We... Will Be Watching...

I'm not sure, but I think X-Com: UFO Defense was the first serious computer game I ever played. That, or Warcraft. Before that there were a few basic things, like a flying shooter on the Commodore64 and the freeware Star Trek game that lived on bootlegged floppy discs, but nothing that even had a 'save game' option, nevermind a real story.

So you can imagine how nervous I was when I first learned about XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

It wasn't as though the franchise hadn't been through sequels and spinoffs before. Terror from the Deep was a slightly tweaked clone of the first game, while Apocalypse went so far in its own direction as to be virtually unrecognizable as a part of the same universe. Then there were Enforcer and Interceptor, poorly received forays into other genres. So while the thought of a modern X-Com game, with all the advances of twenty-some-odd years of video game development behind it, was thrilling, the franchise's rather checkered history made me understandably wary.

Having completed my first play-through of XCOM, on the PS3, I can honestly say... it's good.

That sounds bad, I know. But honestly, I really enjoyed this game. The controls are solid and intuitive, the enemy AI is good without being an obvious cheater, and the customization options are amazing. The new class and skill systems really helps make your soldiers individually useful, rather than just being a faceless horde differentiated only by who is carrying the heavy plasma and who is carrying the blaster launcher. Armour finally means something, as do medpacks, since alien weapons won't just casually one-shot every soldier they hit. The aliens themselves are much more intimidating, which is given an in-game shout-out when engineers test-firing the laser and plasma rifles for the first time use cardboard standies of the original Sectoid and Muton soldiers as their targets. They dropped Time Units in favour of a much more straightforward 'Move/Action or Action' setup. There's a variety in the missions, with standard 'kill them all' fights interspersed with escort, bomb disposal and 'rescue civilians' terror attacks. And the video cut-scenes finally give a peek into the world of the characters, though admittedly it's one that raises as many questions as it answers. Sure, it's chilling to watch them react to an alien attack on Washington, but what exactly are American politicians and military officers and citizens saying about that, afterwards? I suppose it might be a bit much to ask, to have this world expanded to such a degree. But hey, you opened this door, XCOM. You can't blame me for trying to push through it.

On the other hand, not everything has necessarily changed for the better. While the customization options for the individual soldiers have expanded hugely, a lot of your other options are sharply curtailed. You can't have multiple bases in multiple locations. There are fewer research topics, and they're more tightly focused than before, when it really felt like you were trying to figure out every aspect of an alien civilization. No researching Alien Entertainment nowadays! There are a lot less alien encounters; compared to the first game, where you could regularly shoot down a UFO and send out a Skyranger at least once a week, it's not uncommon to have the better part of a month go by before there's an attack. And you can only have one encounter at a time, unlike before when, with a couple Skyrangers and a few squads of well-trained soldiers, you could be taking on two or even three crash sites consecutively. XCOM is a much smaller, more tightly focused game than its rather sprawling predecessor, for good and ill.

But with all its faults, it's still a really solid, really fun game. It's also more of a story of human resistance, with your base's chief scientist, engineer and operations officer discussing what they've learned and what their next objective should be. The cut scenes make XCOM feel like you're really participating in saving the world, though the few times those characters address you directly raise a host of questions about just what you, the Commander, are doing.

If you like turn-based, squad-level strategy and resource management games, you should pick up XCOM. It's a little thinner than the first game, but still miles ahead of most of what's out there these days, and it's streamlined enough that you can pick it up on the fly, though first-timers will still probably want to set the tutorial on for the first run-through.

No comments:

Post a Comment