Mad Mack: X-COM Is Back From The Dead – And Kicking Ass
Well, it finally landed. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was made available on its various platforms last Friday. After a wait of something like 17 years (and what seemed like an eternity), someone has finally made an update to the original classic that is worthy of the name. And come to think of it, actually has the name – there have been lots of pretenders that have used a variant of ‘UFO’ or ‘Extra Terrestrial’ in their title, but no games carrying the X-COM moniker for many years.
Of course, we must look beyond the name. After all, Shakespeare said ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.’ And that which is called X-COM, by any other name, could still be utterly shit. Or something. I really need someone who knows their classic literature to look over that simile for me.
Anyway, to my thoughts on the game. Going into it, there was all sorts of trepidation. Would XCOM live up to the incredibly high expectations, or would it turn out to be yet another in a long line of disappointing usurpers to the throne? Would it be a good game, full of emotional highs and lows, or a drudge fest; a grind from one UFO to another?
It would be impossible to view this game in light of its predecessor, but I will try to give a fairly unbiased opinion on how the game stands on its own merits, and then consider how it compares to the original.
At the start of the game, you select the continent where you want to locate your base, with each location giving a specific bonus (discounts on kit, more money, faster research etc.) and the base is automatically established somewhere fairly central in the region. Hmmmm….I seem to remember being able to build a base wherever I damn well pl-NO Dave. Remember – its OWN merits. Compare it to the original later!
OK. So, you build your base, and apart from the much vaunted ‘Ant Hive’ (nest? Do ants have hives, or nests?), this area functions much like you would expect a base management screen to work. The base is laid out as per your design and you can add or remove facilities as space dictates. However, you can expand the base through increasing the depth you can build to, which is crucial since you can only have one base for the entire game.
It is here that you can direct research, hire and fire soldiers, build equipment and generally manage XCOM as an organisation. You can monitor your progress and sell Alien tech in the Situation room, purchase one-off upgrades for your men in the Officer Training School and prep your soldiers for battle in the Barracks. At the centre of the base is the Mission Control, which is where you find the Geoscape proper – a large, holographic map of earth where you can click a button and make time pass really fast or dispatch interceptors to shoot down UFOs or your Skyranger to deal with the many alien activities as they appear. The whole thing is highly streamlined and generally works very well.
One of the main ball-aches about this section is the way that kit is assigned to soldiers. You can either kit them out in the barracks, or while you are selecting the roster of troops for the mission. This is all well and good, except that a soldier who is taken off the roster still keeps his/her kit assigned to them, unless they are off it because they are wounded, in which case it all returns to the central pool. This is fine if you use the same soldiers, but if you are trying to share experience out across the team (or build up a back up ‘B’ team) then it becomes a nightmare of adding troops to the squad, then stripping them of kit, then replacing them with the trooper you want and giving them the kit. I have gone on missions where I have landed and psyched myself up, only to realise that I have forgotten some crucial kit or better weapons because some dickhead back at base wanted to make some cool pictures of him posing in Titan armour for his Facebook profile.
Also, if I was being a cynic, I would suggest that a lot of the simplification could be attributed to the fact that XCOM is being released on consoles, and that a gamepad is just not a particularly efficient tool for moving around something that is overly free roaming and fine detailed. If I was being a cynic, that is.
Ah, now we are talking. You have responded to a government request in dealing with a localised alien threat, or you have managed to shoot down a UFO, or the aliens are attacking a city or something, and you need to send in the boys to deal with it.
When I heard about some of the design implementations that Firaxis was going for, I will admit that I was sceptical. But from very soon into my first mission, I realised just what they had accomplished with their tactical landscape design. It is, for want of a better phrase, pant-shittingly brilliant. The controls are intuitive, and streamlined, but they are far from overly simplistic.
Time Units have now been done away with, and in their stead is a sort of Move and Action system that feels very similar to the turn order from Warhammer, of all places. Your troops can move a certain distance and still take an action, or they can dash even further in the turn but be unable to perform any actions at the end. Actions can be anything from shooting to using a special item or psionic power, or going into overwatch or reloading the weapon. However, if you do not move the soldier and perform an action immediately, then that soldier will have his or her turn ended regardless. It is a very slick system that keeps things moving along at a good pace without sacrificing overall strategy.
Cover is also very well handled. As you are selecting the square you want to move your soldier to, if it is beside cover, then a shield icon will appear that will indicate if it is full or partial cover (full or half full shield) and the directions from which the operative will be protected from fire. It can also indicate if the cover is compromised by enemy overwatch (red icon), which is crucial when moving in tight urban battles that can often end up happening 360 degrees around your squad. And forget about leaving your blokes standing in the open. It is a death sentence.
Basically, a slick cover and simplified move/fire system means that combat just works. It is fast-paced and hectic but still has a huge amount of tactical depth and strategy. There have been times when I have been staring at my screen for over 20 minutes, debating how I can kill the multiple enemies that are surrounding my troops, while one is panicking (because he is surrounded) and the other has just been mind controlled.
It does need some refinement however, and is not perfect. One big gripe is that moving a trooper one square will count the same as moving them to the limits of their move, so they must either perform an action from that square, or be counted as dashing if they move so much as a single further square. This is a massive issue when it comes to using some of the very short ranged weapons in the game. Also, once you tell a soldier to move, they are going to that square regardless of what they discover along the way – which all too often means a soldier will see an alien, but finish their move in a position where the alien is out of sight and cannot be engaged.
Oh, and on that topic, the line-of-sight in this game is fucking crazy. I do not know what is going on there, but I suspect it has a lot to do with how the pre-set animations interact with the scenery. But it really does not impact the gameplay, and is only noticeable in the ‘action cam’, so I am inclined to ignore it.
Finally, I have a massive issue with troopers only being able to carry one item of equipment in addition to their primary weapon and side arm. Troopers can literally carry either one grenade, a scope for their weapon, a med kit or a ballistic undergarment that confers additional protection. What bullshit is this? Why only one single grenade? Why not 6? Just stick three in your belt and another box in your backpack, dumbass. How does a weapon scope occupy the same space as a ballistic under-vest? Essentially, this was done for game-balancing purposes, which is one of the worst excuses for poor game design I can think off. And it’s annoying because I am reminded of it every single time I kit out my squad. Every. Fucking. Time.
Comparison with X-UFO: Enemy Unknown (Or X-COM: UFO Defence)
Well, on balance, it is a worthy heir to the throne. Of that there is no doubt. By and large it is a perfect example of how to take an old game and bring it into the 21st century (though there are a few areas where it feels like a backward step has been taken).
The tactical game especially is a fine example of how to streamline an experience without detracting from what made it great. Firaxis have done a fantastic job of identifying what it is about the combat that people liked and emphasising that, while de-emphasising or eliminating altogether the things players found dull or frustrating. It is the very definition of evolution – keep what works, improve what doesn’t. Apart from the few niggles I have pointed out, this is truly XCOM: back from the dead and kicking ass.
I wish I could say the same for the Geoscape. Now, let me preface this by saying that these complaints are coming very much from a X-COM purist point of view, and should not be taken to mean that I am down on the game.
Anyway, does anyone remember playing Deus Ex, and then getting really excited about the sequel, only to find out that in an effort to squeeze it onto a console, the developers had ‘streamlined’ a lot of the variation out of the gameplay? Gone were multi-tools, lock picks, experience points, manually entering passwords and logins, and in came a universal ammo system. It was game ‘streamlining’ in the same way that a company sacking 20% of its workforce is ‘refocusing strategic priorities’.
I use Deus Ex as an example, because a similar thing has happened to the Geoscape in XCOM. A lot of the fine detail that was present in the original game that has been removed from this. Some of it makes sense (providing your troops with a limitless pool of basic weapons makes sense – you are being funded by all the world governments after all), and I know that they wanted to move away from some of the more ‘spreadsheet management’ aspects of the previous games, likely in an effort to focus on the action and story arc (and possibly appeal more to your standard Ritalin-addled COD player).
While this is a laudable goal, it does take just a smidgin of the fun out of the whole experience. Yes it was frustrating when you didn’t have enough barrack space to hire more engineers, but at least you could have your huge science team working on two or three projects, or you could even set up bases devoted entirely to research, or enemy interception, or manufacturing or whatever. I just feel that in contrast to the tactical game, where the simplifications serve to focus on what was always great about the game, the simplifications in the Geoscape have paved over some of the aspects that provided a whole other layer of strategic depth and entertainment in the original title.
So how does it all look at the end of the day? Bloody amazing, in summary. This is the game I have been waiting for since I first played UFO: Aftermath, and realised that it was a piss poor knock-off. This is the game that many have tried to make (development hell is littered with the bones of X-COM remakes, spiritual successors and outright clones), but only one developer has delivered.
Yes it has its flaws, and I probably would have liked to see a bit more variety in the alien species (some are practically palette-swapped copies), while the Geoscape has been dumbed-down a bit compared to the original. But fuck me this is one special game. I’m already foaming at the mouth thinking about sequels, mods and add-ons. Maybe Terror from the Deep is next…