Monday, December 3, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

A city terrorized by aliens.  The report came in while I was in the middle of some important research.  I’d have preferred to ignore it, but you don’t get to choose when duty calls.  The team I deployed was a bit unfamiliar.  Lion and Buster were in Psi training, so I took to the opportunity to give some new recruits a shot, including a promising Support gal the team had nicknamed “Mother Bird” for her handy use of Medikits, and the new Hover S.H.I.V. heavy weapons platform the engineering guys had cooked up.  Sheriff would head the team, just as she always did.

It was a civilian evacuation mission; things went well at first.  A two-story building, looked like most of the action would take place inside.  Mother Bird would head around back with the S.H.I.V., scooping up any civilians they came across.  Sheriff and Ace would go right for the front doors; Sheriff in particular always had a tendency to jump into the frying pan.

We cleared the first floor with little incident.  I should have regrouped before storming the second floor, but I was confident from the mission’s progress so far.  Mother Bird and the S.H.I.V. climbed the stairwell and ran right into a squad of Mutons and Berserkers.  It would be a couple turns before the others were in a position to assist.  By then, the S.H.I.V. had been smashed to pieces, and a Berserker had shattered clipped Mother Bird’s wings.  That evening I lost a great soldier, and it was entirely my fault.

Despite the presence of an overarching plot, it’s personal narratives like these that form the heart of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Aliens have invaded Earth.  People are being slaughtered or worse, abducted.  You are the commander of XCOM, an international coalition formed to combat the alien threat.  To do this, you’ll need to hire, train and maintain a diverse contingent of troops and regularly deploy them to various locations across the world to complete missions, while simultaneously developing your facilities to keep pace with the growing threat, upgrading your equipment, and researching alien artifacts.

Gameplay in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is comprised mainly of two aspects.  When you’re not on missions, you’ll spend your time overviewing XCOM headquarters.  From here you can conduct most of your business as commander of the base.  You can research everything alien—from artifacts and technology recovered on the field, to corpses and any aliens you manage to capture alive—in the research lab.  Research works very much like it does in the Civilization franchise, where you assign one thing for the lab to work on, and wait for it to complete before assigning another.  The fruits of your research come to life in the engineering section, which is where you’ll build and upgrade all of your equipment—including guns, armor, ships, and satellites—and your base facilities.

Your soldiers reside in the barracks.  Here you can view each of your soldiers individually, as well as customize everything from their looks and name to their equipment load out.  Disappointingly however, the ability to change your soldier’s armor colors is relegated to DLC.  Soldiers come in four classes: Sniper, Heavy, Assault, and Support.  Snipers utilize sniper rifles to strike from far away.  Heavies use a combination of a light machine guns and rocket launchers to keep enemies suppressed and at bay.  Assaults are designed to jump directly into the fray with their shotguns.  Supports specialize in field assistance with smoke grenades, enhanced Overwatch, and better, more efficient Medikits. 

The more you use your soldiers, the more you’ll find them carving out individual reputations for themselves.  New recruits will be classless, but after a mission or two you’ll discover their aptitude for one class or another.  From there, each class has a tree of perks that you’re able to progress through as that soldier gains promotions through experience in the field.  Soon enough they’ll have their own nicknames, and you’ll find yourself building a narrative and backstory for each soldier.  They become more than just units to command; they become characters in your story.  Sharon “Sheriff” Roberts wasn’t just any Canadian soldier.  She was a badass; someone the others could look up to on the battlefield.  She would leap into every battle and laugh in the face of danger.  Luck was always on her side.  Joan “Lion” McIntosh started as Kitty, but when we saw how sharp her claws really were, she was renamed “Lion”.  Everyone knew that someday she could be the next Sheriff.  Soon enough, my soldiers became more integral to the plot than any of the other characters that would appear in XCOM’s occasional cut scenes, and that’s something I really came to admire the game for.

You can view your current progress and objectives in the Situation Room.  Here, you have a world map and a listing of every country enrolled in the XCOM program.  As you neglect countries, their panic level rises.  If a country is allowed to reach maximum panic, they will withdraw from the program, taking their financial support with them.  The Situation Room also allows you to launch any available satellites at your disposal to monitor a country.  Having a satellite over a country not only increases the amount of money and resources that country gives you each month, but it also decreases its panic level.

Satellites also often pick up flying UFOs, in which case you have the option of launching interceptors to try and shoot down the UFO.  If they succeed, the UFO is downed and you can proceed to send in a team of soldiers to sweep the area.  I’ve found this metagame to be the challenging aspect of the game, however.  Just as the enemies grow in power and number as you progress through a campaign, so too do the UFOs you encounter.  Developing and maintaining an air fleet that is both large and powerful enough to consistently deal with any detected UFOs is extremely costly and time consuming, and whether or not it pays off in the long run is questionable.  I’ve had to ignore a number of UFOs, simply because I knew that my planes wouldn’t be able to down them.

Nearly everything in XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes time.  It takes time to research things, it takes time for wounded soldiers to heal and for new recruits to arrive, and it takes time to build and launch satellites, among many other things.  It even takes time to swap the weapons on your interceptors.  You’ll have to pass the time in Mission Control, scanning for alien activity.  Every few days you get an alert.  Sometimes it's a bomb that needs to be disposed of, or a VIP that needs to be evacuated; other times it's a UFO picked up by a satellite.  Whatever it is, if you’re lucky it will be only one instance.  But more often than not, it will be multiple simultaneous abductions occurring in different parts of the world.  You can only deal with one, and the countries you ignore will have their panic level rise.  Whatever you choose (unless it’s to ignore the contact entirely), you’ll then pick your squad and their loadout, and deploy to the area in question.

Combat in XCOM is a turn-based strategy affair.  Each soldier has two movements they can use per turn.  Once you’ve moved all of your soldiers, your turn ends, and the aliens have their turn, and so on.  Though you’ll most frequently just be using your movements on moving and firing, units have a variety of actions they can use; many are class-specific, others much more general.  All units are able to use an ability called Overwatch, which sacrifices your remaining actions for the ability to automatically shoot at any enemy that moves within a unit’s sight range, albeit with lessened accuracy.  Heavies and Supports can use Suppression, which pins an enemy down, lowering their accuracy and also grants the soldier suppressing a free Overwatch shot if the enemy moves.  Snipers can use Headshot, which is a normal shot with a substantially higher chance of critical damage.

Let’s get this out of the way:  XCOM is a difficult game.  You’re given all the control you’d expect from being commander, but also all of the weight and responsibility.  If you make a mistake, however slight, those are consequences that you’ll have to deal with.  Even something as seemingly minor as a soldier advancing just one tile farther than he/she should have can lead to disastrous situations.  Soldiers that you’ve grown to like and invest in can die, and at some point almost certainly will.  Missions with everything banking on them can be failed.  The game will move on.  A string of bad decisions can lead to outright failure in XCOM; the aliens will have won, and it will have been entirely your fault.

You’re frequently both outgunned and outnumbered in XCOM, which means that every move you make has to be thought out.  Every option must be weighed before taking action, lest that action be the last one that soldier ever makes.  This is a strategy game; if you don’t think strategically, you will lose.  Even if you do think strategically, sometimes you’ll still lose.  Even the best-laid plans can fail, after all.

For an internationally funded paramilitary organization, XCOM is tragically under-supported, which means this element of pressure and responsibility permeates the entire game experience, not just combat.  Though you’ll pick up some extra bits of pocket change doing missions and selling spare alien artifacts, your main source of income arrives on a monthly basis, when all of the countries still enrolled in the program chip in to send you more staff and money.  But it’s never enough.  The battlefield isn’t the only place you’re constantly forced to make hard decisions in XCOM.  Hard choices await you in the research lab, in Mission Control, and perhaps most tragically, in the ledger.  All the time you’ll find yourself presented with a choice between things to buy; things to invest in.  You need all of these things if you want to keep up with the alien threat.  But too often, you can only afford one of them.  Every decision requires you to consider the cost of each option and weigh it against how long it will take to bear fruit.  For example, it’s absolutely crucial that you regularly buy more satellites, as that increases the amount of money you get.  But satellites take almost a month to build, and still more time before they’re operational (and that’s assuming you have the facilities to maintain more satellites in the first place).  You’re throwing money at something that you won’t see the benefits from for a very long time; money that could be better used to build things with more immediate utility, like better equipment for troops, or a new upgrade that would be invaluable on the field, like larger weapon cartridges or increased squad sizes.

Despite being a game that demands a tactical, systematic approach to succeed, there is a large element of randomness to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  Though you can customize them later on, new recruits’ names, nationality, and appearance are all random, as are their nicknames.  Mission encounters are largely random, as are the maps and their layouts.  Missions and campaigns never go quite the same way.  All it takes is a stray explosive to blow up a new path and totally change the way you progress through a map, for example.  This has the effect of keeping the experience fresh, but it also introduces a tangible element of fortune and chaos to the gameplay.  Sometimes this element works in your favor, like when you nail a shot that only had a 35% chance of hitting.  More often than not however, it tends to feel like its working against you, when Heavy's light machine gun not only misses, but the stray fire destroys the cover of one his colleagues, leaving him/her totally exposed.  It's times like that where I felt like the game was bending me over the barrel.

XCOM is, overall a pretty looking game.  Everything from character animation to object modeling is above average, and the game features surprisingly robust environmental destruction.  It runs on Unreal Engine 3, which is evident enough in its slightly oversaturated effects.  The missions start feeling a bit recycled towards the end of a campaign, but it’s mostly a non-issue.

What was an issue for me were the bugs.  I’ve had the game freeze on me, and clipping issues weren’t uncommon.  I’ve also had enemies literally spawn right in the middle of my soldier’s ranks, as well as have enemies disappear right before my eyes, ending the mission early.  Most of the time these bugs are either comical or minor, but still prevalent enough to scare me away from trying the game’s Ironman mode, which prevents you from saving.  It’s one thing, after all to fail a mission due to my own incompetence, and quite another to fail because the game crashed on me.

Playing XCOM—whether on the field blasting aliens or at base conducting regular business—often feels like balancing a series of spinning plates on your arms and head, where it only takes one movement to cause everything to come tumbling down.  Yes, XCOM is a difficult game.  If you’re not careful, you will fail at it.  You might fail at it even if you ARE careful.  But it’s also one of the most rewarding games you’ll play this year.  When you make the right decisions, and those decisions pay off, it’s a real feeling of triumph; a victory you achieved all by yourself, without anyone holding your hand.

*Note - I did not try the multiplayer, but the singleplayer alone was enough to earn the game its score.

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