Review by arcanehavoc

"The Ugly Parts Overwhelm Its Intrinsic Appeal"

HISTORY: XCOM, Alien Unknown is a refurbished version of an earlier PC-based game titled simply: XCOM. Apparently the original had a very strong following, so much so that this newer version -- available on PC, PS3, or XBox -- was inevitable. I've been playing it on the PS3; it seems to work fine.

GAMEPLAY: In XCOM the player is "The Commander" who must lead an elite organization against the vile alien invaders. With limited funds, technology, soldiers, etc, the challenges are many and can seem overwhelming. There are different four levels of play -- Beginner, Normal, Classic, and .... something else. I forget what it is; it's not important. Only the deeply masochistic personalities will go there. To add an extra challenge to the many imbedded in the game, the player may attempt "Iron Man" mode. Here, the game automatically saves. There are NO "do-overs" allowed. It is what it is. (And this isn't even one of the ugly parts.) It's the sort of wrinkle that will annihilate your XCOM experience if you aren't very careful, regardless of what level of difficulty you're playing.

There are two primary areas of game play. In Headquarters (HQ) the player must manage resources for various Engineering projects, direct research, promote (or replace) soldiers, buy new weapons and armor as they become available, launch satellites, etc. etc. The mundane, albeit highly important, aspect of running an organization. This becomes quite a juggling act as the game moves along, since Earthlings start out woefully behind the tech curve in terms of weapons and armor. However, in order to get newer, more powerful weapons and more satisfactory armor, one must do research. The Commander directs research projects as they become available. Certain types offer certain rewards. Figuring out what does what is part of the challenge, initially. Since time is a precious commodity, there can be a sense of urgency, almost panic, in getting through various levels of research. Engineering builds the weapons, the satellites, the planes (for protecting the satellites), and all the facilities necessary to make this happen. This happens underground, requiring excavation to extend the XCOM HQ. Powerplants, laboratories, workshops, etc. are necessary for weapon/armor fabrication, alien containment, etc. However, these facilities are NOT cheap, especially as the game moves on. Deeper excavation costs more, and resources are ALWAYS in high demand and short supply. Interceptor planes, and their weaponry, must be bought and upgraded without neglecting any other aspect of the game, since the aliens WILL begin to shoot down planes and satellites whenever possible. This starts to become very bothersome midway through the game. it is IMPOSSIBLE to advance through the game from this point if the player hasn't managed to acquire the technology necessary to combat the aliens in the sky.

The bulk of the 'ugliness' resides in the actual combat mode. The player starts out with four soldiers using standard weapons and wearing minimal armor. The player can customize the looks of the soldiers to a large degree. The ability to customize the soldiers is very detailed and very nice, but one should be cautious about it. They will probably die anyway. Still, to change the hairstyle, color of the armor, or add a helmet (or not) adds to the personal nature of the game. The soldiers have certain abilities and classes -- Support, Assault, Sniper, or Heavy. Basically the medic, the short-range specialist, the long-range specialist, and the demolitions expert. Only these four classes exist, though one can build a team of up to six soldiers (once the player is allowed to build the training facility for the soldiers...). As soldiers advance in rank, they obtain new skills. These are very, very helpful. When such a soldier dies, it hurts an awful lot. Especially later in the game.

The fighting takes places in about 15 different locations, give or take a few. The more you play the more familiar you will be with the tactical problems each area presents. As I said, this is where the game starts to sour. Initially, the aliens start out as small, bothersome creatures with deadly weapons who manage to die with just one good burst of automatic fire. As the game progresses different aliens take the stage. Each new species brings its own challenges. Mutons, for example, are large, well-armored, lumbering brutes with powerful plasma rifles and an ability to engage your soldiers in a sound, tactical fashion. If you haven't managed to acquire some laser-based weapons by this time, you'd better hurry.

The game is fun, though challenging, at the Normal level. (I have never tried Beginner.) I have been through the game three times at Normal level, and despite some irritating idiosyncrasies, it was an enjoyable, even addictive, experience. The controls are easy to master. Maneuvering the various screens to direct Research or allot resources for the Hangar Bay or Engineering was practically automatic. Everything is straightforward. In "Normal" mode, I found it as advertised: 'challenging, but fair.' The 'Iron Man' mode added another twist of difficulty, but I found it manageable. However, once I attempted "Classic" mode, I started to have a lot of problems. For one thing, there are no facilities at HQ other than the jet hanger and one generator, so gathering resources to dig out and build new facilities takes on a desperate urgency. This isn't too bad, it just seems unfair. However, once engaged in battle with the aliens, the level of 'unfair' takes on gargantuan proportions! Here are a couple of quick examples.

First, soldiers tend to go into 'panic mode' whenever one of their own is killed. This happens rarely in "normal" mode, but almost every time in "Classic". Also, the panicked soldier tends to shoot (and kill) one of his teammates. This happens about 50% of the time once they are panicked. I ran one exercise (returning to the saved game over and over again) about 14+ times. The soldiers always panicked when someone was killed, even if we were winning the battle and almost done with the engagement! One dead + one panicked + one killed by 'friendly fire' = three out of six soldiers out of commission. Even though I managed to pull out a win about 1/3 of the time, it was INCREDIBLY aggravating!!

Second, aliens tend to shoot through walls and make tremendously 'lucky' shots. You might have two or three soldiers take a shot at an alien (each had >60% possibility of taking out the bad guy) but often EVERYONE will miss, or do minor damage. The alien, however, shooting from a lower elevation, or at some difficult angle, will shoot through brick walls or whatever and kill you dead. This happened OFTEN in 'Classic' mode, but only occasionally in 'Normal' mode. There's more I could say about this, and many more examples I could give, but that might be considered 'ranting', and I don't wish to do that. But, this seems to me to be a programming error by choice. Playing a strategy and tactics-based game that is challenging is one thing. Making a game that blatantly 'cheats' or ignores the same rules of engagement that the player is laboring under is, I feel, insulting! Yes, by saving often and returning to save points as necessary one can move forward in the game. It takes the patience of Job and the mind-numbing strategy of a determined tick -- just grab on and hold! It's no wonder so many players in Multiplayer mode simply hide in corners and wait for their opponents. That's basically the only sound strategy for getting through most of the sections in 'Classic' mode. (Find a sound tactical spot with many good fields of overlapping fire. Dig in. Send out a lure to reel the enemy in. Shoot them all. Move all the soldiers forward slightly. Repeat.) It's boring, really, and very, very time-consuming, but it is the only SAFE way to beat the game at this level.

In Multiplayer mode, the player can compete against another player from anywhere in the world. There are limits on what sort of soldiers one can bring, determined by points. Ranked Competition has a limit of 10,000 points. The better trained and/or equipped a soldier is, the more points he uses up. This is the same for the aliens -- the truly dangerous ones are prohibitively expensive to use. Of course, players can agree to raise the point limit or do away with point limits at all, but this must be agreed to in advance and is basically set up between people who know each other. I wish this was just a category -- "free for all" -- that anyone could join without having to coordinate with a buddy. But playing against others within the constrains of the game is nice, too, generally. The competition can be exciting or disappointing, depending on the other player. Some gather up a couple of high-point warriors and just sit in a corner of the game area and wait for their opponent to roll up to them. High-end snipers, usually. It's disappointing to go against another player who just sits and waits for the other player to move into his web. However, there are some VERY good players who maneuver their soldiers in a sharp, tactically-sound and coordinated fashion. I usually lose to them, but I enjoy losing to them because I learn a lot and get better. (I'm currently 21 wins/ 35 losses.) Most of my losses, however, came from guys who just sat me out. Eventually, I just couldn't take it and I'd go look for them. They were waiting for me! Surprise... I suppose I'll have to learn how to counter the high-end sniper waiting turn after turn in a dark corner of the screen. But do I want to??

STORY: Well, the aliens invaded and are abducting humans around the globe. We don't know what they want. We don't care. "Kill them all!" is the motto of XCOM. Simple and pragmatic. Gotta love it.

GRAPHICS/SOUND: The graphics are good. Not terrific. Not awesome. Watching an alien take a header with a face full of laser is very gratifying, but there are occasional glitches. Sometimes a soldier is facing in the opposite direction of his enemy, but the shot manages to connect! Sometimes shots come through walls, or the camera angle gets forced into an awkward position, etc. but generally these are rare occurrences. Overall the graphics are good, as in "more than acceptable".

The sounds are great, but limited. Aliens have their noises, and the soldiers keep repeating the same boring (soon to be irritating) little phrases: "Eyes peeled, Commander." "On the move!" "Alien pacified." It's nice for a while, but by the second time through the game I play with the sound turned down pretty low and rely on the subtitles. What does that tell you?

PLAY TIME / REPLAYABILITY: The first couple of times through took me many hours -- over 30 -- because I was still learning how things went together. The third time through Normal mode I did it in just over 20 hours, and I dragged my feet a couple of times in order to train up a couple of rookies with Psychic power. Classic mode takes me a very long time, more than 50+ hours to get through, but that is largely because of my slow-poke tactics. As for REPLAY -- yes! In Normal mode, I can see myself returning in a few months or so. In Classic mode? Never again! Multiplayer? Well, it can be a lot of fun, but I'm not as enthusiastic as I was initially. Again, some players' tactics just bore and irritate me. I will probably continue to get online and play, but not too often.

FINAL RECOMMENDATION: It's a fun game, in Normal mode. Very engaging, very addictive. I played it through three times at Normal mode, so believe me when I tell you it's addictive!! However, at higher levels I found it to be too frustrating and/or boring to be much fun. Instead it became a huge load to bear, rather than an exercise in tactics and strategy. But overall, I'd have to say that if you're the sort of person who enjoys tactical / strategy games, it's worth buying and playing -- at least in Normal mode. Now, if you enjoy banging your head against the desk or buying new controllers because you keep finding yourself throwing them against the wall, then you should play Classic level in Iron Man mode. If you're not sure which sort of player you are, you SHOULD rent it. It's worth at least that! There's a lot of chatter on the internet about what it SHOULD have been like, and how it SHOULD be made better, so there will probably be another XCOM in our future. This one is good enough to take a few hours out of your life every evening for a month. What more could you ask for?

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 12/10/12

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

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