Wednesday, February 19, 2014

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

...Never before have I played a game that made so furious...and yet I still loved it!

I have absolutely no connection to the original  X-COM franchise since I've always been a bit of a console monkey through and through with every genre except Point and Click Adventure, and also due to the fact that I had actually never heard of this franchise until recently as well. However my interest was piqued when I saw a livestream of this particular title and saw that it had some interesting RPG elements; so naturally when I saw it available on the PS3 Instant Collection I downloaded it and had probably one of the most interesting experiences I've ever heard in my tenure as a gamer, in that I came close to smashing my controller, and yet still couldn't put this game down.

Aliens are invading, and the governments throughout the world have banded together to form the XCOM Project which is devoted to studying and defending the planet from the extra-terrestrial beings. You are the commander of XCOM and along with Chief Scientist Dr. Vahlens, Chief Engineer Dr. Shen, and Central Officer Bradford are all tasked with protecting the human race from the aliens, as well as using their technology to advance our own in this war of the worlds.

The plot is mostly a framing device for the gameplay and the stakes, so it serves very little to enhance the experience, though it does become slightly more important near the conclusion since there is a story-driven endgame. MOVING ON!

Art Direction
From a artistic stand-point I do have to criticize this game as being a bit uninspired and boring. Visually this game is not particularly impressive, in fact the graphics look like something from the PS2 era, but they are certainly not deal breakers for people who are not picky about the visuals, like myself; though I will say that there were enough frame rate issues, and screen tearing to the point of being distracting. The music and voice acting is also forgettable since they're really only there to be there...with the only awesome exception being that Moira Quirk from Nickolodeon GUTS is the voice of Dr. Vahlens!

Once again, I had never played the original X-COM games, so when it comes to the gameplay features supposedly missing from this one, I have no comment. But from a gameplay standpoint XCOM: Enemy Unknown is really awesome, and highly addictive to the point where it should probably be regulated by the government. The meat of the game is the combat, which is fast, tense, and immensely satisfying even for gamers that are not hardcore strategy fans (like myself), you begin with a squad of four soldiers (can be upgraded later on), and engage in battle with various hostile aliens. On their turns, soldiers can move a certain number of spaces into cover, fire, or use class-specific abilities after they've been assigned one, and when they have an alien in their sights, the game shows you the percentage of their weapon hitting the enemy, this can be altered based on the soldiers position so a flanking shot, or a character at a higher elevation is way more likely to hit than someone 50 yards away with obstructions in the path.

Your enemies are numerous in this game, with many different varieties of extra-terrestrials, from the mildly psychic Sectoids, the humanoid (and incredibly creepy) Thin Men, the vicious, zombie- making Chryssalids (whom I H-A-T-E!), and many other increasingly dangerous aliens that will all require different strategies to defeat, and are all a threat no matter how well equipped you are. I sadly do have to say that the aliens (at least for the first part of the game) have a huge advantage over you, and it will sometimes seem that they will make shots from long distances and even through walls and cover, while shots from you at even seemingly point-blank distances will miss and lead to that soldier eating a stream of plasma bolts afterward. And adding to the stress is the fact that when a soldier dies...they are gone for don't become too invested in them since there is an ever present chance that they'll be blasted into oblivion and become yet another part of the memorial back at base. Then there is panic, which can really screw you over since you'll lose control of a panicking soldier who can accidently shoot a fellow squad member, or run out into enemy fire resulting in a chain reaction leaving most of your squad face-down in a pool of their own blood, also adding to rage-factor are several bugs that can result in even more unfair death, for example I had one of my snipers use a grappling hook to get to higher ground, and got catapulted several yards away into enemy fire and got immediately gunned down. This all made me incredibly furious since it often felt unfair and punishing, but the addictive nature of the combat will always make you begrudgingly pick up your controller and try again.

Each kill earns soldiers experience points that will lead to stat-increasing promotions, after their first promotion soldiers are randomly assigned one of four classes consisting of Heavy, Assault, Support, and Sniper and each subsequent promotion lets them choose between one of two new perks on a progressing talent tree, allowing a bit of diversity even between soldiers with the same class, for example having one Assault specializing in in high damage, close combat with a shotgun, and another with long-range rifle fire that can flush aliens out of their own cover into the open. My main complaint with this system though is the inability to manually assign the classes yourself, since this can lead to having an excessive amount of one class and sorely lacking in others, for example I ended up with about seven snipers that I never used since my main and single back-up snipers were really all that I needed, but at the same time I rarely got any Heavies, so any time my main Heavy was wounded and another mission popped up before he was medically cleared for return was made pretty complicated. And also, I do have to complain about the shortage of customization features, especially since I am the type to name soldiers after my friends and try to recreate their likenesses to give the game a sense of personal investment...which sadly is handicapped by a pretty anemic amount of options for the soldiers' appearances.

The game also has a pseudo-business simulator aspect when back at XCOM headquarters, at the beginning you choose which continent HQ will be established at with each one providing a different bonus such as having better science labs in Europe, or aircraft maintenance and construction being more inexpensive in North America. Here you'll use artifacts found in the battlefield (assuming you didn't blow them up with a grenade or rocket launcher) to research the aliens and their technology in the science labs with Dr. Vahlens, to create better weaponry and enhancements in the workshops for your soldiers and UFO interceptors to increase their battle efficiency, and survivablity. XCOM HQ naturally must be enhanced and expanded to keep up the fight against the aliens, so in order to do so you'll need to excavate the underground parts of the base, and build power generators, additional labs, workshops and acquire more scientists and engineers, which also has an element of strategy to it, since building similar facilities adjacent to each other earns bonuses in the form of extra power and benefits. Naturally this requires money, which is acquired from doing special missions for the XCOM council (usually high-profile rescues), answering certain countries' pleas for help, and selling off certain artifacts to the "Gray Market".

Speaking of the XCOM Council, in addition to looking and sounding like the "Shadowy Council of Questionable Morality" from The Avengers, the Council plays a heavy role in the game in the form of both a benefactor, and a doom counter. Each month the Council will evaluate your progress and reward you with money, additional staff, and will lower the panic level in their respective countries, which is shown in the Situation Room of HQ. As time goes by and disturbances occur, panic will increase in each country, however you can lower it yourself by launching satellites over the panicking country to reassure the government, and by taking on missions in a certain country when prompted, but you will have to choose between three countries during each reported incident with panic rising in the two countries you didn't pick, which leads to the dilemma of choosing a mission based on the reward for completion or based on the panic level to avoid losing a particular country's support. If eight countries withdraw from the council, then the project will be terminated, and the game will be lost, thus giving a sense of urgency to get to the game's conclusion since you can delay it out for a long period, but it will become harder, and harder to keep the council's support as the game goes on.

Replayability is excellent, considering the random nature of the game, since not every playthrough has the same string of missions, or even the same HQ layout. You can play the game on a higher difficulty (warning, this game is hard enough on Normal) or even with special stipulations such as an Ironman mode which locks the player into one autosaving file, and Second Wave options that can radically change the nature of the game with random soldier stats, randomized funding, and more oppressive combat conditions. Though once again, there are some nasty bugs in the game that would make an autosaving Ironman mode potentially game-ruining, but then again that's coming from a paranoid save-scummer.

My experience was based on the PS3 versions, so any complaints I have regarding bugs may be moot on the PC version (which I may try in the future if I get a good PC), but it's been a while since I've had a love/hate relationship with game like this one. While it does have its flaws, and unfair moments, it is highly addicting, and will be played many times over. In short, its a game where the gameplay makes up for almost every shortcoming, and I can almost guarantee that I will be picking up the Enemy Within Expansion pack in the near future.



  • Highly addictive strategic gameplay with multiple difficulties and optional stipulations
  • Excellent replayability
  • Ideal game-length 


  • Can feel unfair
  • Numerous glitches
  • Bland uninspired art design, music, and voice acting
  • Unable to choose character classes.
  • Frame rate issues and screen tearing

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