XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

The first time I read The Hobbit, I was 11 and I was fascinated by it. The year after that I got my very own copy of The Lord of the Rings. It was Easter so I had a whole week of holidays on the countryside at my grandparent’s. I took the books with me, climbed a big olive tree and read the 3 volumes without stopping. I almost gave up eating or sleeping, I just went through the whole thing without the ability to raise my eyes from the page. After I finished I sat there for some minutes looking into the horizon. Then I took book 1 and started reading again.

XCOM is my Lord of the Rings of gaming. It is the game that made me be the gamer I am, bad at FPSs, horrible at RPGs and uninterested in real time, lootfests, MMOs or sports games. I think it is easy then to understand why for me this is a very difficult review to write. The problem is that no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot get perspective on the subject. I am an XCOM fan and I feel about it in a very emotional way.

I am still going to try. But I warn you, this could get ugly. And long.

A new hope

Let’s get through some basic facts first. For starters, it is important to remind you what we are talking about here. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the 2012 remake by Firaxis of the 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (or XCOM in the US). Firaxis got the original name rights from a long chain of sales since the demise of Microprose. Some years later, in 2010 they decided to launch a turn based strategy game that would “reboot” the franchise. They intended to also release on the consoles as a turn based game.

Best game ever

All this is well and good and has happened before to other franchises. The problem is that as it happens, UFO: Enemy Unknown is the best game of all time. So Firaxis was saying that they could pull off taking the Mona Lisa, painting over it and making it better.

The lead designer of Firaxis for the XCOM project spent a lot of energy trying to explain to all the old and grumpy XCOM fans (i.e. me) that he too was an old and grumpy XCOM fan. And that he intended to respect and cherish the heritage. There is a very dramatic video where he says he’s going to keep “Everything” from the original XCOM design. But we all know that they always say that and we all know that it’s never true.

Not the best game ever

However, as the marketing campaign for XCOM started releasing information, they showed that at the very least they had put money into the project. XCOM would have nice graphics, good music and decent production values. Someone was betting money on the theory that there was still a good game in the old design and furthermore, a game that could sell. That was a relief and made me hope for something realtimeish with maybe one or two of the old aliens. But then they said it’d be turn based. And with two layers. And it’d have a story. And I grew… curious.

I followed the news until I saw the first gameplay video. What I saw made me a believer. They really had done a 3d environment with a turn based squad tactics game. That was all I needed, so I closed the video, preordered the game and went into information blackout mode. I did not want to know anything more. XCOM has to be played in the dark, at least the first time. This was roughly 3 months ago, when I let myself start hoping.

Hopes versus reality

So how did I feel when I finally unlocked the predownloaded version of 2012 XCOM? It reminded me the feelings that I had when I was waiting in line to enter the cinema for the first Lord of the Rings movie: Total fear and terror. They were going to ruin it, I was totally sure. They were going to take my childhood memory and make a farce out of it. It’d be like the Phantom Menace or maybe even worse. I just did not see how they could do justice to the game.

After 22 hours of gameplay I can stop to write this review and say that I really like the new XCOM. It manages to pull off an incredible feat. It takes most of the good stuff from XCOM and it makes it cool, really cool. So cool in fact that I think in some small parts, this game is (gasp!) even better than the original.

XCOM (old and new) is a two layer game. On one side we have the strategic level. In this area we fight a real timeish strategy war against the alien invasion of the Earth. Your task is to develop an organization that is capable of protecting the countries in the XCOM organization. As the aliens attack using UFOs, this implies detecting the UFOs, shooting them down and hunting down the aliens whenever they touch the ground. When aliens land, they have a tendency to terrorize, abduct and destroy anything they find, so your war is not going to be fought just on the air but also on the battlefield.

XCOM cleverly hides it's main base under a kid's ant farm. They'll never find us there...

There is a very irrelevant mini game related to the air battles that is a direct carbon copy of the original. However, the real meat of the game is the land battles. This is the second side of XCOM and the main area of focus of the whole game. It is a turn based squad level combat game with 3D destructible environment.

Here comes the micromanager

The real genius of XCOM’s design is how tightly the tactical game is tied to the strategic. Because what you do in one game impacts on the other, you will start taking decisions according not only to the constraints of the situation you have in front of you, but also thinking about the other side of the game. For example, you will choose to risk stunning an alien instead of killing him during a tactical battle because it’ll help your strategic effort. Or you’ll prioritize development of a weapon that will help you on the field while you delay other strategic moves. There are many examples of these systems working in the XCOM design, but suffice it to say that they make the overall game much more tense and interesting.

In the original XCOM, this strong links came at the cost of micromanagement. You had to manage inventories of ammo, grenades, many types of weapons, arm every squaddie for every battle, manually pick up items from the field if you wanted them back… lots and lots of micromanaging.

The original tactical combat also did fall into bean counting sometimes. It was a time units based system with unit facing. It allowed lots of flexibility but it required a lot of numbers in your head.

While preparing the new game, Firaxis identified micromanaging as their enemy.

As a consequence, the new game has as little micromanaging as possible. And incredibly enough, it works. Research is straight forward. Manufacture is straight forward. There is no ammo in the game. You have an infinite number of basic weapons and ammo. The black market does not allow you to sell the stuff you build, so it is much simpler (and harder). When you fight, you instantly pick up all the stuff. The base inventory is straightforward and equipping your soldiers works most of the time.

Dumb and Dumber?

Hmmmm…. ok I know that so far it sounds like they are dumbing down a deep game for the console crowd. Well, yes and no. At it’s core, the strategic game is very similar to the old one. You have more limitations and more needs that you need to fulfill. It follows the overarching story arc’s script the same way as the old one but I’d say it is a little more difficult. I miss the geoscape’s total control of the first game, the multiple bases, the radar coverage woes and the night/day cycle impact on the battles. But on the other hand, the strategic game is now faster and more difficult. The big “money cheat” of the old game, the black market sales of manufactured weaponry is sadly now gone. So you’ll be in money trouble all the time. Overall, I’d say that the strategic level of the game is a resounding success.

The big shocker reveal is that 2012 XCOM’s tactical combat game is completely different from the old one. And it’s a shocker because Firaxis has tried to convince us of the contrary.

The combat turn is composed now of two actions. You can move twice, move and overwatch, move and shoot… it is easy to understand. The map has a grid overlay that did not exist in the old game and that shows you visually where the unit can go if it still wants to shoot or overwatch. It is pretty simple and makes the game much faster.

Pro tip: gasoline explodes

The new XCOM has discarded unit facing and that helps greatly with unit movement. The problem is that this has a big impact in flanking, the way fog of war works and has made stealthy tactics impossible. Additionally this time the aliens do not have a bigger range of vision than you. When you see them, they see you. That means that there are no more of the famous XCOM “shots from the fog that kill your commander without anything you can do about it”. In the old XCOM you could do many things apart from shooting. You could flank, you could use diversion tactics, noise was important and so was the day night cycle and it’s impact on visibility. You used to carry loads of flares to throw into the dark areas and then had to go pick them up from the ground and throw them again into the dark further ahead. All that is now gone. When you see them, they see you, they position themselves and off you go shooting and doing tactics under fire.

The flight of the bullet

Although I can nitpick about other some aspects of the new game’s tactical combat, there is only one thing that really nags me: The new game has no ballistics.

Let me explain: In old XCOM, a shot was traced from the muzzle of the gun until it touched its target. That meant that if you had some dispersion in your shot, the bullet might hit something before reaching it’s target. This had interesting consequences. For example, shooting at an alien standing behind your squad mate was very, very risky. Now it is no longer the case, the shot teleports into the square of the target and it may or may not hit, but it does not follow a realistic trajectory. As a side consequence, reconnaissance by fire is no longer possible, so you can no longer shoot at a wall to uncover the alien behind. Well, you actually can but only using the rocket launcher. Yet another nice tactic that is now gone.

See? No ballistics! See?

Why is this alien so angry?

So is the tactical game easier? Absolutely no. It is very hard, but more limited.

So how come that a game that has less tactical options than the original is so hard? If there are less possible strategies to choose from, then it’d seem easier to choose. Well, no. XCOM 2012 is hard as balls because 2012’s XCOM aliens are the stuff of nightmares.

The new game has taken all the original set of nice aliens for us to enjoy: The Sectoids and Ethereals that mind control your soldiers making them turn round and shoot their comrades, the Mutons that shoot perfect shots and have twice the hitpoints than you or the Cyberdisk that is basically a combat helicopter. They have also added some new ones like the Berserker and the one that I won’t talk about but that you’ll get to enjoy when you find the purple UFO (You are going to LOVE the purple UFO).

The bloom of the Chrysallid

And, most importantly, they have kept everybody’s favourite, the Chrysallid.

This beautiful piece of walking hell has a very funny power. When in melee range it grabs the soldier or civilian next to it and not only kills it in one attack, but it makes a zombie out of the victim’s body. Fail to kill that zombie on time and out of it a new freshly spawned Chrysallid appears. Now, think of the economics of one Chrysallid between 18 civilians on the other side of the map.

Chrysallid snacks come conveniently packaged

To make things funnier, this baby runs like a maniac (roughly double than you), it has more hit points than in the old game and the final, delicious touch: in 2012 XCOM Chrysallids appear in groups of 3.

I had a classic XCOM moment with my squad while I was assaulting an alien base. In the biggest room in the base I had a big firefight with three well protected Mutons. After killing two of them, the third retreated into the shadows. I advanced my men carefully, leaving time for the overwatch.

The perils of being point man

Lieutenant Pieman, my lead assault trooper, moved to crouch behind a pillar barely 3 squares ahead of his previous position. That is when he revealed 3 Chrysallids. They turned towards him and charged blindly towards him. The first one fell after taking fire from Pieman and from Dusk’s sniper laser rifle. The second one got nearer but fell under Sass’s and Tokette’s fire. The third one advanced, Tokey took a shot but failed and the thing ran next to Pie, lifted him up and cut him into pieces. It then segregated eggs that placed inside the body of Pie and let them grow there. And then it was the end of the Alien’s turn. Tokey (in a surprisingly realistic turn of events) panicked and started crying for his mom. Then he turned around and shot Tokette who went down cursing in Afrikaans (the late Tokette was Southafrican).

So there I was, with a full turn ahead of me, one woman down, other turned into a zombie and a third a useless pile of cowardice. And a Chrysallid. And in a few turns, another one.

Ok, let’s do this in style: Dusk cooly raised his awesome sniper rifle and in a single shot to the head killed the Chrysallid. Dimmy (who had been reloading in the previous turn) shot the zombie and put it’s hit points down to something manageable. It was all up to Sass, so pice of cake.

I have to stop and explain that Sass is a badass assault trooper with more than 37 kills under his belt. He is also responsible for all the risky stunts like running next to an alien to stun him or crossing under fire an open space to give first aid to a fallen soldier. Yes, in XCOM Sass kicks ass.

So Sass looked at his chances of getting a distance shot and he did not like them. So he simply run next to the wounded zombie of Pie, stopped right in front of it and shot it in the head. Yay, go XCOM!

In the next turn, I remade my formation, rewarded Tokey’s performance by giving him the point and advanced carefully.

3 squares further ahead, the fog of war revealed 3 Chrysallids more.

What flavour is your terror?

So yes, XCOM 2012’s combat tactics are simpler. But seeing these monsters charge down a corridor towards you and knowing that you might kill the first one with all your reaction shots but that behind there are TWO MORE is… pure XCOM terror.

They are angry for some reason.

When you get down to it, XCOM’s old combat was gripping not because of tactical depth (although it had it) but because of the permanent threat of a total party kill. It could happen in any moment and it made you count every single time unit. XCOM 2012 is an amazing game because it understands this perfectly well and puts you in exactly the same situation. There are special missions along the scripted parts of the campaign where you will simply hit a wall of resistance so strong that either you are incredibly lucky or you’ll have to retreat, regroup and probably still lose everyone. And that is awesome.

The veredict: 5 apples out of 10 grapes

The overall package comes out really well. The game is beautiful, fast, very spectacular, it has lots of tension and a lot of strategy in it. It is a properly long game with very uphill difficulty curves and a merciless Ironman mode that has forced me to restart 4 times the whole game.

Should you buy this game? Well… after all it is the second best of all time, so I’d say that the answer is yes.

XCOM 2012 is an awesome game, a triumph of style and focused game design. It has strong decisions in it’s design that may not have been mine, but they are not bad decisions. It is a different game but it still manages to capture the atmosphere, the tension and the beautiful sense of consequence of the old game. I think that after 18 years of wait it is much more that we could ask for.

Oh, and yes, I did really like the Lord of Rings movies, even if the books are still better.

2 thoughts on “XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

  1. Great review, even with this minor heresy: “so cool in fact that I think in some small parts, this game is (gasp!) even better than the original”… I think the game is a modern take on the original concept and, as you explain very well, though it reduces the complexity (and thus flexibility) of the original, it manages to give you very similar sensations all the time.

    One thing I would like to point out is that I’m very happy with Firaxis having published this great game. If it is relatively successful (and it seems that’s what is happening), they will publish more in the same line, and other companies may start trying publishing more turn-based strategy games… maybe in 2-4 years we get some new jewels in the style of the XCOM. I would love if someone published similar games but with other themes (zombies, fantasy, sci-fi,…)

  2. I agree totally with you (also in the way that UFO made me the gamer I am today).
    The game is beautiful, runs smoothly, has hard selection of choices and punishes for mistakes (it punishes also when you don’t make mistakes, but that’s another story).
    Overall, I like what they did with the game.

    One point that should be emphasized: For the best experience, Xcom should only be played in Ironman mode (ie no save/load trick in the game, saves are automatic, so that you have to face the consequences of your decisions).

    What could be better?:
    - the interception “minigame” should be somehow improved (it feels… not on par with the rest of the game, although it remains adequate).
    - the game could be longer (I mean regarding in-game time) (the threat level increases really fast and you can expect to finish the game in 4/5 month of in-game time)

    But in the end, It is my type of game

    (trying to finish Classic/Ironman mode).

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