Friday, November 30, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

As a man who enjoys the finer qualities of life both old and new, whenever something doesn’t live up to the legacy passed onto it by it’s “parent” game, I find myself having to fend off those that just wish to dismiss he idea as “seeing the game through nostalgic-tinted monocles”. While this may be true, there is something to be said about a game that removes elements that made it stellar in the first place, and does little to replace it. That something is not very good either.

To begin, X-Com is a game that centers around aliens slowly invading earth to a point of a full scale war. You operate a not-so-secret organization that battles against the invading forces. In a world where simulation games are all but gone…besides the dreadful “You’ve run out of energy! Pay $80 for more!” games…this game encompasses so much more than just being a turn-based tactical game. In the original games you built you relied on base building, research and development, and various other elements that rounded the game out to be vastly deep, but entertaining no less. It involved the most micro of managing at times, but even then, it was worth it.

So what changed? What differences arose between the game from yesteryear and this one?

XCOM Enemy Unknown Grenade

The simplicity of the newer game is just the start of where I find the game lacking . Where you used to be able to do so much, the game now made it easier and far more streamlined. To some, this may make what was once a game that required far more investment something that could be picked up and played. While I would fight that this could be something helpful and acceptable across the board, it’s less about the thought that counts, and more about the approach.

First thing a veteran of the series would notice is the change in base orientation. An unusual thing of note but one of the most intense and enjoyable missions in the original was an invasion on one of your bases. There’s an inclusion of different things needing to happen to expand your base, but to me this was reasonable. Instead of throwing money at things, you need to be able to build what you research using the resources you have. While I will miss the base attack missions, the new set-up isn’t that bad.

Next, we look at the way the game approaches the invasion. It starts small but builds up as you go. Keeping up with or ahead of the invasion is a large amount of the enjoyment. But this game does something that doesn’t exactly streamline the experience and instead makes it more difficult to feel that you’re in front of the invasion. Instead of having a way of running multiple missions to combat each invading ship, you’re forced to choose only one of the invading forces and the others are “allowed” to continue without any defense. It’s as if the game is forcing you to stay crippled and watch the aliens invade more and more. Aggression with the nations you don’t defend rises and what once could be easily managed now is a broken mechanic that feels unnecessary and out of place.

XCOM Enemy Unknown Combat

Then we reach the battlefield, a place I long to be again. The graphics of the battles are stunning, no doubt. But the problems lie once again on the legacy it’s been given and not living up to it for reasons beyond me. Originally, an energy based system was available to give you options on what you did. Have a person that’s in a pinch and needs to run faster J does when I’m holding a sharp object? You’re fine to do so. Bunkered down in a great position so you can take well-aimed shots off instead? Even better! Everything was registered as a bit-by-bit action, and it gave more freedom. Now, movement has been turned into a two-tiered system. Move just enough and still take a single action. Move one step beyond that and sacrifice that. There are abilities of units that can alter this, but in the end, what was meant to make something easier is just the start of what makes the game more restricted.

They’ve also unceremoniously stripped things away like an inventory system to properly load out your units as you see fit. My belief is they replaced this with the abilities you find on each unit. However, when I played the game as a young lad, I always had a unit that had nothing but grenades and explosives to help clear out mass areas of aliens with ease. No weapons, just an enjoyable man with a penchant for destruction. Others would have ways to switch between assault and ranged. No more. Now you’re locked to specific classes that require you to only use certain weapons, items, and abilities. This would be fine until you reach another realization of a restriction.

XCOM Enemy Unknown Cover

You still want to take a dozen squad members on a mission to clear out an alien invasion? Good. You get 4. Later on you get 6, but enjoy the lack of back-up as you’re fighting off forces far greater than yours, both in number and strength. In the original, it was smart to send squads of 3 or 4 each out to cover and clear an area. Firefights with groups of aliens were balanced, and didn’t take a long time playing “hide and seek” to find a remaining enemy. It felt like you commanded a strong force instead of a tiny militia. Being a man to see military action myself, I cannot fathom why a small group would be sent in against such an opposing force.

XCOM Enemy Unknown ScreenshotThen, the game begins to make actions that both surprise and aggravate. Initially, you could spot an alien but if they couldn’t see you, they didn’t know you were there. You could keep the element of surprise. Gone. It’s gone. Immediately when you move within a radius of an enemy, no matter if they could see you or not, suddenly they all can see where you are and move to cover. This makes the AI even more broken than before. When an alien moves into your line of sight, do you get an action to hide? No. Why? Who knows at this point.

Let’s continue on this wonderful journey down the far more narrow path. Need equipment that a fallen comrade has? No more pick-up with things on the ground. Want to set a grenade to go off in a certain number of rounds? One round, that’s all you get. Want to take multiple shots at an alien? One shot. That’s what you get. Half cover may as well be no cover at all. On a map that has barely any good cover besides vehicles? Chances are a car will start on fire and blow up, killing your units before you have a chance to respond. Want to choose how much you aim a shot? Gone. Have money but need additional supplies? Hope you researched it, because the black market is gone and all that’s left is the “grey market” where you sell what you have. No purchasing at all. Want to take a shot at a wall or cover to clear it out? Only if you aim at an enemy you can see, and miss.

XCOM Enemy Unknown Gimped

On and on, the game continued to be restricted. What was once a fun, free game that allowed for many approaches to the same problem, you’re now forced to play a “simplified” version of a great classic game. Even when I played for the first time, I saw Classic Mode and became excited. The game felt nothing like the original. Many of my units died without any chance at all by almost always-hitting shots. I already was losing out on 2 different missions I didn’t accept, and losing on a third just meant ridiculous hits were taken. There are supposedly mods out to fix these issues but when a game is so broken and has removed so much, it shouldn’t be at the hands of the gamers to correct those problems for you.

Verdict: Does it make the game a bad game? On its own, not really. It’s not a GOTY candidate in any stretch of the imagination, but it still can hold its own. Especially nowadays when these types of games are few and far between. However, stack it up against its predecessors and you begin to see the great flaws the game has, many without any real justification, and what could have been a solid game turns into a test of mental willpower to not fling your computer across the room when you lose half your squad without any ability to protect yourself. I’m excited to see the game’s reboot, but if you’re looking for gameplay that sticks more to the classic action, go with the fan-created Xenonauts. It’s still in beta but the entire feel of the game far surpasses that of this one when it comes to living up to the legacy.
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