By Alec Meer on September 17th, 2012 at 2:15 pm.
For some reason, I’m away whenever the chance to play Firaxis’ XCOM remake arises. Last week, any inexplicable wailing noises anyone might have heard in the region of Marseille can now be ascribed to my grief upon discovering an email containing XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview code then realising my PC was in another country. So it was left to the able hands and brain of Adam, then later Jim also, to tell you all about this turn-based reimagining. I might be a Johnny Come Lately here, but I am undeterred, having spent sunrise til sunset playing the code yesterday, and now wish to share with you those aspects of XCOM that have most delighted me. For they have truly delighted me: this is the tense, tactical time-sink I’d hoped it would be. Quibbles I might have, one of which you can also read below, but I’m so relieved, and so pleased: this is X-COM but not slavishly so, capturing the key beats and the essential tension while also nosing at new terrain.
5 OF THE GOOD
1. Losing a soldier is like being thumped in the knackers with a sledgehammer
Perhaps the strangest, greatest alchemy in the original X-COM was just how attached one became to one’s mute, poorly-coiffured men and women of the human resistance. Their randomly-generated names, their slowly emerging skills and specialisations and, most of all, those sickening then deliriously happy moments where they avoided death by nothing short of a miracle. Your soldiers were a living document of your successes in the game, so to have them cruelly snatched away from you was to say “no, you do not deserve your sense of triumph. You have failed. But you must continue.”
And as it was in X-COM, so it is XCOM. Perhaps even more, due to squad sizes being smaller (starting at 4, and upgradable fairly quickly to 6 – which although it sounds small is in balance with the enemy count, in that you feel up satisfyingly up against it rather than simply short-handed), faces being customisable and rank bringing with it a choice of upgrades rather than auto-boosted stats. When a Major or a Lieutenant bites it, it’s heartbreaking. There goes not just an efficient soldier, but some of the bedrock of your frontline. Subsequent missions will be more difficult without him or her, as rookies have no abilities in addition to less health and accuracy. That’s the practical hurt. The emotional hurt is that someone who’s ranked up has become familiar, and most likely you’ve customised them in name and appearance, so they have an identity, a role. They’re friends.
As soon as a soldier reaches Sergeant, they’re given a nickname – Long Shot, Shield, Saviour, something denoting their class – but I’ve been changing them to the names of Transformers, and then tweaking their haircuts and colours to match the appearance of the Autobot whose title they take. Roadbuster, a Heavy, has been with me since the first mission, and is my nominal leader. The team would probably fall apart without Veteran Support medic Ratchet. Then again, they held together after the shocking deaths of Wheeljack and Perceptor. When Major Ian ‘Snarl’ Jones got taken out, with over 20 kills under his belt, I had to turn the game off and walk away, not from rage but to stop myself loading an earlier savegame. That’s not the done thing. When the game auto-named a sniper Omega, I was delighted – until she was felled by a Muton’s grenade in the very next mission.
No, there isn’t an Optimus, but there is an up and coming Assault soldier named Hot Rod, who I might just rename again to Rodimus if they can go the distance to Colonel. The odds are very much against that happening.
2. The ‘glamcam’ works
I’ve been quietly sneering at XCOM’s sorta-killcam since first seeing it in action around a year ago, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it a welcome addition to the game after all – adding to the tension, rather than simply the spectacle. Every single shot matters in XCOM, matters so much my chest tightens each time, and what the glamcam does is increase the anxiety rather than interrupt it. Once in a while (honestly, not too often), the view will switch to your soldier’s shoulder, they’ll limber up, take aim and… oh, it’s agonising, it’s like that pause before the presenter in a reality TV show reveals who’s being kicked out this week. It looks good too, a chance to admire your faithful sacrificial lambs close up, to see them as the expert fighters they are rather than the pawns you usually treat them as. That said, I have gotten perhaps a bit too good at recognising which animations denote success or failure as they begin, which saps some of the tension – but then I’m still never 100% sure until the dust has settled.
3. Snakemen Reborn
Just a little thing that made me smile, this. I had thought the Thin Men aliens were a fairly pointless new addition intended to make X-COM’s grab-bag of foes more sci-fi traditional to casual observers, but what I didn’t realise until I played XCOM was that they are in fact the original’s Snakemen, redesigned. Behind their glasses are reptilian eyes, and their skinny, towering stature is thanks to their dramatically flexible, serpentine spine – allowing them to backflip and skitter in a more snakelike way than X-COM’s dumb meatwalls ever did. And they spit poison, just for some venomous icing on the cake. It’s the kind of nod to the original I get a lot out of – it rings fond bells for me, but without being contrived or confusing those who don’t know 90s strategy games.
The thing about X-COM is that no-one ever told you what to do. You figured it out yourself, you screwed up all by yourself, and you discovered the game’s secrets and strategies organically. Things are different this around, but effectively so. In XCOM, your lead Scientist and Engineer will chat to you and offer suggestions as to what to research or build next – but only in terms of furthering the in-game plot, if you’re feeling ready to do that, rather than being didactic about the most effective strategy. That side of things is entirely up to you – if you want to prioritise new armour over new weapons, or new satellites over new Interceptor cannons, that’s your call, and it’s on your head alone. If you want to further investigate the source and secrets of the alien invasion then, well, let these guys suggest what should be your priority. These chatty folk are a leaf out of the traditional Firaxis book, slightly reminiscent of Civ’s Advisors, but the reason I like them is not their advice – it’s their personalities.
The superficially nervy Euro-lady heading up the research division has a barely-concealed sinister streak, clearly relishing shoving sharp things into aliens’ orifices just a little too much, while the engineering boss refreshingly isn’t a Scotty brash, brawny loudmouth – he’s a quiet, worried soul agonising about what all this militarisation might lead to even as he gets on with doing his job. Lest this sound interfering, rest assured they are your minions. They do what they’re told without question, and they don’t point any fingers at you for your decisions. They add context to what you’re doing and help usher the gentle narrative along with a more human touch than the traditional X-COM screens o’ research text did.
5. Devastation, and the perils thereof
Stuff gets trashed, as stuff should get trashed in an proper X-COM title, but it’s not all fun and explodey games. Walls are demolished, but that means you can be seen as well as see. Cars explode a turn after taking damage, so for God’s sakes don’t have one of your guys using it as cover while it’s on fire (but do use one to cause double-damage if an alien’s near it). Grenades and rockets might get rid of Sectoids and Thin Men in one fell swoop, but they’ll take out any nearby cover too, thus potentially creating a terrifying open patch of ground that you might need to run across later, leaving yourself exposed to enemy fire. Then there’s the matter of money. No-one penalises you for blowing stuff up, but the more alien tech is shattered into tiny, red-hot pieces, the less you can take home to sell and/or research. As a result, the best commanders strive for finesse rather than brute force. A Heavy’s rocket launcher or that plasma grenade your rookie’s carrying might win the battle, but clean kills and stuns (oh God, the stuns: so stressful, so terrifying to achieve) will provide the resources you need to win the war. Explosives are the last resort of a desperate (wo)man. Trouble is, in XCOM you are a desperate (wo)man for every last, anxious second of the game.
AND 1 OF THE MAYBE NOT QUITE SO GOOD
The base isn’t quite working for me, at least not after around 10 hours with the game. Research, engineering and soldier management is fine: present and correct, amped up a little, more personality if perhaps less complexity, but I’m not connecting with/caring about my actual physical HQ all that much. While the ant colony, cross-section view looks lively upon initial viewings, when the time comes to do things with it it comes across as fairly pre-fab rather than a reflection of my own strategic incompetence, and due to its multi-screen, hard-to-distinguish sprawl, browsing it ultimately becomes just a matter of clicking on the Research/Engineering/Missions/Barracks tabs along the very top of the base screen rather than using the other 95% of the screen. Base expansion is a weirdly flat matter of clicking on 2D tiles in an additional pop-up window, with no great sense of construction or growth – you click a square, the square changes, you wait ages for construction to finish then you can go click some more squares. It feels like there are about three different interfaces competing with each other, at the expense of being able to sit back and admire what you’ve made.
Still, perhaps it’s ultimately academic – any and all actions on the base boil down to the masterplan, the steady improvement of military might, and that’s very much in attendance. At any one time I’ve got three or four irons in the fire, meaningful steps forward in terms of arming and protecting my soldiers, understanding my foes and shoring up/winning back the support of the countries I protect.
Short answer? Can’t wait for the finished game – and I fully expect to keep on playing this preview code, which cuts off at a certain point in the plot-related research, right up until it arrives. I am a very happy boy indeed.