base-invading, zombie-spawning alien viciously violate your squad of rookies and set back your resistance effort to square one.

And yet, for the better part of a year, I labored in beating the game. As buggy and broken as it was, I played on. The game was challenging in a way that modern games are not — you didn’t just have to learn how to play best within the rules, you also had to learn what the rules were at the same time.

And so, when I heard that the XCOM series was being rebooted for the modern era, I could not keep my wallet shut. Every one of us is duty-bound to tithe a certain portion of our income to nostalgia, and all we can do is hope against hope that when it is all said and done, we didn’t spend hard-earned money watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

These warnings about my bias aside, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best games of 2012. It is in every way superior to the original series, and is worth picking up even if your childhood never included being repeatedly traumatized by little random number-generating aliens.

The tactical, turn-based section of the game is probably the best in the genre that I’ve played. The cover system is slightly unintuitive, but easy to work with once the mechanics are understood. The action menus are quick and easy to navigate. The AI seems fairly well refined, playing, in most circumstances, about as well as a human would. And most importantly, the combat is kept fresh by a large library of randomly generated maps and an expertly designed system of unit mechanics and customization.

A flaw of the original series was that pretty much all of the player’s units behaved the same — the better units might be more durable or have better accuracy, but they have only a couple weapons ever worth equipping your men with. With a few notable exceptions, missions in the old XCOM almost always proceeded the same way — your men would very slowly crawl across the map and shoot at whatever they had line of sight on.

In XCOM: EU, caution and safety are still the orders of the day, but customization of your squad focuses heavily on what “classes” of soldiers you choose to send and their combat experience, rather than what weapons you hand them. The game gives four classes of soldier: snipers, supports, heavies, and assaults, and each soldier chooses between two mutually exclusive upgrade tracks as it gains experience, effectively giving the game eight different types of units to play with (nine counting the combat robots you can build), each with their own special perks and abilities for moving and shooting. Several tactical playstyles range from a slow and cautious sniper-based loadout, to a pure firepower approach using heavy weapons, to a hyper-aggressive use of flanking with assault troops; the game challenges you to develop and employ each one where appropriate.

The base-management / strategic portion of the game is just as well done, challenging the player to come up with and refine their build order and development paths as they try and fail in successive campaigns. The strategic portion is highly interwoven with the tactical portion – not just good base management and good tactical play are necessary to win, the two need to complement each other. The strategic element has several viable paths for the player to go down that balance early advantages with late game struggles and vice-versa.

The game is somewhat easier than the original series, but only in the sense that it does more to orient the player. There is an optional tutorial at the start (a mission in which, incidentally, all but one of your squad is killed off), the game ramps up the difficulty a little more slowly, and even though new mechanics are still sprung on the player without introduction, the game does a lot more to help the player understand them once they have been brought out. It still requires some of the exploration and experimentation that made up much of the challenge of the original, but adds more structure to this process in a compromise between old school and new.

In other areas, XCOM also gets good marks. The graphics are several generations ahead of the original’s blocky isometric style. There is a competitive and reasonably well-balanced multiplayer arena.  The voice acting and cutscenes of the campaign are passable.

Where the game suffers is in a small handful of bugs. Most are minor, and patches are being released to fix them, but on my playthrough at least one was severe enough to make me prematurely end a campaign. Perhaps the game designers were going for a sort of high-difficulty ultra-realism, but the combat robots you can build are utterly unreliable, with their weapons often failing mid-mission. Other problems are irritating, but not game-crashing or playthrough-ending — the grenade throwing interface, for example, seems to set the screen-scrolling sensitivity super high and make an action take a minute to complete when it should take ten seconds.

If you have any interest at all in the turn-based tactics genre and the time to devote to one of the most difficult campaigns in a modern video game, XCOM is worth buying even at full retail price. If not, it’s still worth picking up for $30 or so once IAP rolls around.