Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review: X-COM: Enemy Unknown

When you were old enough to play video games back in 1994, you may or may not have played "UFO: Alien Invasion" or "UFO: Enemy Unknown" (depends on where you live, first name was the US release, second one the international one). This game send you into squad-based combat against an alien invasion. Between missions, you expanded your bases, researched technology and produces better weapons to increase your chances in the missions. And oh boy, was that necessary. The game was brutally hard, and if you ever survived it, you really accomplished something. The game spawned a series of sequels, but then the franchise lay dead in the water and survived several remake attempts until about a week ago "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" hit the shelves. So, is it any good you might ask? I will answer the question after the break, but first look at this screenshot from the original UFO game: 

This passed as state-of-the-art graphics back in the day. Look at my work, ye mighty, and despair.

Fans of the original game will want to know whether the remake succeeds in transporting the core gameplay and feeling. Your minds can be put at ease. If you choose the third difficulty level or higher, you will soon again feel that sweet pain between excitment and frustration that allows you to brag about the games of old that really were difficult. X-COM allows for near infinite adjustment of difficulty to suit your needs, from a walk in the park to a walk in hell. The gameplay hasn't changed, either: you have a base, improve it, train soldiers, level them and mourn them when they die (or reload, but that's for pussied and can be deactivated). You will soon notice that it has been reduced in complexity, however - you have only one (big) base throughout the whole game, the soldiers don't have full-fledged inventories, there are fewer equipment possibilities and so forth. On the other hand, the gameplay is much more fluid. 

And seriously, the old inventory was a bitch.
So, let's talk graphics, going through the game piece by piece. The game is based on the Unreal engine and looks well enough for a round-based strategy game, but "good" is something else entirely. The landscapes are bland and repetitive, the character models not really detailled and the effects look like from the tenth anniversary edition of UFO. But there are other things that make up for it: the animations of the soldiers are very fluent, which is good since you see them quite often. The game also tries to create a cinematic feeling by giving you close-ups of aliens entering line-of-sight, showing the shooting act from different angles and so forth. Some minor bugs let soldiers shoot through solid walls sometimes in these animations, but overall, this is only a minor nuisance. 

In exchange you get close-ups of laser gatlings.
Not a minor nuisance at all are the controls. If you are ever in need for an example in explaining the difference between "well meant" and "well done" to someone, fear not, for now you can cite X-COM. The game sports different elevation levels, which is fine, and lets you adjust them by turning the mouse-wheel, which is fine, too. The game also tries to assume which level is needed at the moment, which is absolutely not fine since it makes a catastrophic mess out of it. When you run around in an UFO, I guarantee you cries of angered frustration as the game puts the ceiling in your face and makes it impossible to select the right level, instead forcing stupid alternate routes and positions on you. And this is not a minor problem, mind you, because positioning is everything in this game. 

Which I intend to prove with this chaotic screenshot.
This is the aspect were the game really shines. The combat system doesn't distract you with thousands of options you wouldn't need anyway and concentrates on the important stuff. The landscape is basically depicted in isometric 2D posing as 3D, granting very good overview without chewing up your time depicting which trees are really there and which are only ambience graphics. You let your soldier run into cover, he gets a bonus from it, provided the enemy doesn't outflank you, in which case it gets a bonus against you. So you are constantly trying to bring something solid between you and the enemy plasma and in turn clear a path for your own energy projectiles of death. 

Once you get a sniper with the Plasma Sniperrifle and the rank of Colonel, that doesn't matter much anymore, however.
To make this clear: you cannot lie down, crouch, turn or do anything of the sort. The game does this automatically. A soldier behind cover crouches, and if an enemy appears he turns in its direction. This is logical, and it actually saves you a lot of unnecessary clicks and actions that just churn up the playtime needlessly. You concentrate of the main task, the tactic, and let your soldiers do their job: following orders. And there are quite a lot of them. In the beginning, you can run around and shoot, but as the soliders gain experience (a.k.a. killing stuff and surviving it), new options are unlocked: snipers learn headshots, supporters throw smoke grenades, heavies fire two times a round and assault infantry sprints and shoots in the same activation. Plus, about a dozen additional options waiting for your pleasure. All of these options make sense, too - there are no useless actions here, stuff that was inserted because someone thought it was cool and that's never actually needed. Someone thought this through, which is a nice change. 

The skill tree and some essential statistics. It doesn't get really more complicated.
The base managment was also toned down from the original, though not quite as drastical. You only have one base, which makes sense (managing several bases in the old game often was a bit of a mess), the interception minigame lost some options (that didn't really do anything before anyway) and there are not that many different buildings to produce. The system is clever, though - you build new buildings either adjacent to an existing one on the same level, or you dig deeper in the cellars of the base. The deeper you get, the more expensive it becomes, but the more buildings of the same type are adjacent to each other, the more bonus they get. You can research new techs in the labs like before, provided you bring samples (which happens automatically after each mission, thank god) and then build them in the workshop or improve them in the foundry. 

Common wisdom would suggest the lowest floor to be the cheapest, but the landlord says otherwise.
In the beginning, there are enough options to pursue: will you concentrate on armor or weapons? Will you invest in your squad or try to protect the countries that fund you? These decisions matter a great deal, because money comes in monthly, provided by the nations funding the X-COM project. If they feel neglected, they retreat from the project, cutting funds and defending themselves (or not, but that's not of your concern anymore). If you lose a certain number of countries that way, you lost the game. Once you reached plasma technology and Titan armor, however, options are running out, but missions aren't. The last quarter to third of the game sees you sending the same squad with the same gear into combat, because something else simply doesn't make sense. This might be better on a higher difficulty, but at the lower levels the game starts to feel undercomplex the more you come near the end. 

A squad in that phase, proudly assembled
Speaking of undercomplex, we're getting to the final point: atmosphere and story. X-COM easily qualifies for some of the worst dialogue I had to suffer through in quite some time (and that is the English version - I literally cried out in anguished dismay upon hearing the German synchro). Bloated phrases, delivered with the sincerity of your average B-movie drive along the main story which is about as interesting and innovative as Unreal Tournament. But that's not so bad, since the game clearly centers on the tactical combat and the strategy between missions. In these, the soldiers themselves are falling considerably short, possessing no personality whatsoever besides they're pure statistical abilities. Guys, did you ever play "Jagged Alliance"? That should have taught you how to do it. Even the good idea of giving each soldier a nationality and displaying it proudly on his uniform, with a matching character model doesn't get additional use. There's a memorial hall for the dead integrated in the game, but the only thing to mourn is the rank that died with the particular soldier. Such wasted potential! 

Generic soldiers running from point A to point B.
Overall, however, the game is highly recommended. The missions are really exciting, the gameplay fluid (when the camera doesn't fuck you up) and the options intriguing enough to make a second playthrough worthwhile. The multiplayer is added more for the benefit of being included than because it really offers some interesting things (pitching squads against each other on five generic maps). But other than that, this is the best round-bases tactical game you have seen in a while and, knowing the sorry state of the market, for a while. Don't think twice, buy it.


  1. This review pushed me to buy the reboot of this franchise. I loved X-COM as a kid, but it was so hard and way above my strategic and tactical gaming ability. I bought a bundle of the original series on Steam a few years back for $5 and enjoyed the hell out of it. I purchased and beat the reboot a month or so ago. I was happy to see that the reboot was able to capture much of the magic from the original while also adding a few new tricks and perks. I agree that they missed some real opportunity for character development, but I still felt that classic X-COM feeling of loss every time a soldier fell in combat especially if they'd been with me for a while. Lots of replay value there as well.

    On your closing comments regarding tactical games of the X-COM ilk, do you have any other recommendations for this genre? I enjoyed Valkyria Chronicles, but that's the only similar game I've found. Thanks for the review. I was glad to pick it up and find your critique correct. Looking forward to your AC4 review.

    1. Dust off the old Jagged Alliance 2, it's still the king of the genre.

    2. And donnu whether I'll play AC4...

  2. Years late, but, uh... Pretty sure the US Release of 'UFO: Enemy Unknown' was 'X-COM: UFO Defense'. When I look up 'UFO: Alien Invasion', I find what I would call a 'fan-game' that I recall coming across back a few years, probably not long before you wrote this review, in fact.

    Funny thing: the box art for both releases of the original game are totally not representative of anything found in the game. However, the US release box art is probably supposed to be the Avenger over Mars, but it looks more like a badass space carrier (like the ones used in the game Millenium: Return to Earth to attack Mars, perhaps?) somebody wasted time designing, never to be used in actual gameplay ever. The International box art depicts an unused insectoid species wielding a completely unfamiliar weapon type, the like of neither had been seen in any of the games, to my knowledge. The most representative of actual game content is the Playstation version, which has the actual Avenger, a Sectoid (which oddly enough seems more reminiscent of the reboot design than the originals), and what I believe is a Skyranger (looking a bit like the version from the intro animation).