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- XCOM – Enemy Unknown
- CLR [rating:4.0]
Release Date: October 9th – 12th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows/Mac
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Turn Based Tactics/Strategic Alien Defense
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 20-30 hours on initial run, with moderate replayability and multiplayer.
Auteurs Attached: Jake Solomon (Lead Designer)
Taking Command over a Forgotten Battlefield
As with every year, 2012 produced a large number of games to play, and not nearly enough time to play them all. As January is a month of limited releases from the industry, it’s a good time to take a moment and cover a few of the titles that were missed the first go around. Welcome to the ‘Backlog Review.’
Redundancy in game development is a funny thing. On the one hand, both gamers and producers seem to absolutely love sequels, prequels and spinoffs. They’re like the children and cousins to an original property, forming a family; a dynasty of success that jibes with our concept of evolutionary fitness.
On the other hand, gamers get very wary of reboots. Still relatively rare in the industry, reboots are gaining ground as the preferred form of sequelization since they can resurrect series long thought dead and buried. As with all resurrections game reboots come in different flavors based on how well the deceased has been brought back to life: you have the zombies, mindless resuscitations beyond saving, the vampires , where superficial elements from a game are glammer to prey on fan nostalgia, the Frankenstein’s monsters, of cobbled together mechanics old and new, and of course the very rare saviors, the games returned to the mortal coil purified, better than they were in their first life.
Thus, when 2K Games announced a few years ago that they were rebooting the much beloved and highly influential mid-nineties alien blasting tactics game X-Com as a first person shooter, the villagers gathered their torches and pitchforks. Decrying it as yet another example of publishers turning anything and everything into a FPS to capitalize on the casual market, the fans were more than ready to go Van Helsing on this blight against the natural order.
But 2K hadn’t revealed their full hand. In an astonishing display of foresight for this exact reaction, they had secretly contracted Firaxis, makers of the much beloved Civilization series, to create another X-Com, one much closer to the original source material. A complete remake, in fact (albeit with a different subtitle).
In other words, they had already been hoping for the redemption of a messiah.
For those not in the know, XCOM (both the original UFO Defense and Enemy Unknown) starts with a common premise: Aliens are invading Earth and only YOU can stop them! It would be incredibly trite, except for the details of how you go about it. Rather than give the player a tank or a gun and tell them to get to work all on their lonesome, XCOM is actually a (relatively) realistic take on the idea.
The standard military response proves ineffective, so a council of nations bands together to form the “Extraterrestrial Combat Unit”, or XCOM, a secret organization that’s half SHIELD, half the Manhattan Project. As the commander of XCOM, you operate independently and act internationally to combat this threat by researching alien technology, sending out fighter jets to shoot down UFOs entering your airspace and task forces of soldiers from around the globe to kill or capture hostile combatants. At the same time you must manage the organization itself, balancing the funding you receive from council nations with the costs of building your underground fortress, hiring recruits, and constructing futuristic weaponry as you try gain an edge over a vastly superior foe.
Essentially, you’re Nick Fury, E.T. Smasher, and you’re playing very large scale games of Risk and Chess against the aliens from Independence Day.
As the original howling commando knows, it’s a complicated task for one person to manage an endeavor like “saving the world,” so to simplify matters your role of commander is bifurcated into two distinct arenas: the “Geoscape” (or base) – where you run XCOM and send interceptors at UFOs through a world map – and the “Battlescape” – where you control squads of soldiers on combat missions. At first this dichotomy doesn’t seem that dissimilar from most tactical games, which often have an organizational component between fights. Where XCOM differs from games like Final Fantasy Tactics though, is in how substantially one arena impacts the other.
Successful field ops let your soldiers bring back alien technology or captives which you then dissect and examine to create new technology to give your fighting men and women so they can defeat tougher aliens and so on. Likewise, failing missions causes countries to panic and possibly pull their funding, limiting your resources and thus your ability to counter the next attack effectively. It’s a closed loop Ouroboros of progress, both positive and negative. One prone to dangerous cascading failure spirals should you suffer too many successive losses, and when enough countries pull out of the XCOM project, it’s game over.
This ability to win battles but lose the war, especially on the higher difficulties where the combat quickly becomes very unforgiving, creates tension for every decision you make, really nailing the sense that you’re managing a war effort. Combined with permanent death for your soldiers and you have a game weightier than a lead lined coffin and more engaging than a shotgun wedding.
But all of the above applies to both XCOM’s new and old, and none of it answers the most pertinent question, “Is Enemy Unknown better than the original UFO Defense?”
That answer is simple: No. It isn’t. The original game still has more . . . for lack of a better idiom, depth of character, more maturity, and more balance overall; it’s a fine wine aged well. Enemy Unknown is using the same grapes, but it’s a champagne; wholly enjoyable on its own, but meant to be consumed quickly as aging will likely leave it flat.
Primarily, the difference lies in the Geoscape of Enemy Unknown, which guts strategic intricacy and mystery to favor speed of play. Gone are multiple bases, radar ranges, enemy activity in unwatched territory, and multiple bogeys appearing at the same time – everything is narrowed down to semi-randomized missions that pop up in sequence. Some strategy is still required to succeed, but it’s really about reacting to events without making too many mistakes; a game of “Whack-A-Muton,” whereas the original was more simulation and focused on proactively investigating and eliminating threats.
But while Enemy Unknown discards much of the large scale strategy of the Geoscape, it zeroes in on the tactical Battlescape and manages to pull off a minor miracle: making a complex turn-based combat system as exciting and intuitive to control as any real-time firefight you’ll encounter in a Cliffy B. cover shooter, and without losing much depth. This is the area where Enemy Unknown excels, and becomes an almost completely different game.
There is a similar paring down of options during ground combat – you don’t have to manage “time units” or equipment weight for example – but for the most part, this streamlining results in a tighter, more enjoyable experience. The basics are still present; you still have to think your way through difficult fights using smart tactics against dangerously intelligent foes by taking advantage of destructible cover. But the now mixed unit classes (and their special abilities) give you a different set of tools and options, while the smaller squad size amps up the importance of making better choices (especially since the game is hard). At the same time, the superb presentation through what lead designer Jake Solomon’s calls the “glam cam” – a series of scripted camera angles that highlight key moments in a battle – makes it easy to enjoy the spectacle of it all.
Overall, it’s simply easier to enjoy XCOM:EU more quickly than the original, but this is both its greatest accomplishment and its biggest flaw.
On the one hand, it’s critical and commercial success is likely a watershed moment for Tactical RPGs as much as Final Fantasy 7 was for JRPGs; it’s proven to developers that a genre primarily built for and around hardcore gamer desires – intense difficulty and methodical gameplay – can find a larger audience. Just as the original X-COM was highly influential by setting many tactical game standards for quality, EU sets a standard for approachability. I expect we may see more entries into the genre as result, and that’s a good thing.
On the other hand, it is a shallower experience. While there is an addictive replayability to EU, it burns out far quicker than the original, which has the timelessness of Chess or Monopoly – you can still pick it up today and enjoy it. Partially, this lies in the stripping down of strategic elements and the non-randomized maps. But in truth, the key element missing from EU is simple to describe but harder to reproduce: mystery.
The original UFO Defense was like anything else, a product of its time; a time that just so happened to be the mid-nineties. While this means it had one of the cheesiest and Liefeldian intros in existence, it also managed to capture the eerie spookiness and secret conspiracy of The X-Files, one of its obvious influences in tone (just look at the name). It did this with blunt methods like haunting music and sound effects, but more importantly, it had mysterious design. During your first playthrough of X-Com, you’re never given hard goals or objectives; figuring out how to beat the game is actually one of the objects of the game.
It’s perhaps unfair to blame EU for this though, most games lack mystery these days; the only recent major release I can think of that relied on obfuscation of its objective is Dark Souls. In fact, that’s sort of EU’s best defense: it’s hard to blame it for anything. Most of its flaws are only in comparison to the original game and make sense given modern trends. If it went by any other name, it would play just as sweet; were it to doff its moniker, it would retain its perfection and glory owed.
Why, people would even say it reminds them of X-COM!
Unfortunately though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is trying to live up to that standard, and thus it’s really all we have to judge it on. Though it looks far prettier, plays more easily, is getting plenty of deserved attention for revitalizing a genre and a franchise, and even succeeded in quelling most fans fears, it simply isn’t the Jesus reboot 2K wanted it to be. More a Life of Brian, really.
As long as you can look at the bright side of life, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.