The world is in peril. Overpopulation, mis-distribution of resources, poor leadership, environmental degradation, international terrorism, and now to top it all off intergalactic terrorism. That’s right, the aliens have begun their invasion and they mean business. Why did they choose Earth? Reasons. What’s the purpose of the invasion if their technology vastly surpasses ours? Stop asking logical questions and get ready to fill some little grey men with lead. You are the commander of the vague yet menacing X-COM initiative, which was awkwardly well prepared for aliens to attack. As the commander it’s your responsibility to handle operations, research and engineering projects, and command soldiers in the field to stem the aliens’ campaign of havoc and chaos.
The X-COM series has quite a legacy. The first game, UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-COM: UFO Defense in the US, was released in 1994 and featured more tactical elements and way more death. The player could build multiple bases and each sortie generally fielded 14 soldiers who would generally die in one hit. The series was discontinued in 2001 with the release of X-COM: Enforcer.
It was revived as Enemy Unknown in 2012. X-COM: Enemy Unknown was developed by Firaxis Games — who’d have thunk that the Civilization guys would be so good at making X-COM. It was created as a counterpart game for 2K’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Although the games took place in different universes I’ve heard word down the grapevine that Enemy Unknown’s primary purpose was to set the stage for the Bureau. Shocking absolutely no X-COM fans, the turn based tactics game in the vein of the original was more popular than the new game that took place in the 50s or something..
X-COM hit me like a wildfire. I spent 2 days playing it non-stop. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking strategy about it. When I wasn’t thinking strategy, it was still in the back of my mind like a Sectoid’s mind control. But now that I’ve finished the campaign I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to it. Now that I know how to get to the final chapter I’m not sure what mystery or challenge there is left. I might pick up the DLC, Enemy Within, I’ve heard good things. But it’s $30 and that’s a little steep. Point being, the draw of the game is the challenge. I climbed the mountain, planted the flag, and I’m essentially contented.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a tactical combat game. It’s the standard fare with half cover, full cover, and exploding vehicles and barrels. Sending the commandos into cover reduces the damage they take while flanking enemies increases their chances to get hit. Even though the soldiers are much more durable than they are in UFO Defense they still can’t take a lot of damage — and once they’re dead they’re dead forever. The accuracy of all attacks is determined by a die roll, influenced by the aim of your troops and the strength of the enemy cover so there’s a lot of praying to RNJesus for victory. Different soldiers you have will unlock different abilities — so sending the sniper to the front lines might be a bad idea.
Things in the field got tricky until I figured out I was neglecting the X-COM base R&D divisions. X-COM base comes fully equipped with an engineering facility and a research lab for developing and building things that will give your team the edge they need to survive and dish out the pain. Like making new weapons, better intercepting aircraft — chasing down UFOs is hard business, shooting them down is even harder–, or constructing and deploying satellites to other parts of the world to monitor their activity. Without satellites X-COM won’t know what’s going on in that part of the world which means the aliens have free reign… which is in fact, no bueno.
You fund these new items, fresh soldiers, and expanded facilities with credits passed on by the mysterious Council. The more countries you have satellite coverage on the more credits you get monthly — and the more responsibility on your plate. You can also sell items like alien corpses at the grey market — a little joke that almost passed me by.
It’s a double edged sword but I really like the destructible terrain. Even though the aliens can destroy your cover it’s really satisfying when you destroy theirs. Better yet, starting fires can also destroy terrain. So if you can ignite a blaze and lure an enemy into it the results can be pretty humorous. It makes it feel like the more powerful weapons you build still have impact, even if your attacks miss.
The game does a really good job of making you get attached to soldiers right before they’re horrifically murdered. They start off as rookies who suck and are basically fodder for the alien hordes. By the time rookie Hannibal becomes a shotgun toting Assault trooper it the claws were in. Then when the rest of the crew starts calling Hannibal Banzai I really got attached. I start to think about Banzai’s personality. He’s an assault so he’s always rushing in… but maybe he takes too many risks. Maybe he would rather die to spare his teammates the same fate. Then I start playing him a bit too rashly. He meets the wrong end of a Muton plasma rifle but he dies knowing he ate a shot meant for someone else. And that’s how the game gets ya.
The alien designs are really fascinating and visually compelling. Not too busy but with enough visual clues and colorful parts. From the Ethereals’ mysterious, eerie, and silent presence to the simple brutishness of the Muton.
I know that these things are aliens and they should be kind of unknowable but there are some enemies whose rules I still don’t understand. And that’s a kiss of death for a tactics game. I need to understand the rules we’re all playing by if I’m going to make tactical decisions. The first mission against certain enemies left me baffled but soon I was developing strategies to handle these new foes. That’s fine. The problem comes with the aliens whose mechanics I still don’t understand. I still don’t know how many Overwatch attacks Sectopods get and I still don’t know how the Muton Berserker or Cryssalids’ melee attacks work. I managed to beat the game anyway but that victory felt unsatisfying because I didn’t fully understand what I was doing. Speaking of Chrysalids…
I don’t know who designed these things but if I met them I would mention this creature adn just stare at them incredulously for several minutes. This is a Chrysalid and it’s got a number of abilities that all sound totally reasonable until you put them all together. They melee attack for a lot of damage. That’s fine, X-COM operatives all have ranged weapons and can shoot on enemy turns with the proper preperation. When they kill something that unit rises from the dead as a zombie. Also fine, the zombies do more damage than expected but they’re slow and have low defense. The problem comes when three turns after a zombie rises it erupts into a new Chrysalid. These creatures are the main enemies in the Terror Missions which showcase combat arenas filled with civilians in need of rescue. Defenseless civilians make great hosts for Chrysalids which then beget more Chryslids. Defending against them is easy but I still haven’t found a good way to mount an offense.
Here’s something that happens with startling regularity. I’ll have a marine happily ducking behind cover when a Space Ogre will destroy the cover he’s hiding behind via grenade or random plasma fire. Then all of his Space Ogre Friends will abandon their defense and charge the bastard as they blast him with plasma fire. It’s frustrating enough to make a guy abduct and then probe himself. Each of the X-COM soldiers takes multiple missions to rank up but these aliens are expendable and the more they act like it the more frustrating it is. It doesn’t happen often enough but when it does it’s incredibly dissatisfying to see, what I considered to be AI logic, get thrown out the window.
This game was a killer. I installed it, beat it in a few days, and I probably won’t go back to it. But I was totally hooked for those few days. It’s not like the game doesn’t have replay value. Beating it unlocks a bunch of options that change the way the game is played like giving weapons a wider range of damage for instance. Not to mention the DLC, which I find pricey, but hear is a good deal. I don’t want to call it a flash in the pan because I know it’s better than that. It’s like a flash in the pan of a fantastic kitchen that’s making a fresh remake of an old dish you love while time is dilated really slow so the flash seems like it lasts way longer. Yeah, that’s a good metaphor.
Next Week: Wild Arms 2