Posted in: Game Reviews by Michael Durr on November 2nd, 2012
When a company decides to adapt a made for pc game into something a console can play, it can either become a nightmare or something very rewarding. It simply is not a game of system requirements but rather adapting a keyboard layout and game play into something that allows for more bite sized morsels. But at the same time, one cannot produce a dumbed-down game and must pay homage to the classic. After years, I think we might have one of the very few games that has underwent this transformation and done it fantastically. Enter XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
The first thing the player will find themselves doing upon entering the game along with other options is changing the gamma setting on this game. In some cases, players such as me will be placing the cursor pretty close to the right. This game is very dark in theme and graphics and regardless of whether you advance the gamma meter towards the right or not, the player will always be looking towards the inevitable darkness.
Once the player gets beyond the brightness or lack thereof, there is a lot to look at as far as details. XCOM allows the customization of soldiers male and female in a variety of options. It helps quite a bit to build up a loyalty to your band of brothers. Getting out on the battlefield, the player will hardly notice the players (except where they are on the field of course) and will be taken into the environment which is rich and shows a lot of detail at every shielded point available.
But the richness of the battlefield and the soldiers is not without its share of technical issues. Since the game deals so much with darkness, often details of the aliens and surroundings can lead to blind moments and walking right into enemy fire. Sure, smart strategy and playing shielded points will help to minimize these moments but they are still there and often. I cannot help to think that they are at least partially caused by the graphics and lack of depth that is sometimes found.
Sound is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and sounds positively creepy. To go along with the darkness, the sounds effects and light music do their best to make the threat all that more realistic. The satisfactory pleasure of scoring that first hit and hearing the alien go a disgusting splat is great (but perhaps the sound of the autopsy after could be toned down a bit). Effects like running across the battlefield or a shot taking a part of the environment (rockets mostly) also add a layer of realistic warfare.
But the battlefield as well as back at mission control become a long string of repetitive beeps and confirmations and really do not stand out in the slightest. The voices of the soldiers are not all that distinct either and their communication only goes beyond a couple of words at a time. If the platoon did not take on a distinct nature thanks to customization, one might have a hard time telling them apart. It is certainly adequate but it is far from special.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game set in near future, when an alien hostile force attacks the Earth. Unlike Area 51 or any of those other alien events, this is one that cannot be covered up by conventional means and instead will require a anti-terrorist unit known as XCOM to dispel the threats that now make up the entire world. Little is known about the alien force that now provides the threat but a team of scientists and engineers will also be available to help the cause of investigating alive and dead specimens. Only then will the team sees the true nature and be able to combat the aliens and save the world.
So it starts, the game gets a little background but is eager to throw you into the action (at least at first). The game gives you the option of playing with a tutorial and I would recommend that for people who are new to XCOM or haven’t played it in years (like myself). Then leave that option on for the first few missions and restart the game after they feel comfortable. The tutorial is very heavy handed and in the first mission it will tell when you move, when to shoot, and when to do the fandango (which really plays with the alien’s heads). Seriously though the tutorial helps to explain everything.
XCOM is essentially a turn based strategy game. Okay, come on, do not roll your eyes. In a typical mission, the player starts out with four squad members and the goal is to move along the map towards the destination and weed out alien threats along the way. Most of these aliens roam around in darkness until one discovers them and then it is a game of who can get the jump on the other. Shielded points are a necessity to make the shots more difficult for the enemy. However, certain situations do dictate (like escorts) that you draw fire every so often.
Squad members (who are fully customizable) get kills and level up in ranks. If they get injuries (which can happen often), they are sidelined for a number of days. They can also die, and death is permanent unless one goes back and loads an old save (I would recommend saving at least before every mission). So, if one is careless with a Corporal, there is no resurrection juice to bring him back unfortunately. By leveling up in ranks, the squad members gain special skills (and nicknames) which will help the team immensely as long as they stay alive.
Then there is the addictive quality of base management. A lot of people refer to this as the ant hill concept. At the base, your scientists, engineers, excavators, and other assorted personnel will perform duties that will help the player in the long run. Things like researching alien materials, building laboratories or power centers, and opening more space in your ant hill to build more things. Of course, to do all of these things the player will need to manage resources as well as cold hard cash.
The player also has to manage panic levels spread across the eight areas around the world. If a panic level gets too high, then that area pulls out of the council. If enough areas pull out, then gave over buckaroo. Careful management of all these will go a long way in completing the objective. The game can be very open ended but at the same time it will lead down a path towards the finish with certain canned missions along the way. This also leads to timed events in the story that are then tied to achievements (like capturing a live alien for the first time). It’s actually quite clever how it does this.
The game is absolutely amazing in how it manages all of these factors. It has such a pure addictive quality that will make one scream NOOOOO at your television screen every time a really important soldier kicks the bucket from accidentally walking into the line of fire. Or even a less important one. I found myself drawing a connection to soldiers after one or two missions and then getting frustrated even when they were kicked out of action for seven days for injuries. I only wish I could pick my soldier’s nicknames while i was at it (I guess that follows the rule of you can’t pick your own nicknames).
The difficulty in this game is very unforgivable. Even at the easiest setting, one will find a steep learning curve despite the tutorial. Because even the tutorial tells one how to move, how to shoot, what to build and all that, it does not help one to manage. Therefore, managing a monthly income and expenses while shooting down the aliens at the same time becomes very difficult. At times, it will seem like everybody will be screaming for the player’s help. Much like a government, one then has to figure what to do about it.
It also does not help that the enemy at the missions can be considered very cheap. So much of the time is spent uncovering aliens during missions that it is almost inevitable that one will walk right into a few pulsing blasts from an alien. Also, when one shoots an enemy it is based off a percentage that takes into account: shielding, weapon accuracy, etc. I swear (though this is probably AI paranoia) that the aliens hit so much easier than then your personal squad force. It really forces the player to equip two squad members with medikits at the bare minimum and play very conservatively.
A traditional game will take about 15 hours if the player is a speed freak or in the 20-25 hours range if the player wants to take its time to go after the final mission. However, the game offers multiple skill levels and the player will probably play with the tutorial mode to get the hang of it and then quickly start a new game with complete control. I will touch on it in the achievements, but one of the achievements practically requires that the player starts over in order to increase its chances.
There is also a multiplayer mode included in the game which can be best described as a chess match (much like the normal game is at times). Both players can choose to be soldiers as well as aliens or mix and match as they please. As with most Xbox 360 games these days, there are quick and ranked matches as well as custom ones. Thankfully, the mode is mostly provided as a diversion and there is only one achievement that pertains to this (and it is just winning one time).
Fifty achievements are included for a total of one thousand points. Many of the achievements will simply come with time or playing through a normal game. Killing aliens in quantity and unique ways is a popular theme for an achievement as is beating the game at multiple difficulty levels. Also, one of the nice things is that the quantity type achievements are tracked across all single player games so that if you really just suck (but like the game), persistence will get the points.
There are a few achievements that really show a bit of creativity and at the same time will provide a very difficult time of obtaining them. One of them I alluded to earlier is the “Ain’t No Cavalry Comin'” achievement which requires one to keep one soldier alive the entire game and in every mission. This is even harder if you play with the tutorial since it will kill 3/4’s of your battalion on the first mission which means you have to coddle one guy for the rest of the game. Hence the starting over I suggested after one gets the hang of it.
Other difficult achievements will have one winning the game from each of the five starting locations (A Continental Fellow), winning a mission with an all-female squad (Flight of the Valkyries) and the elusive beating the game in Ironman mode in Classic or Impossible difficulty (No Looking Back). This will require you to play with one save and no take backs (since playing normally does allow to save as often as you would like). Suffice to say many of this achievements are obtainable but quite a few of them will also take exceptional skill and practice.
Note: Before going over my final thoughts, I did want to touch base with the rather poor manual. Yes, the game is very heavy handed with the tutorial and that does help to go a long way to understanding the game but the manual is an abomination. This is a strategy game and should have a reasonable manual describing units and a few simple tactics as well as the game’s story. Furthermore, if you think that there is an adequate online manual, again you would be wrong. Basically it adds credits. Even the Bradygames strategy guide does not provide a satisfactory help to this complex game (and contains a TON of typos). The player is basically left to their own to develop strategy or hope that the user community keeps the spirit of this wonderful game alive.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the best strategy game I have seen on the Xbox 360, period. I am so glad that the people at 2K decided to come out with this game first rather than the shooter they also promised (which is slated to come out sometime in 2013). I was skeptical also at first because my only connection to the series was about twenty to thirty hours of the original, XCOM: UFO Defense and to be blatantly honest, I had zero clue what I was doing. I was just standing around waiting for alien threats to happen and click a button.
Here in Enemy Unknown, the action has been streamlined and management has been tweaked so that it does not require a whiz accountant to play adequately (though smarts do help). Dumbed down is not an appropriate word at all, highly accessible is much more accurate. The gameplay really stands out and that is why I am giving this game a very high recommendation. It will pass a lot of people’s radar but I am hoping that with word of mouth it will reach more people’s homes. Play it, live it, love it! Thank you Firaxis for doing this series proud.