XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I have never played the original XCOM game (nee UFO: Enemy Unknown), back in the mid 90s. The famous turn-based-squad Microprose game obviously took the gaming world by surprise and people have been talking now for ages to recreate the experience of XCOM. Open-source? Check. Check. Check. What can you say?

So Firaxis (Of Civ fame), just released their interpretation of the famous XCOM game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and too much critical acclaim, with a current average rating of 89. Many reviewers praise the difficulty of the game, paired with high levels or re-playability. And to be honest, 20 hours in, it is good, with some side remarks.

First of all, the game is using the Unreal engine and thru the first gameplay, I think the game scales fairly well. I’m running it on a high-end computer, but I think I would have been able to play it on my older P7350 machine. Secondly, the game is unmistakenly hard and unpredictable at times, even on the Normal level. The premise is this: you lead and train a team of combat personnel in a varying (but fixed amount) of missions. Successful missions in regions will lower ‘panic rates’. If panic rates are going through the roof, countries can and will withdraw support for your XCOM organization. What makes things worse is that some missions (Abduction missions, typically) will require you to make decisions WHICH region is going to be the focus of attention. I’ve not even talked yet about the tech-tree. Sadly, the tech-tree is not really dynamic and neither are the maps.

Here is where the problems start with XCOM: The tech-tree and the non-dynamic maps. The tech-tree sort of give you options to focus on: it’s far from indepth and generally speaking, if you keep your focus on researching armor, you should be able to keep up with the scaling of the game’s AI (yes, it will get harder gradually). Secondly, the maps don’t seem to be random enough for me. There may be like 50 or so unique maps, and sure, aliens look like they’re placed randomly on the map, but after 10 or so missions, the maps look the same.

That doesn’t mean it’s no fun: listen, this is a turn-based strategy game with the focus on (tadaa) strategy. Every mission is a careful exercise of slowly moving your forces tile by tile, turn by turn and attack by attack. Early in-game, you learn fast to adopt to the strategy of the AI: move your troops out of harm’s way because, that’s what the AI does as well. I don’t really care about how Firaxis has set up the financial part (yep, you need money to keep your organization running) nor do I care about the ‘scanning’ and ‘flight combat’ portions of the game. Both remind me strongly of the Mass Effect approach: they add no real value to the game.

So, to summarize, XCOM can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. During the 20+ missions I played, it’s extremely exciting to finish a mission without any casualties. However, more often you lose extremely valuable team members. That’s just another reason to do better do the next time. Highly recommended. See images underneath.

10/21/2012: I finished the game in Normal difficulty mode. It’s pretty much an unforgiven game, that requires you to use every weapon and defensive tool in your arsenal (reddit on difficulty of the game). The very last battle, the Temple ship assault, I managed to finish by using three psi-enabled soldiers. Tip: smoke grenades and rush your assault team as close as you can to the Uber Ethereal. If you can, mind control one of the Mutants as that will distract one Ethereal (there are two of them). Let your sniper keep the other Mutant at bay. Do not (NOT) kludge together.

10/12/2012: Only 14.5% of Steam players beat the game on any difficulty. That is not a lot.

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