Review by dragon0085

Reviewed: 10/18/12

XCOM: Mediorce the first time, but zero replay and severe disappointment for X-COM fans

Pssswww! Ahhh! Another soldier down, where did that shot come from!? The world is getting overran by alien bases, there are too many ufos to stop, my good soldiers are wounded, I’m low on cash do I buy more scientists, but more ammo?…how can I pull this off!?
Its too bad those feelings didn’t make it to this game.

My review is tailored to those who have either played the original X-coms, or at least have a passing familiarity with the games this is directly based off. It is with a heavy heart I cannot give my most beloved franchise's spiritual sequel a better score, because despite some audacious attempts to reboot the series, and some really cool ideas like classes and skills, some of the structural elements that were removed in the name of accessibility remove what made X-com so great. Honestly I kind of want to cry that after all these years there still is not a true sequel to X-Com, and after how blatant this took from the first, I doubt there ever will be.

This game is not ‘bad’ but really only fun once for the short 20 hours it will take; and considering the mighty mantle it attempts to wear by the name ‘XCOM’ my criticisms will be much more harsh than if this game was just ‘Alien Invasion’ or ‘Defend the Earth!’. There are ultimately a host of problems I will go over, but they can be reduced to the following: a lack of real tactical/strategic decisions, all the stats/logistics/planning is utterly removed, customization of anything is a joke, a redone battle system that takes everything good out of the originals and replaces it with a strange non-realistic hybrid, and a lack of replay mainly derived from set gameplay elements instead of an emergent experience.

I will have this divided into the two major sections of the game, the ‘strategic’ part and the ‘tactical’ part.

Strategic Action- But when you only have 2 choices there is not much 'strategy'

Ahh, Base building, the mark of any great strategy game, and who can forget all the myriad of strategies from having one super base, to maybe a whole bunch of outposts; but in this game you are given ONE, and this is all you will ever have the whole game. In a very loose fashion there ‘is’ a base building segment reminiscent of the first two games, where you have a grid and you pop buildings down. However we rapidly run into the first of many problems that this game has in that they stripped so many strategic decisions to perhaps make it easier to access for a casual gamer it removes any depth to the game.

The problem is you already have a ‘set’ base, that every game you have the exact same starting stuff, ok no big deal, that’s like every game right? Well, no its different. Because in this game there are basically ‘Main’ buildings (which are the ones you start with and cannot change) and your ‘support’ buildings (the only ones you can buy/construct). This may be a bit confusing, but it is important, so I will elaborate.

At the beginning, you have your hangar, research, engineering, and barracks, these buildings really just act as sub menus and is where all this part of the game is carried out. You do not get to build more hangars, more engineering bays etc, instead you have your ‘support’ buildings that are like the following: ‘Laboratory -20% of research time, -10% bonus if touching’. You can not in any way touch, move, dismantle, rearrange or do anything to these set ‘main’ buildings. At best you can put some support buildings down in the depths to have mild influence on the main ones.

The buildings are so pathetic and unnecessary I am convinced I could have beaten the game without them other than story buildings I HAD to build. You do not hire support staff, you do not handle logistics in ANY fashion, there is no living quarter situation to take care of, no fuel, no munitions…nothing. Really, this is what made prior games great, did you rush more living quarters/labs to try to get better tech early? Did you slowly diversify to handle any contingency? Did you spend cash on best earth equipment available? Choices like this do not exist.

Strategic Action- Can’t I just buy a scientist!?

No, you cannot buy a scientist, because see, personal is no longer hire-able. It can only be manipulated through one support building, or occasionally as a reward from tactical combat. The very important aspect of personal management NO LONGER EXISTS. (You can ‘hire’ more soldiers, but as I will touch on later, every single one is a statistical clone.)

It is not clear at all in regards to engineering how exactly it works, in X-Com-1 items were measured in ‘engineer/hours’ so clearly it was your engineers multiplied by hours elapsed. A single guy could crank anything given long enough, and 300 engineers can make a ship in a week, in X3 (Apocalypse) it was based on skill level X hours, same idea. In this however, items have a minimum number required, and either fall into ‘instant’ or ‘set time limit’ in terms of duration. Thus if you met the requirement you item will be instantly done, I have no problem with this, other than the minimum required is really annoying early why can’t I just give them a few days to get it done? However my problem comes from the fact that the set time limit items are that it does not matter if you have the minimum 20 guys, or 70, you are making the same thing in the SAME time. It gets really odd that you can ‘queue’ up these time projects that apparently don’t actually tie the engineers up and they dutifully complete based on their set time limit, not any sort of understandable system of more engineers = faster production or engineers actually being utilized.

Strategic Action- So reduced its not even fun

The true problem of base ‘management’ is there is not really any. There are literally about 5 real buildings; there are 3 others that are simply structural, and 3-4 that you have to build to advance the story. For whatever reason, research does not work like engineering (meaning among other things, 1 guy can slowly research everything given the time), and everything researches so insanely fast that the research building is not truly viable, reducing your ‘choices’ down to 4, you only need one each of 2 of these buildings, thus it really comes down to how many workshops and satellite uplinks you want.

Another thing about this part, is there is really very little you can do to change anything. One merit I do have to give them is they calculated finances particularly well in that you truly feel each sale you make to the black market, but considering you have about 3 choices total though it was not hard to balance. Other than making workshops or satellites, you can’t buy more scientists, you can’t buy more guns, you can’t buy…well actually you can’t buy anything. So while I felt the loss of selling stuff, considering it was only for more satellites, the effect is blunted.

You are forced to make everything yourself, which I don’t have a problem with necessarily by design, but the costs are really imbalanced. I beat the entire game with my squad using the first level armor I could make, even the medium grade armor-just a single suit-is as expensive as making your own advanced UFO fighter craft. The most advanced armor in the game to put it in perspective takes about an entire month’s worth of funding, and the salvage on an entire UFO (which you only get 10-20 the whole game).

Strategic Action- World map- story and script driven not mounting alien threat

Ahh that world map (or cityscape in X3!) watching that globe slowly go form night to day, hoping a battleship doesn’t come in to rock your face off. There were very little scripted events in the prior games, and that led to emergent gameplay each time you played. There was a general formula that the resistance would continue to mount, giving a time clock of sorts before it was too overwhelming. In this game, each event is a scripted affair which really removes the element of an individual game developing, another reason this has zero replay.

There are a lot of aspects to this, so let me explain. Without fail you will have 2-3 Ufos a month, no more no less. You will have 1 abduction event, and you will have 1 ‘special’ event. There is very little variation. There is not mounting threat, it is not that ‘oh my god, so many battleships, how can I survive!?’. The abduction idea is kind of cool, but the timing mechanism they tie to it is cheap. When this event triggers, you have 3 choices around the world of places being attacked, each one will give you a reward (this is the ONLY way to get scientists normally). But the two you ignore become more ‘panicked’. When this counter reaches 5, the country will probably leave funding you. Enough leave game over, same as old games, but far, far sloppier.

Let me elaborate to make this clear, in the prior games there were a clear reason countries were leaving, you were not detecting Ufos, doing bad in combat, and were generally ignoring that region of the world or city. What they did not do was hide this from you, or prevent you from stopping it, all you had to do was get a radar station out there, and you actually see the hundreds of UFOs killing off Europe. In this game there is an unavoidable hidden clock that no matter how good you do, marches on (because you cannot shoot every UFO down like you could in past games, because most of these are ‘events’ not actual Ufos but just scripts). It is really annoying that this is this hidden gameplay element you have no effect over, it feels really ‘gamey’ unlike a true simulator the others attempted to be. Why can’t I go to more than one if I had the time, or the guys? Well, considering you only get 1 Skyranger (troop transport) that is a big reason.

Lastly, the world map was a HUGE part of the original X-com, and a satisfying part of the game was watching the battle slowly grind on you as you find more and more alien bases, more and more ufos coming to bring the pain. There are NO alien bases (other than a story mission) and your base NEVER gets attacked. Let me state that again, there are no alien bases or any mounting alien pressure against you. Really there is no difference from the beginning of the game to the end, sure the guys on the ground get a bit tougher, but on the world map your starting ships can carry you to the end minus one story battle UFO.

Strategic Action- Customization…other than your guy’s face, none

What made prior X-Com games so much better was you were in charge of everything in terms of getting ships equipped and guys with gear. In this one your starting Interceptors have a single weapon: avalanche missiles. But an infinite amount of them, since you can’t buy anything. You can NOT put two different weapons on, in fights you cannot control interceptor strategy, you cannot send out multiple interceptors (this crime is especially egregious). All you ever do with you interceptor in the whole length of the game is click on it once to give it the new plasma cannon later, and then click on it 10 times to fight the 10 ufos you will encounter the whole game. Had they never played X-com Apocalypse? Ship customization was amazing in that one, tons of hard points to put various weapons on, support equipment, multiple interceptions. Tragic really.

The most unforgivable part of all of this though is what they have done to the soldiers. Now, when you get a new recruit they come with all this wonderful information of their home country, their name, their flag, a randomized face…uh wait a second here…this guy has the same stats as the other guy…and the other guy. There are now only 4 stats, health, defense (a raw minus hit modifier), will (a mix of bravery and psionic), and aim. Every soldier has the exact same stats. The ONLY way they get better is when you hit a promotion, and those stats are all the same too. So once you hit the highest rank you guys WILL NOT get better, and at the highest rank they really aren’t that much better than rookies. Gone is the feeling where you have this trained super-soldier that could hit across the map and run twice as far as other guys while carrying the heaviest equipment. The only thing you lose when a high level guy dies is his skills/class, which is about the only improvement I like in this game.

Equipment on soldiers is painfully simple. There are only four ‘slots’ where you put equipment: the gun slot, but you are limited to usually only 3 based on your class; the backup weapon, usually a pistol, again only 3 choices; armor slot; and last is backpack slot, where you choose from a grenade, medikit, extra armor etc. This last slot really shows the demerit of the non-inventory system as in prior games you can have multiple grenades, a medikit, and anything else you are strong enough to hold. These are supposed to be the Earth’s best soldiers, and they can only hold one grenade!?

Class work as follows: after a Rookie is promoted, he becomes one of 4 classes: Assault, Heavy, Sniper, and Support. Now, I love class systems, so I thought this would be pretty cool, in the end it’s still ok, but not as good as it could have been. My criticism of this is that within your class you can only equip your class’s weapon…normally not a problem except for when there are literally only 3 guns the whole game. Thus the predictable and boring progression of normal sniper rifle-> laser rifle (and if you can afford it) ->plasma rifle.
Skills are an awesome addition, but most of the choices are so obvious it again detracts from the experience. I purposely made a guy with what I deemed the ‘bad’ skills just to see if I was missing something, which I wasn’t. So upon a promotion, you are given a choice between two class skills, for example Assault gets a choice of free reaction shots when anyone gets close, or +1 damage to critical hits. The first one, in case it isn’t obvious, is insane. It is cool watching your guy get more and more skills that you chose. The problem is, barring about two choices, every choice is very obvious. For example assault has another choice, one is a special shot that makes an enemy run to a new place (and this shot does reduced damage) or shoot twice this turn. Why chose a reduced damage shot when you can pull right up next to the guy (as explained in tactical) and unload two bursts into their face and kill most aliens?

Tactical Battle- Gears of war hybrid that destroyed the charm of X-Com

They did a few things good, so I will take care of those first since it will be shorter. One is that there is a overlay when a guy is selected that shows you how far you can run, and what the ‘cover’ level will be there. Two: they kept the isometric view.

There are a multitude of problems so I will get right to it from the beginning: only two action points. Again with the whole ‘simplification’ theme, a guy now is reduced to two choices: move and shoot, or move move. It does not matter if you are lining up an across-the-map sniper shot, or just a little pistol, if you shoot first as your action you are done since with such a system weapons cannot have any difference in time units or anything similar. A real problem I have with this is because MOST soldiers are limited to a single shot a turn, the skill that gives two shots (Assault as explained above) are totally game breaking, in fact Assault also gets a skill that lets them shoot after running, so essentially it is a move, move, shoot, shoot.

The class system ends up being a crude attempt at reconciliation because of choices they deny you since you cannot truly equip your soldiers because there is no inventory system. Thus instead of having a smoke grenade on your belt, there is a WHOLE CLASS devoted to carrying a smoke grenade (Support class). Ironically, I would consider this class the second best simply because they can carry three one-use medikits compared to other classes. Heavy class is the one-shot rocket launcher instead of just equipping it in older games.

The graphics look good, but I am here for gameplay, not visuals. So it is very annoying watching the exact gears of war behind-the-shoulder dash-for-cover camera every 2-3 times I move my guy around- and I am just moving not like I am dodging mortars. The worst part of these recycled visuals though, is the ‘alien discovered’ where you come upon a pack of aliens, and they have a ‘whoa my god dude!’ look on their face, dance around the same way every time and dash for cover.

Lastly, unless you specifically pick ‘overwatch’ you will never have reaction fire. This is fine, because this is like reserving time units in the older games. The problem comes from the aliens, because unless THEY pick overwatch, (and you know it because it big letters OVERWATCH pops above their head) on your turn you can charge them freely since you know you will not be shot. Can you imagine for a moment what this would have down to original X-COM if you could freely walk up to aliens with no fear of being shot?

Tactical Battle- Gears of war hybrid that destroyed all realism

What destroys any sense of tactical strategy or semblance of realism is the way combat is handled. Each map aliens are set in packs of 3. They very rarely ever move on their own. What typically occurs is you walk and at the edge of your vision you ‘discover’ the pack, you are treated to the great ‘omg!’ movie as they dash for cover. Thus for some reason on MY TURN they get a full turn to run into cover- you do not get the same gift if they come upon you. Regardless, once you figure out this is how combat goes, it is easy to plan for, and you stomp out the group of three with your limited squad of six and move on, ad nauseum until the map is clear. Gone are the shots from the dark at your group, gone is the epic one-on-one battles so common in older games as you turn a corner, gone is ANY surprise.

You cannot free shoot. Let me say that again: you can NOT shoot anywhere you want. Unless this specific soldier has a specific alien locked in his sights you cannot shoot your gun in any way, shape or form. You cannot shoot into the dark, you cannot shoot the wall down, you cannot shoot at someone else’s alien. This is insanity. This was a huge part of prior games. Even if I grant that maybe you shouldn’t be able to shoot at an alien you haven’t seen, the fact you cannot shoot the walls down anymore is unforgivable. The only way it happens is if you ‘miss’ your shot at the alien. What makes this worse, is that there is no indication if you move to a new spot if you can actually shoot the alien or not, so often you move a new guy to a spot he normally should see the alien, but he can’t and now you cannot shoot because you do not ‘see’ the alien.

Which brings me to my next point: shooting and how bad this is messed up in terms of realism. Misfires no longer occur, meaning you NEVER hit someone else other than you are aiming at. I run a soldier up point blank and do not kill the alien. My next guy has a huge machine gun, twenty steps away, and shoots. Normally both of them should be covered in bullets, but either it hits the alien or it doesn’t, your adjacent soldier is affected in no way. Further, line of sight is really strange, as long as you can ‘see’ the alien you can shoot him regardless of what’s in the way, and this brings about the very strange but common occurrence of shooting through multiple walls. It doesn’t even bother the camera that your laser just went through three brick walls.

They were so in love with their ‘cover’ system that all of combat is built around it, again to the determent of realism. Never mind you commonly find maps that have waist-high ‘terraces’ and a convenient ramp up them all over the woods. The way combat works is if you are in cover you get a defense bonus, period. It does not matter if this thing should actually in anyway protect you from a shot. Thus standing next to a light pole somehow grants the vast defense disparity granted to you compared to your friend one step away. Half cover (the light pole) gives a -20 to hit, whereas standing in the open gives a positive hit bonus. Usually there is a clear shot at the target, yet simply being ‘in’ cover grants you this bonus. In older games you could just shoot that stupid trashcan out of the way or headshot the fool behind it.

There are some pretty bad glitches like game freezes or the map ‘flashing’ between levels that it becomes impossible to click on the right square or to see your guys. I assume they can be patched so I will leave it at that, but the level flashing feels more structural so in may be in to stay.

Conclusion- It was okay once, I will never play it again, and it certainly isn’t an X-Com

The game was okay for the first time. There were some major problems as I stated, but since it was new, it was fun, it was the first time I saw the story segments, first 80 times I saw the ‘omg!’ movie cover clip, it was all new. But because the game is scripted the same every time, little choice exists, combat is ruined, I cannot bring myself to want to play this game again. There were so many ingenious things the prior games did that this did not utilize. It is like making a new HALO game and changing everything the fans liked for no other reason other that they want to leave their mark on the game.

People still list X-COM as one of the greatest games ever even though it was almost 20 years ago for good reason. This game will be forgotten in a year or two, again, for good reason.

Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Product Release: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (US, 10/09/12)

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