Oct 11 2012

Fighting Nostalgia: Getting to Know X-Com: Enemy Unknown

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

My scanners picked up three different instances of alien abductions happening simultaneously across the globe. Each of the three countries promised to give me some sort of compensation for helping fight the aliens back; the U.S. promised cash, China promised four scientists, and Argentina would give me one of their best soldiers, a sniper. With limited time and one lone Skyranger to bring my troops into combat only one country was going to get the help they were looking for while the other two would just simply have to watch as the aliens abducted their helpless citizens. To make matters worse, most of my veteran soldiers were wounded and would be unable to participate, leaving nothing but a group of rookies to handle it.

Argentina had already seen some trouble over the past few weeks. As such their panic level was already dangerously high, any more abductions and the entire country might descend into chaos. However, I didn’t really need another sniper. I desperately needed cash from the U.S., but their panic level was relatively normal and could survive the attack with their sanity intact. China’s four scientists would always be helpful, like Argentina they too were in need of some form of intervention to stave off general panic, plus the mission seemed like something my rookies could handle. It was settled; I geared up my team and sent them to China. It was the pragmatic decision; China needed help but was also willing to offer me something valuable. As predicted the U.S. got a little annoyed but was still generally happy with me. Argentina on the other hand was pretty much in total anarchy after the attack. Sorry, you should have offered cash.

The Situation Room gives an overview of everyone who is disappointed in you.

X-Com: Enemy Unknown isn’t about making choices it’s about making difficult choices. I often found myself balancing not just my tactical needs, but the needs of every country around the globe as well. Each country has their own specific panic level and it determines their dedication to the X-Com project. If it gets too high they may pull their valuable monthly funding altogether. Sometimes it’s necessary to pass up a much needed resource from one country to help another that’s on the verge of collapse. It’s a delicate balance and too much attention in one area could leave you completely exposed in another.

All of the game’s various resources are in short supply; there’s never enough cash, infrastructure could always be better, and my soldiers spend almost equal amounts of time in the field or the infirmary. As such, the whole organization feels like it’s operating on a shoe-string budget, and it is to some extent. Even when performing well it never feels like there are enough resources to go around. I’ve already made the mistake of over extending into advanced weapons technology too early and losing because I didn’t have enough satellite coverage or my interceptors were too weak.

Dr. Killjoy recommending that I follow her research suggestions. I don’t care, I’m going with Heavy Lasers instead. 

Last week I gushed about the original X-Com mostly because I think its fun to take a trip down memory lane, but also because I knew it would help give me some perspective when playing the remake. While there are all sorts of differences between this one and the original, many of the core elements are very similar. There are still two very different, yet equally important games that have to be played well; the game’s turn-based combat missions and its global management system. Just like the original, successful combat missions don’t always translate into global victories and vice versa. Sometimes sending troops to difficult missions to get stomped is better than sending them to easy missions to dominate. It all depends on the needs of the countries around the globe.

This version of the game has a bit more personality than its fifteen year-old counterpart. There’s more plot than the original, with a handful of characters that help drive the story towards the goal of defeating the aliens. The head of the science team helps identify the research projects that are needed to advance the story, as does the head of engineering. Even the shadowy council of government agencies that provide X-Com’s funding is a bit more involved this time around. But the game’s focus is still on the gameplay and the individual soldiers that make up X-Com’s tactical combat unit.

Master of engineering and fatherly advice.

The original gave players the ability to rename their soldiers, a feature that helped give the highly technical game some much needed personal flair. Losing a highly decorated soldier named after yourself or one of your friends was much worse than losing some no named rookie, not just on a tactical level but on a personal one as well. While I figured this feature would also be part of the remake, I was surprised when I realized it was only a small part of a much large customization system.

Enemy Unknown doesn’t just offer players the chance to rename their troops it also includes a robust character customization screen usually reserved for open-world RPGs. There are voices, head, hair, faces, armor, and colors for just about everything. The game even generates GI Joe-like nicknames, which can also be changed, for each soldier once they become a sergeant. After a few missions my sniper, which I named after myself, wasn’t just D. Bast he was Longbow. He and the rest of my squad including Pitbull, Smash, and Angel spent the next few hours dealing death in their own customized fashion. As a rag-tag band of rookies I wasn’t too attached to them, but as a highly synergized combat unit they became heroes that I and the rest of the in-game world relied on.

Apparently I’m a Scottish sniper of death.

This is really what the Firaxis remake is all about; they’ve polished, refined, and exaggerated a bunch of the really great features that made the original so memorable while removing some of the more annoying and archaic ones. The combat moves a lot faster, and while I miss some of the tension that was in the original I definitely don’t miss hunting for the last few Sectoids that refuse to come out of hiding. There are a lot more research and infrastructure avenues to explore, forcing players to make decisions between what they want and what they need. Even the overall management of the global campaign has been renovated to keep players on their toes throughout the entire game; you never quite feel like you’re winning the conflict.

As a die-hard fan of the original I was skeptical about any of the changes made to the game I loved as a kid. It’s difficult to be objective when nostalgia is driving some of your opinions. On the outside I may not be happy about every single change they made from the original. Why is there only one Skyranger? Where the hell are my time-units? What kind of music is this? Despite all of this I can’t seem to put the game down. While my knee-jerk reaction is to dislike everything that’s different about the game, the more I play the less these differences seem to bother me. Every time I see one thing I don’t like I find three things I do. X-Com: Enemy Unknown is slowly earning my trust. Just like Longbow, Pitbull, Angel, and Smash, the game is paying its dues and earning my trust, one mission at a time.





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One response so far

  • Ceiynt

    When I’m not at work or sleeping, I’ve been playing this. I think it’s fantastic. It’s turn based strategy done right. It’s heart breaking to be slowly moving your squad forward, only to come across the aliens, you’re out of moves and they start flanking you, and losing half your squad. Or having to put down your own guy because he got zombiefied. This game is a 10/10 for me.

    I truly hope it is a commercial success and we get more. Except for the PSP, turn based strategy has been ignored.

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