I had been looking forward to the Thanksgiving break and the three Fs for some time — Family, Football, and Feasting. But there’s another F that I knew was coming, and it involves the Free babysitting that my in-laws provide when they arrive! For the past few nights, I’ve been slowly but surely pushing my way through the sheer joy that is called X-Com: Enemy Unknown. The game’s been out for a few months, but life’s demands have kept me from diving in too deep. But Thanksgiving break (and a great wife) gave me some free evenings to go hunker down and do battle with some nasty aliens.
I’ve written before of my fondness for the original X-Com: UFO Defense game. Somehow, I’ve always managed to find a way to play it through at least once a year. The original has simply never gotten stale to me. I love the mix of research trees, turn-based movement and combat, and the no-MBA-required financial management of your numerous bases and aircraft. It’s a game that you can save and come back to later, easily picking up where you left off. Even knowing how the games end, I’ve consistently played the original and its sequel, X-Com: Terror from the Deep.
Last year, when it was announced that 2K Games would be releasing a new X-Com game, I was a little pessimistic. Like a lot of X-Com fans, I was worried a new version would try to cater to the first person shooter crowd and change the gameplay from turn-based to more of a real-time, run-and-gun game. Video releases and some well-timed previews calmed my nerves and convinced me that the game developers must have been X-Com fans themselves, because everything I was hearing pointed at a game that would keep with the turn-based gameplay, complete with base management, multi-option combat situations (ground and air), and research/manufacturing.
Based on some information I’ve heard about the game, I believe I’ve crossed the 50% completion mark. I’m going to share with you some observations about the game but will do my absolute best to avoid spoilers. Keep in mind that I have not completed the game yet — and I don’t expect to for probably a month or more. But that’s okay with me — I’m enjoying the slow pace with the game, and I’ll share with you some reasons why I believe it’s not such a good idea to rush through. I’ll tell you what I’m enjoying about the game… and what I’m not.
If you’re at all familiar with the original X-Com: UFO Defense (or Terror from the Deep) and you enjoyed them, let me start by giving you a little comparison between the original games and the newest title in the X-Com series.
I’ve already mentioned what X-Com: Enemy Unknown has going for it — base management, turn-based combat, research and manufacturing, and squad configuration. But that’s high-level stuff. Let me take you down into the nitty-gritty and show you how the new game takes what I loved best about the originals and gives it a modern-day makeover.
Let’s start with the user interface. In X-Com: UFO Defense (from here on, I’ll refer to it as OG and X-Com: Enemy Unknown as NG — new game), you were most likely spending a lot of time in the Geosphere, staring at the Earth and pressing the Fast Forward button so time would count by until a UFO was encountered (in flight or landed) or a Terror Site was discovered. The Geosphere had buttons to the right that gave you access to other parts of the game — your base(s), purchasing weapons and staff, research and manufacturing personnel, and more. It was a suitable interface for an early ’90s game, but the NG interface has managed to both update the Geosphere and bring it down to an equal footing for the rest of your duties in the game.
First, the Geosphere is now simply a part of your base. As with the OG where you had to buy new facilities and wait a certain time for them to be built, the new base is now underground and requires that you not only wait for facilities to be built, but you’ve also got the added complexity of having to excavate a limited number of facility grids before you can build in them. Some of the excavation, for example, is over steam vents. After you excavate a steam vent, you can build a laboratory, a workshop, or even a satellite monitoring facility. But what you really want to build there is a Thermo Power facility. You get bonuses to your power rating — as you build additional facilities, they require power. If you don’t have enough power, you’ve gotta build new power facilities. So there’s some thought to be put into not only what facilities you build, but also where you build them and when.
In the OG, you could just purchase the engineers and scientists as you needed them (to a limit) but now you only get scientists and engineers when you build labs and workshops. The more scientists you have, the faster your research gets completed. The more engineers, the faster and more advanced weapons you can build. And while you can get scientists and engineers as rewards for completing some missions successfully, it’s never enough. So building labs and workshops is something you must plan for as the game progresses or you’ll not have enough to finish certain goals in the game.
In the OG, you could manufacture certain items (plasma rifle was my favorite) and sell them for a nice profit. Not in the NG! While you can still sell off alien corpses and technology, there’s just never enough money coming in to buy everything you need to feel safe. You’re always lacking an engineer or enough advanced armor suits or enough laser rifles. You’ll often find yourself with just enough cash to buy a much-needed Interceptor that is your only way to shoot down UFOs but then you won’t be able to purchase the new satellite that Africa is screaming for so you can monitor its airspace and not lose them as a financial backer of X-Com. It sounds frustrating, but there is so much else going on in the game that you rarely have time to dwell on what you lack before you’re off on another rescue mission or bomb defusing or even the super-fun alien base assault.
The NG user interface is great — you’re given a side-view of the base, looking into the barracks, labs, and other interesting areas. Click on an area of the base and you’re immediately taken to a new user interface. For example, clicking on the Research portion of the base allows you to direct Dr. Vahlen and her team as they attempt to reverse engineer just about everything your soldiers can carry back from the field. Once again, there’s never enough time to research it all, but thankfully the team makes its recommendations on what research is a priority for moving the game forward.
There are five areas to manage — Research, Engineering, Barracks, Hangar, and Situation Room. In addition, you’ve got the original Geosphere that can be clicked on (in one of the earlier images, it’s the glowing Earth in the center near the left). While you’re digging into the details of one of the five areas, time is moving slowly and there’s no risk of detecting a UFO or a Terror Assault — these happen while you’re in the Geosphere view and have the Scan for Activity button clicked.
But once the Scan for Activity button is clicked, any number of things can happen. The most favorable (depending on your point of view) are successful research reports that open up new insight into the alien threat or its technology. Other favorable activities include completed construction (such as expanding coverage of the planet with a new satellite monitoring facility) or completion of a manufacturing project that provides all your soldiers with new weaponry or armor.
In between status reports are the opportunities to explore the other half of the game — combat. If a UFO is detected via satellite, a fighter can be launched to try to intercept and shoot it down. Other times the UFO has landed, meaning you’ve got to assemble a squad and get to the landing area to try to capture it. Alien bases are sometimes discovered, as are various missions that require squads to rescue hostages, defuse bombs, and other special tasks.
Soldiers in the NG are a big improvement over the OG. In the OG, you could rename your soldiers (I always named mine after friends — still do) and customize their weaponry. That was about it — some traits did increase over time (health points and willpower, for example), but you could really move weapons from soldier to soldier with no penalties. With the NG, soldiers have specialties. As soldiers get more combat time, they get promoted — and special skills can be selected to customize soldiers so they are more beneficial to the team. For example, a Sniper at a certain rank will have the ability to fire his weapon after moving or gain a +10 to his AIM attribute. As each soldier rises up in the ranks, the selections of skills become more powerful and sometimes include special bonuses such as the ability to carry an extra item on their person. Each soldier can have their look modified (gender, hair color, etc.) and a name change, but I really like the fact that each soldier is good with one or two types of weapons and cannot change — in the OG, I frequently would send in grunts first who would get all shot up and I wouldn’t lose much sleep. Now, with the NG, I’m invested in these soldiers! Once they start getting specialty skills and bonuses, you find that you really don’t want to lose any of them. The attachment (if you can call it that) between you and your soldiers seems to be much stronger in the NG than in the OG.
And, soldiers being soldiers, X-Com is all about putting them in harm’s way and having them try to shoot, disable, and research the various aliens that they encounter. And all of this takes place on the various battlefields — forests, city streets, downed UFOs, and even the aliens’ own bases. As with the OG, you select a soldier, tell him or her where to move or at what target to shoot. With the OG, you had to be careful not to move your soldiers too far or they wouldn’t have enough action points to fire a weapon. This concept holds with the NG, but with some slight modifications. Each soldier gets two actions per turn — when you first click on a soldier, a blue line will outline the area on the map that they can move and still be able to fire or move again. If you try to move a soldier beyond that boundary, a yellow line defines the maximum limit the soldier can move and this movement will burn both actions.
As with the OG, you’re going to have your patience tested early on if you start moving your soldiers to their maximum range (called Dashing). This burns both actions, and should the soldier end up in the open when an alien comes around the corner, it’s probably going to end badly. You’ll quickly figure out that cover is the goal… a half shield or a full shield will let you know when a solder will obtain full cover or partial cover behind a tree or car or other obstacle. Obviously full cover is best, but if the aliens know your soldier is there, they’ll quickly destroy that cover with a weapons blast. Partial cover seems to be the best option because it leaves open the game feature called Overwatch. Overwatch is going to become your friend, especially later in the game when the aliens just start getting smarter and more devious.
Overwatch is an action you select when you’ve burned one or no actions. Move a soldier behind a car (inside the blue boundary line) and then select Overwatch and that soldier can keep an eye open for any aliens moving in the vicinity and take a shot (at a slightly reduced chance to hit). Often, Overwatch is the only way you can take out a powerful alien. Gather four or five soldiers behind cover, put them on Overwatch (often requiring two or three turns to get them all in place), and then wait for an alien to sprint or show itself… then you get four or five soldiers all getting a free shot. It works, but again… it requires a TON of patience.
Combat can take half an hour or two hours… it all depends on your objectives. I don’t like to lose soldiers, so I save. Frequently. And I find myself reloading previous games. Frequently. A mission I might be able to accomplish in ten or twenty minutes might cost me two or even three soldiers. Doing that same mission without losing any soldiers could take an hour or more. The strategy involved in getting your soldiers from A to B to C is what I enjoy the most, so I try all sorts of tactics until I get it right. If you don’t like this style of play (save, play, die, reload, kill alien, save, play, die, reload…) then you can obviously go the route of just buying more soldiers when you return to base. But trust me — you really want to have your players advancing in rank because it opens up not just special skills but also access to other features of the game. For example, at the start of the game, you can only send four players into combat. Once a player reaches a specific rank, you can buy an extra slot for a fifth soldier. A sixth (and final, as far as I can tell at the 50% mark) slot can be purchased, allowing for a maximum of six soldiers to be sent into combat. (This differs greatly from the OG — I can remember sending 16 or more soldiers into combat along with a tank!)
At the end of missions, you’re given two rankings that affect the ongoing game. The X-Com organization is being monitored by a number of countries, and these countries give you a rating at the end of each month that translates into funding increases for successful missions and a decrease in funds when certain countries pull their money because you didn’t save their ambassador or monitor their airspace for UFO incursions. It’s a balancing act that requires you to make decisions on which countries to monitor and defend; you simply cannot be everywhere at all times, so the monthly rating is going to stress you out. I try not to let the fact that Egypt is in the red Panic level bother me but just as I was prepared to buy a satellite to put over Africa I needed to buy a new Interceptor because a UFO shot one down. As I said earlier, the game is relentless and does not cut you any breaks. You’ll never have enough funds or aircraft or alien weaponry to outfit all your soldiers.
What makes this constant balancing act tolerable is the fact that the NG has something missing from the OG – a story. Through cut scenes and dialogue between base personnel, this unknown threat starts to become real. Successful research of alien technologies provide bits and pieces of a backstory that is slowly coming together. I love it. When I sent out my soldiers on their first alien base raid, I had a good idea of what was at stake and how important it was that I complete it successfully. Listening to two characters debate the necessity of capturing an alien alive versus just killing it provides further story details, not just “Go here, kill alien, come home.” You’ll definitely want to pay attention to the base personnel as they fill you in on the various aspects of missions, research, and manufacturing; small details and hints are often dropped and some of them, I believe, can be game changing.
Regarding visuals and music, it’s understandable that today’s technology allows for a wider range of special effects. The alien base is creepy. Very creepy. Sound effects and music really help put you in the right mindset for whatever mission you are attempting. Unlike the OG with its pixelated aliens and smoke effect, this NG has all the right moves to creep you out and make you jump. If you’re familiar with the OG, you know that there’s not just one species of alien… there are a lot of them. I can tell you right now, I’ve encountered one type of alien quite a bit in the first half of the game and I still get a shiver up my spine when a soldier peers around a building and a bit of animation starts showing three of these things all standing up (usually from a corpse they are examining) at once and staring at me before running for cover. And they’re wearing sunglasses, I kid you not. (Just play the game to understand why they look like they do.)
As for the aliens… there are some familiar ones and some new ones. And if I may steal some advice that Cypher gave to Neo — if you see a Muton, run! No other alien makes me cringe when they appear on the battlefield. The Saucer take more hits to kill, but the Mutons always seem to appear in twos and they just always seem to have better accuracy against my soldiers. When they appear, I pull back and start putting my soldiers into Overwatch at the beginning of every turn. Hunker down and weapons hot!
I haven’t reached the end of the game, obviously, but I’m so looking forward to it. The ending for the OG was great, and I have high expectations for this one. The research reports are starting to come fast and furious. My soldiers are all wearing improved armor and have much higher hit points and can take more damage. I’ve also noticed their accuracy is improving. I’ve also learned to take two snipers with me on short missions and none on landed UFOs (I load up on Heavies and Combos because I’ve learned through trial and error that most of the action is going to happen inside where snipers aren’t going to be all that helpful). Did I mention that I save often? O-F-T-E-N! Forget overwriting older missions… I just save and save and save. I use the date/timestamp and a small pad of paper to make notes so I can go back to an earlier save if necessary — more on that in a moment.)
Am I happy with X-Com: Enemy Unknown? I wish you could hear my giggles. I love this game. The sad part is that while I was playing the OG about once a year for fun, I have a feeling the OG is about to get replaced with the NG as my occasional Game-to-Replay. It’s X-Com, through and through, and if you’re a fan of the original game, you’re absolutely going to love the new one.
All that being said…
What I Dislike
… there are some rough spots. Thankfully, they’re not related to the overall story or missions. Let me just offer up a few things that I’m hoping might get fixed in future updates.
1. Overwatch — I told you that you’ll discover the value of Overwatch not too far into the game. If you don’t use Overwatch, expect to lose a lot of soldiers. But Overwatch is a nuisance to implement. Every soldier has a small collection of buttons for each turn — Fire, Throw Grenade, and Reload are examples. All soldiers have Overwatch available as a button if they haven’t burned their second action. (Snipers are special — they can’t use Overwatch if they’ve fired their weapon. A later rank skill removes this penalty.) You click the Overwatch button to tell your soldier to stop moving and start looking out for aliens. But clicking the button pops up a Confirm window with an OK button that confirms the order. It’s annoying. If you’ve got four or five soldiers all hunkered down waiting for an alien to show itself, you might spend three or four turns putting them all into Overwatch while the other soldier in your squad moves around (such as a Sniper on the perimeter). What would be nice is to convert the Overwatch button into an automatic action (no confirm) or somewhere in the game settings let me choose not to get the OK/confirm buttons. If I get click-happy and select an action I didn’t mean to select, that’s my problem. But this isn’t available (I’ve looked and looked). The same thing happens for the other buttons. Click Fire and you have to click the OK button to confirm the action. Click Reload… same thing. Slows the game down and definitely needs to be something that can be turned off.
2. Grenades/Rockets — I have a fairly fast PC and I’ve tweaked the visuals and the controls quite a bit to get them where I like. Still, when I pick a soldier to throw a grenade or fire a missile and drag the mouse to the target, the screen just flies by and makes it difficult to get the mouse pointer back on target. It’s very sensitive and can take 15 to 20 seconds to get the targeting back to where I want it. What would be nice is if the targeting was limited to only what is visible on screen, not off.
3. Save/Load — I mentioned that I use a pad of paper to track notes on my various saves. In the original game, I could actually name my saves — I would use this to provide details such as “Entering UFO Squad all outside” to give me a quick reminder when I needed to restart a mission from a specific point. The NG only gives the mission name and a timestamp. I save so much that these missions often differ by only a few minutes of in-game time (not real time). I have to write down on my pad “15:43 Sniper in place, other squad outside UFO door” or else I risk reloading the mission just before it that would require me to get the squad all to the proper locations. Rather than do this, I’ll go back and reload the next (more recent) game. I’ve just learned to use the pen and paper, but would be nice to be able to type in some notes on my saves.
4. Movement Boundaries — At times, the blue and yellow lines that define a soldier’s movement limits can overwhelm the visuals. Walls and obstacles will go transparent to allow you to get a glimpse of all the places you can move. When all this happens at once, you’ll see something like the above screen capture. You can see the doors and a room (just above the soldier in the center of the screen) are transparent and the area below the soldier is difficult to discern — what is floor versus wall versus obstacle? Throw in the light blue line defining where this soldier can move using a single action and it gets confusing. To the left of the soldier you’ll see two buttons that allow you to rotate the image left or right 90 degrees… you’ll want to use these when the screen gets a bit too dense and becomes difficult to find blind spots and corners where you can easily hide a soldier… or where an alien might be tucked inside.
The few rough spots I’ve just described, however, have not deterred me from enjoying the game. This is a worthy addition to the X-Com family, and I’m totally serious when I say I’ll be playing it again and again. I enjoy turn-based combat and research/manufacturing trees and I’ve yet to find any other game that gives me the same enjoyment as the traditional X-Com experience.
I’m hoping that this isn’t the end of the X-Com franchise. I know about the first-person X-Com game that’s been in development, and while I hear rumors of its demise and rumors of its ongoing development, it doesn’t sound like a traditional X-Com experience to me. Just as Terror from the Deep continued the original X-Com game (but placing it deep in our oceans), I’m hoping that X-Com: Enemy Unknown is the first of a new line of X-Com turn-based games. If this game engine is used again, along with the new base interface, soldier customization (with rank skills), and combat features (Dashing, Overwatch, etc.), I will be first in line to grab the next game and see where the story goes. The oceans are there, waiting patiently, but so is all that space between the Earth and the Moon. These aliens are a devious bunch, and I’d like to think they’re not going to give up so easily.
Note: X-Com: Enemy Unknown is available as a PC boxed game and also as a digital download from Steam. (You can also get it for XBox 360 and Playstation 3.) I purchased the PC Collector’s Edition with art book and X-Com patch because I’m a total X-Com geek and have earned a squad patch on my jacket.