G’day, if you’ve followed our site for any great amount of time, you should be at least aware of The Lawless Perspective series of editorials, which act as a second opinion to recently released games. And opinion it is, with the bulk of its content directed at what I feel is most important to the game and how it reflects on the medium as a whole. Because of this, I choose not to synthesise a score at the end of the analysis. With the introduction out of the way, I’ll be taking a look at XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2K and Firaxis’ recent reboot to the classic strategy series. An obligatory, though hardly necessary spoiler warning and a plug to Daniel’s excellent original review and with that I’m free to begin.
Allow me, first, to iterate that I never played the original incarnations of this series, meaning that I can’t compare and contrast the two directly. Nevertheless, with the strong legacy that the series holds, one can understand why long-term fans were originally leery of this reboot, particularly with the negative trend of such projects this generation. I daresay that there was never any need to worry. In Firaxis, the traditional developers of the Civilization series, Take-Two contracted the right team to bring this hallowed franchise into the modern age. It retains many of the uncompromising propensities of years past, meaning that it is capable of providing a hefty challenge, even on the Normal difficulty setting, but it is not inaccessible.
The game rewards patience, but requires intelligence to be played successfully, and those that lack, or choose not to use, these human virtues will not be able to get the most out of what the game has to offer. Although it makes some concessions for it, Enemy Unknown is not targeted towards the mass market. It has a brutal learning curve that is almost guaranteed to see you abandon your first attempt and a slowness that really isn’t appreciated by the culture of instant gratification that most of gaming panders to. Nor does it offer the pretense of a thoughtful, engaging or personal narrative crafted by a hack who dares to call him/herself a writer. In many ways, it is the antithesis to the blockbuster mentality that gaming has increasingly adopted in recent years, providing an almost back-to-basics experience in being such.
One of the most unique aspects of the game is that it utilises a turn-based battle system, a mechanic that is widely regarded as antiquated and has either fallen out of favour or been fused with more active systems. Seeing it in an almost pure form is delightfully refreshing, but the execution feels a little flawed. This is because the enemy AI is completely reactive. While playing, they will never be the first to discover you and launch an attack, instead hiding within the fog of war that covers the battlefield and biding their time. It is only after they have been unveiled that they go on the offensive. For some, this would be a minor complaint, but it leaves the game lacking a sense of dynamism and feeling altogether rather pedestrian. And it isn’t as though giving the AI free reign of the battlefield would result in the decimation of the player’s squad, in spite of the slightly unbalanced nature of their weaponry, because of the Overwatch ability.
This is a move that you will use with excessive frequency and is almost a necessity for a successful operation. The secret to it is that it allows your units to fire upon an enemy during their turn, so long as they move within the soldier’s line of sight. It comes at the cost of the chance to fire during your turn, but this is often a worthwhile trade. Speaking of, every unit gets two movements in each of your turns. These can be used to move, fire or make use of a number of items that soldiers can carry alongside their firearms, including grenades, combat stimulants or medkits. Using an item or firing ends that character’s movements, even if it is only their first, except in certain circumstances provided by upgrading them. You can move twice if you so desire, but that cancels the option to fire, so it is always best to ensure that the unit ends in a safe position.
In most cases, this will mean cover, but even this isn’t as straightforward as it would be in most cases. This is due to there being two different classifications of cover: half and full. The former provides less of a defence bonus, but gives you a better line of sight than the latter. It isn’t typically a decision that one will agonise over, but it is best to keep in mind that most cover points are destructible, and can vanish the instant that an enemy fires upon you, leaving you vulnerable to a follow-up attack. There are so many different aspects to the combat system that you must be aware of the entirety of the situation at all times, or be wind up in grave peril.
Putting you even further on your toes is the constant introduction of new enemy types. The timing of these inaugurations is carefully measured so that you are never going to be completely overwhelmed, but both the visual and gameplay designs are enough to inspire wonderment and fear in equal levels. Their menacing appearances, along with their evolving offensive and defensive capabilities makes it a thrill and pleasure to play for the mere sake of happening across them. The only complaints that I would raise is that it isn’t long before the core designs start to get recycled, and you run out of new enemy types to duke it out with.
Combat undeniably plays a huge role in the game, but it is only one half of what is available to the player. The other is the base building. This is, by far, the more involving aspect, due to the combination of macro- and micromanagement that is required to be successful. The most important thing is to stop an exodus from the project, as the game ends in failure if half of the countries involved pull out. In order to prevent them from doing so, you have to keep panic levels low by responding to threats in both the individual countries and the regions in which they are lumped. It seems an easy proposition, but when the panic level rises due to your choice to ignore a single continent for a little while, only for no threats to be provided later on, things can quickly spiral out of control. Launching satellites helps, but these require a rather obscene investment of resources, making it difficult in the early stages of the game.
The base is home to a wide range of different facets outside of this crucial aspect, however. You have the laboratories, where you research new technologies, many of which are recovered during field operations, and unlock the ability to build new equipment. The Engineering department, where you build said equipment, including new weaponry, armour types and combat complements. These developments usually come with a hefty cost in both credits and resources, making it one of the trickiest things to balance. You have the Barracks, where you hire and handle soldiers, including customising, upgrading and outfitting them, along with the Training School, which provides you with a number of different options to improve their battle effectiveness. Then there is the Hangar, where your Interceptor purchases and customisations are dealt with. Finally, there is the situation room, which shows you the panic level of each country and allows you to launch satellites, sell artefacts recovered from the field and respond to requests from the various countries involved in the project.
None of it is overly complex, but the sheer number of things that you have to stay on top of is quite daunting, especially when it comes to the need to balance your limited resources. It is the negligence of this portion of the game that is most likely to lead to abject failure as it necessarily means that you will be unprepared for the combat. The entire production is so inextricably intertwined within itself that, were one single aspect removed, the game would be a vastly inferior affair. Although there is room for improvement, the gameplay is singularly engaging and solid. It is a shame that what has been incorporated as story is so perfunctory as to be almost non-existent. Indeed, it seems that the only reason that context was granted was to offer slight expansions to the capabilities of the soldiers in battle and to provide an endgame scenario. It’s dreadfully disappointing, but the gameplay is more than invigorating enough to give those willing to invest in it dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of entertainment, creating their own stories through the battles in the process.
Going into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I had been conditioned to like it courtesy of the frequent comparisons to the battle system of Valkyria Chronicles (one of my favourite games), but not to love it, due to the lack of any driving narrative. Considering I always hold that latter aspect as of eminent importance, it is strange to find this game as compelling and downright addictive as I have. It has made me a believer, and increased my anticipation for the other XCOM game in the works at 2K Marin, which, if shown the same care and love as this game, should wind up being one of the most unique shooters of recent years. And if Take-Two is desirous of making a direct sequel to this one, improving those few aspects that could do with some touching up, you can be damned sure that I’ll line up for it. It’ll be unique enough to be worth a look when the time comes.