Saturday, October 13, 2012

Invasion: Earth

Or: Damn you, aliens! You got Johnny! …and Kumiko! …and Sven!

by J. Adams

XCOM: Enemy Unknown came out this past Tuesday and before anything else, let me just say one thing: this game is hard. I should also say that I’ve spent pretty much all my free time since it came out playing it (my wife is furious).

To call XCOM: Enemy Unknown a remake would not be doing justice to either this iteration of the game or the original that was released back in 1994. Enemy Unknown takes what was great about the original and makes it better, while removing the things that made the original just a little clunky and annoying to manage – a couple of examples just off the top of my head would be Time Units and starting the mission inside the Skyranger transport. For that reason alone, I’m happy to call it a “re-imagining” instead.

There are two distinct phases to the gameplay, the first being the tactical, turn-based action portion where you control your individual soldiers, and the strategy, base-building/resource management phase (referred to as the “ant-farm” during the game’s development).

During the strategy phase, the player, as the commander of XCOM, must manage the multi-level underground facility by choosing where to place strategic assets like workshops, laboratories, and generators. The commander is also responsible for keeping the XCOM project funded by protecting the countries around the world that are supporting the project through the Council. Each of the 12 countries represented on the Council has a “panic” meter. If a country is not covered by satellites, has alien abductions or attacks ignored by XCOM, or is the site of a catastrophic XCOM failure (losing a tactical mission), the country may pull its support from the Council – which means you lose their funding and additional benefits for the remainder of the game. If the commander loses too many Council countries, the “Doom Counter” fills up, the XCOM project is disbanded, and we can only assume that Earth is conquered by the aliens.

The tactical phase generally consists of taking XCOM soldiers to sites of alien abductions or attacks and fighting off the invaders, but there are additional mission objectives that are assigned as the game progresses that may include the rescue of a VIP from an area, rescuing any and all civilians involved in an “alien terror attack,” or risking life and limb (more than usual) by getting close to a particular alien and attempting a live capture. Killing aliens yields corpses that are used for autopsies and other research as well as fragments of their weapons (which explode when the alien dies), fragments of alien alloys used in manufacturing new weapons and armor for your squad, and a new element called “Elerium” that can be used for research or construction once enough has been gathered.

The game’s story begins with an XCOM (the acronym is never explained as far as I know, but I figure it’s something like Extraterrestrial Command) squad being sent to the scene of an unexplained incident. On arrival, the team discovers that aliens have attacked other humans and that this is the precursor to a major invasion. Once this first mission is complete, the player is introduced to the strategy portion of the game and the real fun begins. You’re able to start at least one research project right off the bat and probably begin construction on another facility or two in the base, which might include digging out new areas to develop or extending the central lift further underground to expand the base. XCOM’s starting weapons are woefully inadequate compared to the aliens' weapons, but as you fight and gather weapon fragments, your scientists are able to reverse engineer their weaponry to help give your troops an advantage.

Each soldier is fully customizable up to and including their first and last name. This allowed me to have some extra fun by naming them after friends of mine, one of whom I informed through instant messaging that she really needed to shape up on the battlefield during my next game. I couldn’t afford to have her getting killed in her first mission again (shot in the face with a plasma rifle, to be specific)…which brings up the next big point – don’t get too attached to your soldiers.

I mentioned above that this game is hard, and this problem is not helped by the fact that if your soldier dies in battle, they are gone for good. Yes, it means if you have a max-level soldier (rank of Colonel) that has an unlucky break and takes a few too many hits, he’s gone. In addition, almost every time a soldier takes any damage at all, they’ll be “wounded” for a certain amount of time once the team returns to base and will be unavailable for missions until they recover. Hire and train lots of soldiers. Play magazine put it this way: “…dying is back in fashion.”

This difficulty is one of the draws to the series – the XCOM games have always been unforgiving. Enemy Unknown takes this a step further by offering an “Ironman” mode, which forces the player to play the entire game from one auto-save file, and re-loading is disabled. You don’t get a do-over.

Aside from my personal love of the game, the critical praise for the game has been pretty close to universal.  I’d love to have a few more equipment slots to customize on my soldiers, I would like to see a more extensive skill tree, and I would like to be able to choose my soldiers’ specialization myself rather than having it assigned when they level up the first time. These are extremely minor issues, and it can easily be argued that these limitations serve to increase the difficulty without actually making the enemies any harder than they are.

There’s also multiplayer, but I haven’t tried that yet. I’m a single-player man most of the time anyway.

If you have any interest at all in tactical and/or strategy games, you owe it to yourself to give XCOM: Enemy Unknown a try. You won’t be sorry, though you might get some of your friends killed (digitally).

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