After finishing up Spec Ops: The Line, I saw the opportunity to hunt down another popular game I’d missed this past year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Again, it was a game getting a lot of praise from a lot of sources, and if I’d liked The Line so much with similar suggestions, perhaps I’d feel the same about this next title.
I hadn’t played past XCOM games, so when I kept asking people what the game was about, they would always say, “Oh, it’s an RTS!”
“Great!” I thought. I love Real Time Strategy games, and have been playing ones like Starcraft, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires for years. Hell, I even liked Halo Wars to some degree. I fired up XCOM to find out I was misinformed.
People seem to think that “RTS” is a term that encompasses all strategy games, but that’s not the case. The “real time” part of that phrase is rather important, as it implies that all actions happen dynamically. In short, there are no turns. But there are in XCOM.
Chess, with guns!
Rather, XCOM would be classified as a “turn-based tactical strategy game,” a relatively uncommon style that I don’t believe has its own acronym. Undeterred, I pressed on to see if I could adapt.
The storyline is relatively simplistic, considering all the lore that goes into a game like Starcraft. Aliens have invaded Earth, you are in charge of a response force (XCOM) made up of the world’s nations, and you are tasked with fighting and studying the aliens as they attack around the world.
Gameplay is balance between actual missions and the behind the scenes preparing for the missions. In your off-time, you’re given access to the XCOM command base where you are tasked with many, many responsibilities. You research upgrades and study aliens in a laboratory, and then task engineering with actually building the new technology. You recruit new soldiers and equip the ones you do have. You launch satellites to monitor alien attacks around the globe, and build fighter jets to shoot down UFOs you may find there.
Missions are different, and make up the core of the game play. You’re given a landscape filled with cover, be it debris, park benches, cars, buildings and so on. You move your way through the level with your squad of soldiers, controlling each individually. Countering you are alien forces who move toward you from the opposite direction.
Probably not the best idea to take shelter in a gas station while aliens are shooting at you.
Each turn you have to set up your forces in a way that you’re best able to fire upon your foes without exposing yourself too much. As your soldiers get kills and level up, they become specialized with unique abilities. A sniper can perform a long range headshot. A heavy can shoot a rocket launcher. A commando can sprint and fire in the same turn. And so on.
It becomes a sort of game of chess as you move around the board. The aliens don’t put up much of a fight at first, but eventually get stronger and stronger to the point where they’re quite terrifying. And on these missions, if your soldier dies, they’re dead, and that’s that. It doesn’t matter if they’re a Colonel that you’ve taken on 10 missions who has 30 kills or a noob fresh out of training. One wrong round of positioning, and they can be toast.
The problem with this is that it often feels like you need to restart a level if one of your prized soldiers dies. This never happens at first, but occurs with alarming frequency in later missions. It never feels worth it to sacrifice a soldier you’ve invested so much time in building up, so you restart and try again.
You often have to do this because sometimes, there’s no way to anticipate where enemies are going to come from on your first playthrough of a mission. You might carefully set up a flank of a trio of little green men, then suddenly two uber badass aliens come out of nowhere from the other side and blast your team to shreds. Additionally, with the inclusion of maddening “hit percentages” that can’t be avoided in “true” strategy games like these, I can have my low health commando miss a target directly in front of her despite a 90% chance to hit with her shotgun, and then have her butchered the next turn as a result, forcing me to reload the whole mission because she’s the most valuable member of my squad. For a strategy game, it often doesn’t feel very strategic at all.
I could never leave you behind Karl!
The same goes for the off-mission fiddling with your base and resources. Perhaps I was dumb, but I didn’t quite understand what was a priority when upgrading things. I found myself constantly low on money despite the game constantly telling me I should be building a bunch of stuff I couldn’t afford. Completing missions only gives you cash about a third of the time. You can sell things you find during missions like weapon fragments and alien corpses, but you never know when your next research project is going to require whatever you’d just sold.
Time is another factor in the game that makes it seem painfully slow. Research of anything takes days, and you only get paid once a month, which takes forever. Soldiers you use in battle have to recover from injury, so you can’t use them in the next one or even two or three missions sometimes. This then presents circumstances like one I encountered shortly before I threw in the towel for the game.
I’d just completed a tough mission where all my high level soldiers sustained some form of injury, and the mission before had left a number of recruits killed. Unfortunately, as I waited for my soldiers to heal by fastforwarding time, an alien invasion happened in France. The subsequent mission was rated “very difficult,” yet because of my injured squad, I only had three rookies available to fight (out of five open spots). I thought, “oh, I’ll hire some more soldiers,” but then I discovered that action took three days by itself. And even if I had them, I couldn’t complete the mission without any of my high level operatives who were still a week away from full health. I either had to attempt the mission with a lackluster squad, which was impossible, I discovered, or fast forward time and hope my guys healed . Unfortunately, fast-forwarding time again caused me to auto-fail the mission, and France left the council as they were overrun. There was literally nothing I could do in order to effectively take on that mission, had I not known it was coming in advance.
“I feel like we should probably bring two more guys.” “They’re dead.”
This game just isn’t for me. Turn based combat games (outside of Pokemon) really never have been my cup of tea. I can understand why someone might like the “board game appeal” of a title like this, but I found it maddeningly slow during missions, compounded by an annoying upgrade system that managed to be even slower when you weren’t fighting. And the story? What story? It’s more or less Mars Attacks minus anything at all that resembles humor.
XCOM might very well be a brilliant game I’m just too dense to get, but it wore my patience thin and I didn’t want to invest any more than a few months of game time and a dozen-odd in-game missions. I don’t judge anyone who did enjoy it, but I couldn’t force myself to have fun while playing, despite all the high praise surrounding it.
See our own Dave Bast’s post for a bit of a different opinion.