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XCom: Enemy Unknown – Some Thoughts

October 12th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Design, Firaxis

XCom: Enemy Unknown has taken over my Steam friends list in the same way that FTL: Faster Than Light did a few weeks ago. XCom is bigger, flashier and, I think, more important than FTL – largely connected to the reasons that Ben Kuchera laid out earlier this week in his essay at Penny Arcade Report.

In short, this is a game that could determine the future of Firaxis as a studio. It is undoubtedly their most expensive game, it is quite unlike anything that team has made before – both in appearance and underlying technology – and if it’s as big a sales success as 2K hopes then it will free the studio from the Civilization Forever graveyard (though if they ever get to work on their own new, original IP is an open question.) I don’t think that Hartman’s comments about the pointlessness of strategy games were some long con or trolling; I honestly think he had zero expectations for the strategy XCom having any legs at all. I hope that the gaming population proves him wrong.

This is not a game that will change the fortune of AAA caliber strategy games, however. We may see more tactical games like this in other settings, games that will crib heavily from XCom and similar titles. But most people who play it will see it as an alien shooting game with a neat RPG mechanic; even if they love it, many will not make the connection between the planning, resource hoarding & tough decision making and the wider world of strategy games, including smaller similarly awesome games like Frozen Synapse. Strategy gaming is a huge genre and squad-based tactical games like this are a tiny part of that.

XCom is, as many have noted, almost the ideal remake. It captures what much of what made the first XCom so appealing but updates it for a newer multi-platform audience. It is probably one of the first strategy games to get the cinematic aspect of gaming right; the cutscenes are terrible of course, but seeing your squaddie dash for cover or sniper make that headshot brings the conflict and tension home in a way that simple flashing icons would not. XCom has a freshness to it even as the basics have changed only a little bit.

There are some big changes from the original, of course. The squads are a lot smaller, which means that your soldiers are both less brittle than they used to be (though not bulletproof) and that you get to know them better. I miss the terror of landing your aircraft and trying to get everyone off before they are taken out by alien snipers; now you start with boots on the ground so there is no D-Day landing chaos. Civilians are few and far between except for specific rescue missions. The game is harder on Classic mode than on Normal, but Normal is plenty tough for those of us that haven’t touched the original XCom in years.

But XCom: Enemy Unknown is a great remake because it fits the strategic and tactical levels so neatly together, just as its predecessors did. Choosing when and where to allocate your resources will have dramatic consequences for every mission. Once you upgrade your armor, your forces become so much more durable that you will remember to prioritize that the next time around. And the tough calls about which nation to save from alien incursions remind you of the best sorts of strategic decision making; there is no right answer, you can’t save everyone, pain builds strength.

If you play the tutorial mission, you will be immediately exposed to the price you have to pay. It’s not a great tutorial for the game, because there is a lot of stuff that is left out on the strategic side for one thing. But the opening tactical mission will cost you soldiers – it is built in and there is nothing you can do about it. Say what you like about including an Iron Man mode, but the first mission teaches you that there will be death so there is no point in crying over losing people every time the E.T.s get lucky. (First soldier of mine killed outside the tutorial, btw? Rookie Tom Chick. I wish I could say he did not die a coward’s death.)

By the time you are thrown into the deep end of the strategic decisions (what to research, where to build, how to expand) you realize that keeping your missions funded is almost more important than keeping your troops alive. You want to have veterans out there, but with the right equipment you can send some rookies out there on moderate difficulty missions to get some experience for when you need to fill in those holes caused by casualties. It will take you some time, though, to figure out what equipment is best, what combination of labs and foundries is most efficient and what the right ratio of interceptors to bases is All of this feeds perfectly into the tactical level, because if you wait too long to figure out what your soldiers need and how much it will cost then they will be, like my most recent mission, outgunned and almost taken out by the arrival of tougher alien units at the worst possible time.

Thank heavens for rocket launchers.

You could make the criticism that XCom: Enemy Unknown relies too heavily on running from cover to cover, like some sort of X-Files Gears of War game. There are a lot of conveniently placed bits of rubble and logs at alien crash sites. And it’s a great thing that the Nagoya Train Station is so well covered with advertising stands and flower planters.

But it never gets so repetitive that it loses its sense of ‘tactical realism’ – you would want cover in a situation like this. The alien weapons can blast that cover away, though. So you can’t just sit and wait for the perfect shot. The various soldier abilities, most dependent on class, have an impact on how you use that cover and when you want to take a chance to run a bit further out for a flanking shot. There is still that old XCom tension when you find a new batch of aliens that you didn’t know was there, or when you think you have killed the final one but the mission keeps going and Cpt. Tom Ohle ends up bleeding to death outside an alien craft.

Polygon’s Phil Kollar and Chris Plante have noted that XCom has something in common with survival horror games, and there is something to that, I guess. XCom: Enemy Unknown doesn’t make you as terrified of what you can’t see as its predecessors did, but there is still the lingering sense that, no matter how well prepared your squad is, this next mission could be the one that gets everyone killed because you can’t prepare for what you don’t know. This fear makes every against-the-odds triumph that much more satisfying – and remember that this is a game that will give you a “Good” rating if one third of your people don’t come back alive.

It is also a beautifully paced game, and I’ll have much, much more to say about it when we do our ‘review’ podcast on it this coming week, but for now I have to say that it is seriously giving Crusader Kings II a run for its money for strategy game of the year. And a lot of that has to do with its style, its energy and how well Firaxis has made concessions to the present expectations for video games without betraying an understanding that what made the first X-Coms special was the feeling of fear, hopelessness and even anger at the invaders that it was able to impart. All of that remains in a remake that is most valuable insofar as it points out how you can update a franchise, make it more welcoming to newcomers and still give grognards like myself something to chew on.

It is not a perfect game by any means, and many oldtimers might come away from it a little sad that it isn’t as cruel or random as the original unless you play on Classic mode. Nor does it require the old juggling of different bases. This is not a matter of ‘dumbing down’, in my opinion, as much as it is getting the essence of the game design right while adding those elements that will draw in a larger audience, like cinematic dashes, smaller teams and a single base to manage.

XCom: Enemy Unknown will only convert a small number of people to the wider world of what we call ‘strategy games’ but we need all the allies we can get. We are fortunate to have such an eloquent and articulate ambassador for what makes the genre special and exciting. Firaxis has made a forward looking game, that never loses sight of the legacy it represents.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Primemover

    Troy: thanks for your “opening round” of thoughts…amps up my anticipation of playing!!! I will miss (as you called it) the D-Day landings, as those were some of the most tense moments, and added such depth and quality to the experience.

  • Peter S

    Great writeup, Troy! Just one statement I disagree with: “XCom: Enemy Unknown doesn’t make you as terrified of what you can’t see as its predecessors did.” Well, I finished my first medium UFO crash recovery about an hour ago, and I must have left my squad camping just outside the front door for 20 minutes while I mustered the courage to send them inside. :D

  • MikeO

    I think XCOM is almost an ideal remake, re-imagining, whatever. I played the original (and TFTD, and X-Com: Apoc) to death when they were new, and, while it was and is a great game, I was there and did that then, and I don’t need to do it again now. In fact, I don’t have time to do it again now.

    I hear a lot of people complaining that XCOM is dumbed down, or oversimplified, etc, but when they say what their complaints are, most of them boil down to tedious micromanagement, which X-Com had in spades. Most of the stuff that some people are saying is ‘missing’ from the new game is not stuff I’d want anyway, personally.

    While I have my own minor complaints (mostly that I wish the maps were a little bigger, and I wish the cover system was a little less constricting), I’m completely taken with this game — it’s far better than I was expecting/ hoping.

    I truly hope the game does well sales wise, since it deserves to.

  • Anders

    I personally found the game to be mediocre, and clearly developed for the console generation.

    Looking forward to xenonauts instead.

  • D506

    A dozen hours into XCOM and I was convinced it was one of the best games I’ve ever played. And it is. It’s fantastic. A few more hours in and I can’t seem to bring myself to play it.

    It’s odd, because I’m quite willing and able to accept, play and enjoy mediocre games. I do regularly. But XCOM is a fantastic game with one single flaw I just can’t get past:

    I don’t feel like I have any choice in when and how I fight the aliens. I don’t feel like I’m actually defending the world. I don’t feel like there’s a world to defend. In Jagged Alliance 2, for example, I could essentially wander the map. I could choose to attack the SAM sites and open up the skies for my helicopter, or ignore them. I could choose invade the silver mines of Drassen or raid the weapon stores at Alma. The world was where, and I was acting upon it. Every mission felt like I was doing something.

    XCOM, on the other hand, feels like a series of missions. Like an old story mode RTS campaign or something. Mission A leads to B leads to C. My only choices are go or do not go – and there is a correct answer. At best I have the choice to randomly generate another mission or 5 before getting back into the ‘real’ missions. But the random missions have no context; they’re just a random map and a random spawn of aliens and a chance to farm some more resources to buy upgrades; or get Colonel PlasmaForYouFace killed.

    I don’t think that last bit will matter for most gamers. But it’s crippling to me. I still think XCOM is an amazing game as it is; I’ll finish it eventually, and in all likelihood continue playing to punish myself with higher difficulty modes for months to come. But it could have been my video game jesus. And it isn’t. And that makes me sad.

  • Eschatos

    This game is awesome but good lord, that ending. So contrived, cliched, and other long words that mean shitty. Also nonsensical in some aspects.

  • Three Moves Ahead Episode 190: The XCom Review Show

    […] Comments Eschatos on XCom: Enemy Unknown – Some ThoughtsD506 on XCom: Enemy Unknown – Some ThoughtsAnders on XCom: Enemy Unknown – Some […]

  • SlayerDorian

    While the game was fun enough to play through, many things bothered me along the way.

    – Only one base
    – Only one new aircraft to research and build
    – Hardly any alien aircraft to shoot down – hardly worth the effor to build the new aircraft
    – Not enough stats on my characters, the only one that even varies from soldier to soldier is the will stat.
    – Class system for characters, classless was soooo much better
    – Everyone’s aim stat is the same for that class/level, seriously?
    – I couldn’t sell off old equipment that I no longer needed
    – No inventory on characters
    – No ammo management or types of ammo
    – Only one other rocket launcher? Ammo types would have helped here.
    – Very often, it seemed like people are being shot right through walls or solid rock. In these instances, the cover system felt very awkward.
    – The tutorial could have been worlds better. At least you can skip it.

    On the plus side:
    – Great armor variation
    – Decent graphics
    – Although watered down, it did still feel like xcom at least
    – Decent interface for air combat, though I wish I could scramble multiple fighters on the same target like the original.
    – Alien corpses have a use beyond research

  • Oscar Haglund

    The new XCOM is a good game, maybe even great but unlike X-COM it will never be a classic. No one will be playing XCOM in 16 years time.

    XCOM feels to safe, the design while elegant feels without any personality. I am reminded of something that Jonathan Blow said in Indie Game: The Movie about the difference between indie games and large publisher games; that what big game companies do is create highly polished games that cater to as large an audience as possible. In order to do that you polish away all the bumps and rough edges.
    His point is that this makes the games less personal and also less interesting and I feel that in some respects this is what has happened to XCOM.

    It has been mentioned many times that the new XCOM plays as a boardgame and to me this very much rings true. When playing XCOM you are constantly reminded that you are playing a game with very “gamey” mechanics. For me this is in stark contrast to X-COM that with its more complex mechanics felt more like a simulation. Simulation brings versimilitude and this makes the game feel alive in a way that the clinical new incarnation never does.

    15 years from now we will not be playing XCOM, but who knows, we may still be playing X-COM.

  • Pelde

    I often see people saying how they don’t miss anything from old X-com that isn’t present in new version. Then why on earth were they even playing the old version? To me just to shoot and explode things isn’t everything and all the “meaningless, worthless, choreful” micromanagement made the original so interesting, it was the other half of the game. Perhaps I’m just so autistic and enjoy doing weird things, like counting and making sure that number of magazines match to number of rifles etc… But as it seems that new x-com is just about bang-boom-bam and all the “autistic” stuff is taken away, it eventually turns boring for me and has very little replay value.

  • Theleb

    Question for the reviewer:
    “What causes the more advanced aliens to spawn? Is it simply time based or does it have something to do with the level and type of equipment of the squad you deploy? Or does it have to do with the equipment and level of the soldiers in your base regardless of what you choose to deploy on an actual mission? “

  • Rob C

    I didn’t play the original XCOM so I didn’t really have any preconceived notions of what the new one should be. There is something to be said for simplifying games and lowering the barrier to entry. I’ve really enjoyed Faster Than Light and play lots of light strategy games in addition to more involved ones.

    I am disappointed that so many strategy games are taking a ‘streamlined’ approach though. I wish Civilization V didn’t get the boardgame treatment (Yes I know Civilization is a boardgame). Some games are just better (I won’t use the term fun because better is so much more scholarly) when you have to dig into the details and everything isn’t just a choice between perk A and perk B.

    It seems like that is what everything is becoming and now ‘modern’ games feel so generic. RPGs, strategy games, even FPSs – level up and get a perk. Complexity for complexities sake isn’t what I’m asking for. Take a game like Civ IV and don’t gut it to simplify it. Adapt what needs adapting and add interesting new choices but don’t take out what isn’t broken. My guess is that is how many XCOM veterans feel about the new XCOM. If this is what evolution has to be I sometimes wish for less ‘progress’ on the gaming front. Even though Civ V taken on its own isn’t a bad game and I do enjoy it, a piece of me dies when I stop and think what Civ has become.

  • Iain

    Thanks for the article it was a good read. First of all, this xcom installment is excellent. As you say, the pacing is breathtakingly well done, you don’t ever feel bored in tactical missions, etc. Everything is very well done, however I deeply miss some things about the original and apocalypse that is just flat out missing from this one.

    The most obvious thing in my mind is that the game is no longer a sandbox style game. All “decisions” to be made are crucial and you never really have lulls in the action, there’s no feeling that you could “turtle” for a while and just research and build infrastructure etc., the missions come fast and hard and panic increases very quickly even just in normal. There’s no time and you never have enough funding and you can’t make an economy for yourself by manufacturing items (as far as I’ve seen). I prefer the feel of a sandbox.

    The other thing I miss is the simulation feel of the old xcom. It’s like it created a world with rules and then stepped out of your way. This xcom feels so very “gamey” at all times. The events like abductions and missions seem to happen to you because the game thinks it’s time to throw something at you, rather than you feeling like you have searched out the aliens. I remember that often a month would go by in the original game without any contact and rather than being boring it would be a chance to get some manufacturing and research done. The tension would also ratchet up because you’d feel like the aliens are doing something somewhere but you just can’t detect them yet!

    There are other issues of course, like the clunky console ui and camera views, the unresponsiveness of the mouse in some menus, the lack of inventory and real soldier management. I am happy though, that this xcom is a true revolution of the franchise, like apocalypse was, rather than just a faithful and safe remake of the first (starcraft anyone?) and I hope some of my issues will be dealt with in patches and dlc! In the meantime I’ll endeavour to find cover where I can.