Review by ShinesmanOW
"Backgammon meets Gears of War"
X-Com: Enemy Unknown (EU) is the first game of the classic series that has been made in the modern era. It is decidedly modern, with strong elements of cover-based third person shooters and doesn't have the clunky-but-loveable micromanagement of the classic games. It retains the basic formula of those games in that there is a strategic portion where the player makes decisions about research, base facilities, hiring soldiers, and buying upgrades and gear. Separately and with entirely different mechanics there is also a turn-based tactical portion where the player directs their individual soldiers in combat against the aliens.
__Overall: 8/10 (per GameFAQs, "Great - fun to play, some minor but no major flaws")__
EU is largely a mix of cover-based shooter and classic strategy board game, and fans of either of those two games will likely enjoy it. There are also role-playing game elements sprinkled into the mix. Veterans of the series will recognize it as a true-to-the-formula X-Com title, though the strategic portion lacks depth compared to the classic titles. The cover-based tactics and very different squad mechanics, however, mean that it is not just a dumbed down rehash with updated graphics but a new game in its own right.
There is a multiplayer mode, but it is difficult to find matches and the feature is largely ignored by most players, and as a separate score the multiplayer is more of a 6/10 - it's not very well balanced and the end of turn timer is too short to handle larger squads and too long to keep the game fluid.
There are some very frustrating bugs in the game at the time of this review, but several issues have already been patched and the assumption is that these will be fixed sooner or later.
One of the complaints about the release version of the game was that even Easy difficulty was too hard for some players. Easy has since been made easier, but the difficulty of the game is such that Impossible often seems to be exactly what it says on the tin. A more serious issue is that the difficulty curve of the game can be somewhat backwards in that the first month where all your soldiers are helpless rookies is brutally difficult but a full squad of experienced soldiers is like a steamroller late game. Losing the "dream team" does not automatically mean the end of the game, but enough fatalities will mean disaster is imminent.
There are two major portions to the gameplay, and this review will treat each one separately. Often the strategic portion can seem like simple preparation for the tactical portion. Substantial decisions are made with the strategic level, and it is not redundant busy work, but the tactical portion is where most of the time is spent in game.
The tactical part of the game has the player managing a small squad of soldiers. The soldiers start off identical in abilities except for a slight variation in willpower, but as they gain in experience they will be assigned a class that gives active and passive abilities. There are some choices, and at certain promotions the player must choose one of two abilities that further define the character, but there is no complex character building. and stats, with the exception of will, are fixed by class and rank. There are also automated robot soldiers called Super Heavy Infantry Vehicles (SHIVs) that are neither super nor heavy. They are not vehicles in the sense that your soldiers do not ride them, though one variant can be used as cover.
On each player turn, each soldier in the squad has, unless modified by class bonuses, two moves on a three dimensional grid system. Some actions use both moves, and some actions, such as shooting, end the soldier's turn even if the soldier has moves remaining. The aliens do not act until the player moves into range. Once triggered, the aliens get a free turn to find cover. Once the player's turn has ended, all the aliens move in the same basic fashion as the player and the turns alternate with the player moving all soldiers, the aliens all move, alternating to the end. Some events, such as panicking soldiers or the discovery of a new group of aliens, will break the flow of turns.
The tactical game is heavily dependent on random number generation (akin to rolling dice), and the mechanics of these rolls mean that reloading a save will not change the outcome of an action unless a different move is taken first. The only weapons without a die roll are grenades and these are often more useful for destroying cover than for their unimpressive damage. The difficulty setting has a substantial effect on these random chances and at higher difficulty levels gambling on low chance outcomes is typically a recipe for failure.
While substantially simplified from the traditional games, the strategic level is still more than functional. The objective of the game is to complete the required plot missions before eight of the sixteen countries panic and leave the organization that funds X-com. The game starts with one satellite with one ready to launch, and these satellites allow interceptors to stop incoming UFOs which are then the subject of tactical missions. Interceptions are done through a very basic mini-game. Additional satellites are built as the game progresses, and launching a satellite over a country adds that country's funding to your monthly income and reduces panic in that country.
Periodically during the early to mid game abduction tactical missions will arise, and the player must choose between locations for the mission. A successful mission reduces panic, but areas not selected for abduction missions will have increased panic. There are also tactical missions on government requests which can raise or lower panic depending on player success.
The strategic level also includes a research tree. Individual research projects require time and resources captured from the aliens, including the aliens themselves. All of the research projects allow one or more new base structures or equipment items to be produced using money and captured resources. Foundry projects function in a similar fashion to research but tend to be upgrades rather than new things.
There is only one base, and the player must excavate and build structures to accomplish various tasks. This is complicated by the bonuses that the player receives for building similar structures adjacent to each other. Typically, two structures of the same type sitting together are 25% more effective than two of the same structures apart, and a square of four structures is 50% more effective than four individuals.
___Story and Setting: 8/10___
This portion of the game is minimal, but it does what's needed. As might be expected for a game called "Enemy Unknown" you never really learn much about the foes you are fighting except how to fight them, and while the final missions sheds some light on exactly what the aliens were trying to do, it does not really answer the larger questions. Interjections by the more thoughtful members of your staff about how baffled they are about the aliens and their objectives add to the sense that the lack of clarity on the alien plans is very intentional. All the player is left with, as stated by one CAPT Hiller, USMC, is "No Sir, just a little anxious to get up there and whoop E.T.'s ass, that's all!"
The setting and flavor chatter don't really get in the way of the game except in the tutorial, where sitting through the intro mission again is fairly tedious. Fortunately, there is little reason to play the tutorial once the game is understood, though it is part of the game's plot. There are situations, such as rescue missions, where the dialogue can be a little annoying to those that just want to play the game.
The graphics in the game are basic and will not win any awards for either style or quality. Sound design is similarly unimpressive but functional. There are some graphical glitches where soldiers will appear to shoot through terrain or clip into enemies or each other. The soldiers, despite their international flavors of flags and names, all sound like generic Americans and while their appearance is customizable, some of the visual customization options require a purchase of additional content for those that did not preorder the game.
The game had some serious bugs at release, some of which have been fixed at the time of this review and some of which have not but fixes are in a promised upcoming patch. Magical teleporting aliens, thin air that provides cover, and failure game over after defeating the final mission have all been reported.
The interface and controls are suboptimal for the tactical portion and aiming rockets through narrow areas, maneuvering near the edge of the map, placing soldiers at the top of ledges, and such. These and other boundary conditions often result in the player fighting the controls or can result in the orders given not being the ones that were expected. For a turn-based game this usually means frustration rather than an actual tactical error, but these add an unfortunate learning curve for how to put up with the game's quirks and flaws.
__Length and Replay Value 8/10__
A very fast run by an experienced player on easy can likely be completed in less than ten hours, but a normal campaign will be substantially longer. The reviewer has played a Normal Ironman campaign, a speedrun Easy campaign for a goofy theme game, and a Classic Ironman campaign, and Steam shows 80 hours played.
Ironman, an option where the game autosaves over the only save for the campaign at the beginning of every turn, is an option that prevents save scumming, though there are loopholes available which may be needed to recover from bugs. Force-quitting with task manager is a way around the teleporting aliens bug, for example, though it can also be used for cheating. The finality of Ironman adds substantially to the tension of the game, and the potential for permanent failure forcing a restart adds replay value.
The jump in difficulty between Normal and Classic and again in difficulty between Classic and Impossible means that new tactics are required and strategic decisions such as choosing to fail a difficult mission instead of potentially losing your entire squad become necessary evils. This adds replay value, especially on Iroman. Ironman Impossible is only for those with high frustration tolerance.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/19/12
Game Release: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (US, 10/08/12)
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