When the nearly 15 year old X-Com catalogue was released on Steam, I dove in feet first; fully immersing myself in strategic, turn based gameplay. But because I was late to the party, I had no idea just how fanatical the fans of this series had become. This begs the question, why wasn’t X-Com: The Enemy Unknown released sooner? Well, as I mentioned in a previous article, X-Com is a huge risk for publisher 2K Games and Firaxis, the makers of the Civilization series. Turn based strategies are not the hot properties of a decade ago and so Firaxis is betting on that old xcom fanatism to pull through initial sales and get the word of mouth out there. They also set the price $10 below usual day-and-date marque games. The gamble appears to be paying off as it’s presently the number one seller on steam. So, is the game all hype or does it live up to fanboy expectations?
X-Com: Enemy Unknown takes place in the near future with an invasion force of aliens taking over the planet. It is up to the player to build a base, a team of soldiers, and maintain the good relations of various countries in order to overthrow the alien overlords. Unlike Civilization, X-Com is much more propulsive and continuously drives the player towards the next plot point in the game. X-Com forces the players to make decisions that may ultimately lead to some countries leaving the X-Com project and therefore losing funds. In my play-through, I sacrificed Brazil and Argentina in order to prevent the loss of Europe and North America; however, the consequence of these actions meant I couldn’t advance my fighter aircraft in time for a big invasion.
The goal is to guide your team in turn based combat in order to kill all of the aliens on a map. You can build your team our of four different classes: Assault, Support, Sniper and Heavy. Each has different skills and abilities that can be unlocked as the soldier gains levels. I found that the best tactic is to slowly advance your troops to the enemy, using elevation and terrain for protection rather than charging in willy nilly. I also discovered that the enemy AI is fun to play against and will change tactics depending on how well (or poor) you are doing. Additionally, you can hire scientists and engineers to unlock weapon and armour upgrades, which you will need as the gain spikes in difficulty about half way through. After your mission, you can spend cash rewards to upgrade your base with different rooms like the armory or the psychic development room.
The story is well done and having played the old X-Com, I felt that unlocking the next phase in the story helped push me forward. It was also nice to see that some of my choices, such as allowing a VIP to get killed, had an effect on the outcome of the game. I did find myself reloading a save after getting all of my team members killed but this won’t help you if you miss a shot because X-Com randomly seeds the mission before hand. No matter how many reloads, if your sniper misses a shot, she’s going to miss every time. Firaxis has stated this is done to prevent the kind of min/maxing that I admit-ably subscribe to. The next time I play, I am going to try it on Ironman mode which gives you one save file and no reloads!
Graphically, the game holds up to any modern day shooter thanks to the Unreal engine. Zooming into a soldier’s face reveals some cool, customizable details and the terrain employs the nVidia Physx engine for some incredible explosions. Everything in this game is destructible which is why having a heavy-class soldier with a few rockets is always handy when the enemy turtles behind a wall. Unfortunately, the mission maps are not randomly generated and so I had to sod through the same old maps over and over. I also got a feel for how the enemy would react to some of my actions and after a time I felt like I could breeze through some mission merely by camping the high ground and drawing the enemy out with my heavies.
For all the customizable options, the game removes many of the strategic elements from the original series and this has caused some consternation from fans. This game doesn’t have the same turn-based strategic feel like the original; it seems more like a slower paced Gears of War. While there were some cool, gaming moments in X-Com, I didn’t feel there was enough variation in the game maps or the skill trees or the enemy AI to add any replay value with the exception of a multi-player mode. I really wanted to love X-Com but sadly, the developers stripped away too much of the source material for me to recommend this game to anyone but die hard fans of the series, or wait for it to go on a Steam sale.
And always remember, if you are going to geek out… GEEK HARD!