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Monday, October 15, 2012

Game Play: XCOM Enemy Unknown

I know I haven't been blogging much on Cathode Tan, but you had to know I would write about this game.  The original XCOM (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown)  is almost certainly my favorite game of all time, and I've played it on an Amiga, a PC, a Mac and PlayStation.  Even as emulators brutalized the experience, I found it irresistible to return to the fight against the alien threat - usually resulting in the lethal reduction of my own forces.

The allure of the original game is difficult to overstate.  One might think that the game's mechanics are so old school that the strengths would be self-evident, kinda like saying "Pac-Man was addictive".  However, the real test at how subtly the original XCOM balanced the core design between management, turn based strategy and war strategy is more evident in the string of failed XCOM sequels.  It seemed that nearly any change to the formula, be it simplification, complication, adding real time movement, or even changing out the types of enemy - would throw the whole thing off.

So it is pretty fair to say that the job Firaxis had before it was a daunting one ... the original was already an incredibly complicated game with a winning formula and a completely rabid fanbase.

As a member in good standing in that rabid fanbase, how did I think they did?

Best Remake Ever

No joke, this game is incredibly impressive in updating the design of the original game for the modern age.  What has been streamlined should have been streamlined, what has been kept should have been kept, and what has been added should have been added.  Everything done under Firaxis' hand feels like the intentional stroke of a surgeon - not some sloppy edits or cuts made to fit a similar experience under some budget or time constraint.

Let's take a specific example: you only get one base.  I can't imagine how controversial of a decision this one piece of design alone might have been for the team.  In the original XCOM, starting up new bases was a core mechanic - it allowed you to spread your coverage out, swap resources around, attack UFO's more effectively.  It also felt realistic, as if you had to keep your strategy broad and wide to stretch out the entire globe.

So what does forcing one base do?  It greatly simplifies the base management mechanics, however since there are strike bases already setup around the globe ... you lose practically nothing from the overall base mechanic.  And with one base, Firaxis is able to consolidate a lot of menu and UI choices that otherwise felt like a burden.  I am glad not to have to check ammo supplies at every single possible turn just in case that HE heavy I rely one would go out useless on the next mission.

Memorial Wall

In the past, I used to say that I didn't really care how someone updated XCOM ... make a shooter, an RTS, a board game - don't care.  Just make me care when a soldier dies.  This was one of the most incredibly impressive parts of the original game - you got attached to soldiers who fought well.  It took time to train those people, and when got their head chopped off by a Chryssalid - you really felt it.  Firaxis clearly understood this - and they warn you early on that losing squaddies is probably going to factor into plenty of missions.  While I think a lot of the streamlining on the base management works very well, the true test of an XCOM remake is how you, the commander, interacts with the squad.  I'm actually willing to say that the RPG style ability tree introduced here is a real improvement - it clearly identifies the growth of a squad member from rookie to Major and adds even more attachment for the player.

So it's perfect then?

From a purely mechanic or game play point of view, I have only a few complaints.  Probably my biggest one is that while scientists seem to have equal footing with other aspects of base management, I think they're actually hugely devalued in the game (at least on normal difficulty).  I didn't once need to construct another laboratory or seek out additional scientists and I frequently had no research projects to work on.  This seemed a striking difference to the original where trying to balance between being able to research and being able to build was always difficult.

Also, I wish there had been more emphasis on the narrative in general.  Especially towards the end.  The end cinematics kind of feel like just an excuse to roll some credits with no real emphasis on epilogue.  Plus, as an extremely specific example - I think the climatic end battle feels a bit lazy ... particularly the very last one which seems to suffer from the old Dungeon Master "screw it, I'm making this interesting by making it three times as hard" to it.

The wrong kind of bug hunt

But those are small, specific critiques - the biggest problem with XCOM is the number of bugs apparent in the game.  I stopped producing tanks, one of my favorite tools, because of the number of times they would not be able to be added to a mission.  I had one mission where the wrong textures were loaded, creating a weird trippy LSD experience.   I had squad members disappear and at least one mission completely lock up the game.  These aren't small bugs, they were ones that were really impacting the game in general and I really hope Firaxis is hot on a fix for them.


But still - best remake ever.  Highly recommended, for everyone.