"A good game is a series of interesting choices." - Sid Meier
"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." - Newton's Third Law of Physics
"Just....one....more.....turn." - Dog of Thunder, 1 AM on a worknight
The legendary Sid Meier, designer of classic titles such as Civilization
, Alpha Centauri
and Sid Meier's Pirates!
often talks about his game design philosophy which is based off of player choice. According to Sid, the player should always feel like the star and that they are in full control of the action taking place on screen. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
, developed by Sid Meier's own company, Firaxis, is seemingly built from the ground up on the philosophy of interesting choices. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
casts you as the faceless, nameless commander of XCOM, a global defense force tasked with stopping an alien invasion. Backed by a group of world nations dubbed "The Council" and housed in an underground base that struck me as being very similar to The Hive from G.I.Joe: Rise of Cobra
, you need to keep up in an arms race with the alien forces or lose the planet. While there are set "story" pieces, it would be accurate to refer to these as "developments" as humanity learns about the invaders. Regardless, the story of XCOM: Enemy Unknown
is ultimately created by you, the player.
We'll begin with the first and perhaps most important choice to be made: selecting a difficulty level. Be forewarned, that both the "Classic" and "Impossible" difficulty settings are brutally difficult with even "Normal" presenting a solid challenge to those new to the game. While you have many save slots, and can even save during a battle, there is a mode called "Iron man" which limits you to one save slot that is automatically saved everytime a turn ends. That means one screw up or bad round of shooting can spell certain doom for all of humanity. Once you have your difficulty setting picked out, the game will begin with some tutorial missions (if you selected that option, as with all things XCOM: Enemy Unknown
, you have a choice) that explain the microlevel of tactical battles and the macrolevel of base-building.
This tutorial is remarkably well done, and after the first three missions of hand-holding, the tutorial actually continues but you might not realize it because of how seamlessly it flows into the actual game. On the tactical level, where the majority of the action takes place, you are presented with a 3/4ths isometric view of the battlefield and inevitably, a small squad of XCOM agents that are outnumbered, sometimes 4:1. These battles are turn-based, with your entire squad able to move in the order you choose followed by the entire alien force. Choice again plays a big part in how these skirmishs unfold thanks to the updated "action point" style system.
Each of your XCOM agents has the following choices each turn: Double move, move and overwatch (lay in wait to shoot an enemy that croosses their field of vision), move and shoot, shoot (heavy weapons can't be used when you move, but they are worth it), move and use an ability, etc. There is a tension between choosing defensive options opposed to offensive options and each must be weighed carefully every turn. No choice is wrong. In the same vein, when your XCOM Agents receive a field promotion for the first time they are randomly assigned a class that allows access to a skill tree.
These skill trees will no doubt, cause some frustration, because all of the skills are great. At most levels on the tree, you can pick one of two choices, whiever one you don't pick will never be available to that agent. Do you want your heavy to have extra range on the rocket launcher or carry two extra grenades? Want a sniper that can move and shoot on the same turn or share line of sight with every member of the squad? Pick one.
The customization of your squad goes beyond abilities and includes things such as appearance, load-outs and even names. The minor details among your squad helps make them feel "real", especially once they rank up enough and are given randomly assigned code-names. I've grown fond of my team leader, Carlos "Yeti" Mendoza, the heavy weapons specialist and take charge leader that barks out orders to his squad in the heat of battle. Yukio "Nova" Chen is the second-in-command and the rocket launcher specialist while Shiro "Flash" Fungai is the squad medic. Tomas "Odin" Gunderson and William "Spectre" Adams fill out the close-range assualt roles and lastly, Sara Williams, the rookie, is tasked with subduing the aliens so they can be brought back alive for interogations. Everyone's squad will be different, and everyone will develop their own personal story, especially since death on the battlefield is permenent.
Base-building continues the tension between player choices because you only have a finite amount of space to build. Each room you build costs money upfront and a monthly maintenance fee with more advanced rooms also costing valuable resources scavanged off of alien corpses. Money is tight, making the act of purchasing supplies for your troops an important decision, even if you can afford the best weapons and armor the R&D department has to offer. Could you purchase the Archangel armor, which lets the wearer fly temporarily, and also afford the upkeep for your global satellite network?
Thankfully, when it comes to the tactical level battles, the game does have some features which make life easier on you. Whenever an alien is in range of your active XCOM agent, it tells you with a big, red "alien" symbol in the top left hand corner of the screen. This makes the 3D maps, which feature plenty of cover, destructible objects and even multiple levels, easier to navigate. The maps are not perfect, as they will repeat and while handling the shooting is easy, sometimes figuring out exactly where your agent is going to move to will be frustrating. The problem with movement, particularly over multiple levels, is especially noticable when assualting an alien base.
Graphically, the game is very pretty with a lot of small details at the tactical level. Your base, presented in 2D, isn't nearly as pretty including the cutscenes with slightly blocky, stiff character models that really look like they are from an earlier era. Granted, if you are playing this for the graphics, you are playing for the wrong reason.
The music isn't memorable, but it also tends to fit the mood. It changes when aliens are first encountered, and then changes again when there's aliens left but you have to actively hunt them down. Again, it's nothing stellar, but nothing that made me cringe either.
Achievement wise, XCOM: Enemy Unknown
is always going to have a high ratio. To complete the list, there's a number of basic achievements such as "Build a lab" and tactical-battle specific ones such as "Cure Poison 5 times in one battle" or "Win with an all-female squad" that all lead up to the big ones. The game must be completed at least 5 times, once for each starting continent (and each has their own bonuses which are all helpful), which is good as you also need to complete it on the various difficulty levels. Oh, and complete it with Iron Man turned on. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
may be a great game, but it does have its faults. There are bugs, which though rare, are annoying when they do happen. The most frequent one I encountered was the game "locking up" on the alien's turn, creating a 5 minute wait for anything to happen. When you first enounter the aliens on a map, they get a "free move", which at first is very annoying but later on, when you have better weapons with more range, you can indeed get off overwatch shots which lessens the pain of the free move. The extreme difficulty, even on normal, may be too much for some people to handle, especially you young kids with your checkpoints and auto-regenerating health.
The final fault is the multiplayer mode. Which is a standard, 1v1 death match of XCOM Agents vs. Aliens. I would love to talk about this mode, but the servers have been wonky for the past week and I was never able to connect in order to play it. Regardless, most of you will only play it twice for the achievement, since I assume it will be boosted.
Regardless of the faults, XCOM: Enemy Unknown
is prettier then it has any right to be with an atmosphere of tension and dread better then most "Survival Horror" games of this generation. I caught myself saying "one more turn" on many occassions into the wee hours of the night, which is perhaps the highest praise any strategy game can earn. It should be no surprise, that when the TrueAchievement Game of the Year voting begins, I will be pushing for XCOM: Enemy Unknown
as GOTY 2012. The reviewer spent many hours playing this game, on all difficulty levels, though the majority of his play time is on Classic with Iron Man turned on. While he's assaulted an enemy base, he has yet to succeed thanks to taking his sweet time and letting the aliens ramp up their forces...opps...