Review All The Things: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Review All The Things Presents:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I've always been a fan of the original XCOM, but I like to think I don't let nostalgia get the better of me. Nevertheless, I was somewhat hesitant when I opened the box on Christmas day and saw five silhouetted soldiers of pleasingly balanced gender and indeterminate race glaring back at me.


I decided to be fair when I played, though. Just because the average remake nowadays often misses the point of the original doesn't mean it ALWAYS misses... right? Right?

After playing through it multiple times, I'm here to say: Right.

As far as remakes go, XCOM: Enemy Unknown ticks most of the boxes on the "good remake" list. I've heard it described as "An improvement in graphics only", but that's hardly fair... at all. The new version does simplify a few things from the original, but quite frankly, that's exactly what much of the original needed.

For being so advanced, alien security is pathetic... you can just walk right in!

In terms of presentation, the game is a gem. Liberal use of shadows (but never obscuring what's happening with the darkness), an intense and symphonic soundtrack, and the radio chatter between soldiers all come together to paint each mission as a bleak each-step-could-be-your-last suicide mission. When your soldiers bite the dust (and on harder difficulties, they WILL bite the dust, with alarming speed and force), it's never unexpected. It might be sudden and from nowhere, but it's never a true "I never saw that coming!" moment, because each level is painted with foreboding. Even in the bright forest of Canada in mid-day, something still feels "off", a feeling magnified when breaching the a UFO. There's a somewhat disappointingly small number of maps (apparently, the aliens really like one particular roof in Germany and insist on using it as an abduction point every dang time), but the maps that are there are varied and well-made. Your soldiers might be hiding behind the trees in Canadian forest one mission, before assaulting a flat French graveyard, hiding between the tombstones the next, and then move on to a two-story police-station siege in China the next.

The home base is also shrouded in darkness, giving it an eerie feeling. Some rooms (like the research lab) are well lit, but as you look around your base layout, it really feels like it's underground.

Graphics are adequate. It looks fairly pretty, but the textures and models are hardly anything to write home about in this day and age. There are a few glitches where a gun can be fired in one direction and the bullets will travel a different direction, and then a target will be struck somewhere between the two directions, but it's not remotely game-breaking.

The story is as barebones as possible, consisting of "OH NO THERE'S ALIENS AHHHHHH!" and more or less nothing else. Then again, this isn't a game that really needs a story, so I don't begrudge it. The stories you'll remember from it are of the watercooler variety, involving a shotgun blast from a hundred meters away that magically hit, and other things like that.

Please don't miss.. PLEASE...

In gameplay terms, the game is excellent. The interface is brilliantly simple and classic: The in-base strategy layer is purely menu driven and used to set up the various turn-based encounters. You move quickly from one room to the next, setting research goals here, selling artifacts there, building weapons and new rooms somewhere else, and constantly scanning for alien activity. Time is frozen while you're not in the command center, and it travels in real time in there unless you use the "scanning" function, which makes a day snap by in less than a second. The turn-based layer is simplicity itself: All your units move, then all the aliens move (and then, if applicable, all the terrified citizens move). Each unit has two "moves" per turn: one can be used to move, and then the second one can be used to move further, fire a weapon, use a side gadget, take a stance, etc. I've heard people complain about everything being reduced to two "time units" instead of the original's twenty-to-thirty, but this is an example of good streamlining. This way makes it much harder to make a mistake (multiple times in the original, I would run up to an alien and be unable to fire because I was one point short, and I couldn't undo or retreat), allows for more cinematic gameplay, and doesn't "trick" you into getting too greedy with your points. You get to move and take an action on each turn, which is virtually identical to how the original played out anyways.

Combat is probability based. What this means is that any given shot you take has a chance to hit, and the game rolls a die to see whether the shot lands or not. It's a cool idea, and replicates accuracy at distance quite well.

If all else fails, use the brain suplex.

AI is surprisingly good. When you "open an alien closet" (ie. disturb a group of aliens), they immediately relocate to a better tactical position, always giving you the first shot (assuming you didn't botch your turn). This means that ambushes are difficult to pull off, but it also means that an alien you didn't realize existed can't suddenly toss a grenade at you from the fog of war, like in the original. When analyzing the battlefield, they'll fall for traps (meaning the computer isn't a total cheater), but they'll also do a decent job of trying to sucker you into their own traps.

Soldiers start as rookies, and as they kill aliens, they gain ranks. As they gain ranks, they gain access to new abilities. This gives way to a new strategic aspect: Should this soldier specialize in first aid or smoke grenades? Should this one fire special rockets, or learn how to pin down enemies? Soldiers will also gain a type after their first rank-up; they can become snipers, assault troopers, support troopers or heavy weapons specialists. Snipers are somewhat overpowered (a fully ranked sniper is often seen back at the drop point, picking off enemies from ludicrous distances), but the rest are fairly balanced. A sniper with a good quality pistol, rifle and ability set has no weaknesses, utterly destroying enemies at a distance and humiliating them up close with incredible accuracy and critical hit rate. However, an assault trooper is almost useless at range and must be at the front line, allowing them to dish out lots of damage, but making them prime targets for the other side. You can give them rifles rather than shotguns, but why would you want to do that? it reduces their damage output in exchange for better long-distance aim. The heavy has really quite awful accuracy overall, but soaks up damage and has a rocket, the be-all-end-all in wall removal. Lastly, the support is much like an assault trooper with a rifle, except they have various extra abilities and bonuses, such as getting better usage out of medkits, smoke grenades, and rifle suppression.

It's worth mentioning that the game plays gender and racial equality almost eerily perfectly. Women and men occupy the same roles, and absolutely no stereotypes or irony peek through. It's... kind of admirable, really.

Here's a small Chinese woman about to seriously ruin a muton's day.

The alien enemies are varied and interesting in design and function. A sectoid is a Roswell stereotype who acts as a light support unit, the floater is a nasty mechanical-meets-biological nightmare that flies, the muton is a giant slab of furious muscle with a plasma rifle, etc. They're all predictable in behaviour (except the blasted cyberdisk), allowing for tactical approach to each encounter.

There's seven different mission types (minus a couple special one-time missions): UFO assault (which comes from shooting down UFOs or detecting normally landed ones), abduction missions (when three UFOs make an unaddressed landing, they start attacking nearby locations and you can only help one), terror missions (where you have to actively save citizens in an alien attack on the city), bomb threats, rescue the VIP missions, and missions ensuring safety of shipments. UFO assaults are great for harvesting alien artifacts, terror missions lower world panic, and the other missions have various effects. You will grow to despise abductions, though, as they cause raised panic in the countries and continents that you aren't able to help. Overall, the mission types are varied, require different approaches, and some are fairly rewarding, while others (*coughABDUCTIONScough*) add to the relentless pressure the game puts on you.

An accurate depiction of the average internet denizen's reaction to getting one bad roll

No review of XCOM would be complete without an in-depth deconstruction on how the random number generator sucks. Sadly, this means this review will remain incomplete. I personally think the XCOM RNG could be used as an effective psychology experiment. A simple Google search shows that the RNG has been tested over and over, and it keeps returning expected results for a balanced RNG. The amount of fury and rage the very mention of it can bring up is frankly astounding, and I didn't really encounter any of the supposed brokenness. Yes, I've missed a couple 99% chance-to-hit shots, but I've hit a few really unlikely shots as well, as one would expect. Yet somehow, most people I talk to seem to get nothing but bad rolls. I'm assuming I don't have a bad copy, but am simply surrounded by people who don't get probability and are all suffering immense cognitive bias.

Overall, I'm extremely pleased with XCOM. I had lots of fun playing through it. It's as solid of a remake as one could really ask for, and it contains enough insane moments and moments of brilliance to be truly memorable. If you have any interest in sci-fi and/or strategy, you should pick this one up.

And if any of you say "TL;DR", I will dress up as a Thin Man, pocket a couple stink-bombs and hide in your closet. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Possibilities For Next Review: "The Violent Tendencies of fun.", Azealia Banks' "212", "Mirror's Edge", Florence + the Machine (indie rock artist), the Edmonton LRT line, the Myst series, or anything you guys suggest that I know something about.


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