Have You Played… XCOM: Enemy Unknown?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Well, ’tis the season and all that. What with XCOM 2 currently overheating a few million graphics cards across the world, it seems a fine time to think back upon Firaxis’ original attempt to reboot Julian Gollop’s classic strategy+everything game for a new generation. (And for an old generation. Primarily an old generation, maybe).

There is a very real chance I’ve played XCOM more than any game other than Quake III, World of Warcraft and City Of Heroes. Granted, part of that is chance and timing: previews, reviews and expansion packs, then doing the whole thing over again on iPad during paternity leave (baby in one hand, the lives of a dozen pretend soldiers in the other), but part of that is because I wanted to.

Why? That’s a question I’ve asked myself often – including during a recent spate of long nights with XCOM 2 – and never been entirely sure of the answer. Is it the Skinner box hook of all those random number generators, and of the climb up a tech tree which keeps on throwing rewards at me? I don’t think that can be overlooked, and similarly neither can the awareness that XCOM essentially loops the same compulsive experience over and over again. I think that’s the most meaningful difference between it and the olden X-COM, really: the original always felt like a frightening foray into the unknown, whereas XCOM is more of a puzzle-box. I have these pieces, where do I put them all and in which order?

It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. I can sense the deliberateness of the design, working hard to keep me in for one-more-mission, racking up those hours, hungering for more toys and powers. I worry, sometimes, that XCOM is the thinking man’s Diablo. That it’s hollow.

What saves me from those thoughts is the realisation that, while the commencement of almost every mission has me rolling my eyes at the interruption to whatever I was researching or building, once I’m there on the ground fighting the good fight I don’t think about anything else. Every mission, every time, feels critical, feels life or death, feels like it’s challenging me. (At least up until the very late-game, by which point I’m essentially fielding the Justice League International).

That’s why I kept on going back to the XCOM well. No matter what else is does well, no matter the ways in which it doesn’t quite honour its heritage, it does tension so, so well. What should I do? What can I do? Is there a way out of this?

There always is, you know.

And I think I’ll always feel fonder towards XCOM 1 than I will to 2, because despite the latter’s many improvements and/or changes it’s still “just” an iteration of what came before. It pulled off something that kept me coming back without ultimately hating myself for it (the reason I eventually bounce away from any MMO I spent serious time with). It’s something I always want more of without feeling that it’s unhealthy. And hell, I don’t even think about it as “X-COM”. They are true companions. That hyphen means something.

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  1. SuicideKing says:

    What with XCOM 2 currently overheating a few million graphics cards across the world

    That’s either a lot of cards with really poor cooling solutions, or a lot of them in cases with poor airflow, to be honest.

    • causticnl says:

      no thats not honest, its just you.

    • Wisq says:

      Well, laptop GPUs tend to be both of these, so there’s that. But unless we’re getting actual reports of GPUs frying, I’m guessing this was just a jab at the framerate issues and not a real statement — the GPU exerts the same amount of effort whether your FPS is struggling or not, and only gets a bit of a break once you hit an upper framerate limit, which some games don’t even have (or set ridiculously high).

      The real GPU heat-killers tend to actually be the games with tons of geometry but relatively simple graphics, e.g. many MMOs.

      • SuicideKing says:

        I don’t know, the only thing that’s ever heated my GPU to the point that it caused a driver kernel crash is FurMark, that too when I’ve increased voltages and overclocked beyond a certain point. That’s a “power virus” – but I suppose that supports what you’re saying anyway – lots of geometry and tessellation.

        • Wisq says:

          Yeah, my best impression from monitoring my own GPUs in the past is that massive geometry in a tight loop (high framerate) can really do the most heat “damage” (sometimes literal) to the card, but that using all the fancy GPU effects tends to slow things down without adding much extra heat, such that the overall heat impact is a lot lower.

          Worst temperatures I ever saw were in MMOs like Perfect World, where the graphics were simple and low on effects. Especially in the big towns with lots of characters, they’d tend to just “brute force” a ton of detail into the scene, rather than limiting what they render and making it look pretty.

          • Winstons says:

            Oh my god you nerds, please stop – it’s just a figure of speech from the writer.

          • jezcentral says:

            No way, non-nerd. This is fascinating stuff.

  2. FuriKuri says:

    As much as I enjoyed XCOM2, and I did enjoy it a lot, I think I’d recommend the original over it if asked. I’ll skip over the less objective facets (I didn’t like a lot of the art direction XCOM2 took RE alien designs) and simply state 2 was far more buggy than I’d consider acceptable. I mean the original was no saint in this regard, but 2 really pushes its luck…

    For all the love heaped upon it I’d really have expected a bit more criticism of these problems, and that’s not even counting the performance issues.

    • Xocrates says:

      Bugs can be fixed, and even today EU is not exactly bug free. And while I EU was less crash prone, I had more game breaking bugs on it.

      On regards of XCOM:EU vs XCOM 2, honestly I would recommend EU over 2 for no other reason that it’s a better introduction. 2 was clearly designed in the assumption that you were experienced on the first game, and can be off-putting to people inexperienced in the series (heck, it proved to be off-putting to many fans of EU).
      That said, 2 did solve nearly every problem of the first game and it’s overall a much better game.

      • FuriKuri says:

        Bugs can be fixed, and even today EU is not exactly bug free. And while I EU was less crash prone, I had more game breaking bugs on it.

        Well you’ve sort’ve contradicted yourself. Bugs can be fixed, indeed, but will they? On the strength of Firaxis’ lackluster job of fixing the first game (which you acknoweldged, hence the contradiction), coupled with the fact that 2 exhibits legacy bugs from the first game and many more besides I think it’s fair to assume it’s never going to be anywhere near as polished as it should’ve been.

        I experienced practically every game breaking bug I already did in the first game and many more besides. Of course with bugs it’s the luck of the draw but ‘penultimate mission of ironman and one of my three soldiers gets completely stuck’ should explain some of my frustration…

        Most of the bugs seem to stem from the utterly terrible UI, which, ok, it’s the same as in 1 (although stretched past breaking point, hence the legacy issues). At least I feel 1 had something of an excuse being cross platform and all but hearing 2 was going to be PC exclusive I must admit my top hope for it was the UI was getting a ground up rewrite…

        Again, great game, but shitty usability overall.

        • Xocrates says:

          “sort’ve” is not the same as saying that I did. My point is merely that basing your decision on bugs alone is kind of useless since a) the worst bugs are likely (but not guaranteed) to be fixed, and b) EU is/was as bad if not worse than 2 on that front.

          Though of course, with bugs the experiences can vary wildly.

          • FuriKuri says:

            Well, you’re merely fussing over my manner of speech which is a bit tedious. So I’ll say plainly you did contradict yourself. Stating one is better than the other because of an ungrounded assertion that it may be fixed in future whilst simultaneously criticising Firaxis’ lackluster track record of fixing things is the contradiction, unless you’ve precognitive abilities I’m not privy to. Keeping that in mind I fail to see how a statement of ‘currently the game is too buggy and consequently enjoyment is diminished’ is useless as a critique, since neither of us can give an accurate statement as to what it may be like in future.

            After all, there’s still time for them to go back and fix XCOM1.

          • Xocrates says:

            I didn’t say one was better than the other, I said they were both equally buggy so using that as the determining factor – particularly one that is likely to change – is useless or even misleading.

          • Xocrates says:

            Heck, I’ve even agreed with you and said I’d recommend EU over 2.

            The difference being that I don’t believe their relative buggyness to be a relevant factor.

            You had a worse experience in 2, I had worse in EU. They’re both buggy, and any given person may get different bugs. And right now 2 is more likely to be patched that EU (indeed, it received an Hotfix just today).

            So… you’re basing your recommendation on something that nearly everyone else will experience differently.

        • Booker says:

          “Well you’ve sort’ve contradicted yourself. Bugs can be fixed, indeed, but will they? ”

          Exactly, that’s what I’m thinking. They don’t really have a good track record when it comes to patching their games. Everyone is just hoping that XCOM 2 will get better patch support all of a sudden.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I think I have only encountered 1 bug every 3 or 4 hours, and usually ones that are ignorable?

  3. Michael Fogg says:

    To me XCMOM (and especially XCOM2) feels like the perfect digital toy soldier playset, they even look like action figures. As somebody who had a sizable collection of GI Joes it’s not hard to see why it’s so compelling in an ultimate interactive version.

  4. Wisq says:

    Personally, I’m liking XCOM 2 a lot more than 1, and although I’ve finished 1 and not 2 yet, I could see myself replaying 2 a lot more than 1.

    Part of that is that I was disappointed that XCOM 1 had streamlined everything to such a degree — at the time, I was really hoping for something more akin to the original. It felt like they added a lot of polish but gutted the core mechanics, and tied it very tightly to a story that didn’t have a lot of replay value once the surprises were gone.

    Another part of it is that XCOM 2 really feels like the point where the series stops trying to emulate X-COM and comes into its own. The guerrilla movement, the stealth mechanics, the variety of missions, the mission timers — not to mention the much more logical resource restrictions and tough mission choices because you’re a guerrilla operation, not a world-class defence organisation.

    I do still wish they would make the aliens operate on the same rules as the player, or include it as an option. That is: once they’re aware of you, have them move across the map from cover to cover the same way you do, with all aliens in the map converging on either your team’s last known position or the objective; let them set up overwatch traps the same as you; and, when either party discovers the other, ditch the “free move to cover” thing and just let them open fire from the cover they’re already in. I’d rather move into unknown territory and have a shot whiz over my head, versus accidentally uncover a “pod” with my last soldier and either massacre them or quite possibly lose that soldier based on whether I was spamming overwatch with the rest of the team.

    • JFS says:

      Both have their advantages. They are very different games, however, each with its unique atmosphere. For X-Com fans, I’d recommend XCOM 1, but for fans of modern warfare and action movies XCOM 2 might be more suitable.

    • Wisq says:

      I suppose I should add that yeah, maybe letting the aliens set up overwatch traps would be a bit harsh. Part of the reason the “constant overwatch” thing worked in the original X-COM was that the aliens basically moved around at random and didn’t really have a plan (but were individually quite powerful).

      Still, it bugs me that the “best” strategy is “let the aliens discover you on your turn” (because they don’t get to attack, you may get overwatch shots, and you have full moves to deal with them next turn) — getting spotted on the aliens’ turn should be an ambush in their favour, not yours.

      • Haxton Fale says:

        I think the ambush thing works out decently because when you spot aliens, it’s in their favour – had they ditched that mechanic, i.e. the game gave you the full element of surprise the moment you spot aliens, then perhaps your idea would have been more fair.

      • Mirqy says:

        Your suggestion would be ‘fair’ but it would be punishing as hell to the player. Maybe a mechanic like an escalating level of alarm would work?

        So: first encounter you have stealth, second encounters, they have full visual range and move to cover when they spot you – as the game is now. Then, third encounter, they have a chance to fire back when spotter. etc.

        That would give more of an incentive to skirt around hostiles altogether. Combine that with XP for missions not for kills, and you could really make stealth an interesting alternative to stealth-then-wholesale slaughter.

        • Wisq says:

          I was thinking that the main player advantage would come from the aliens operating on limited information — if you had an encounter in one location and then quickly relocated to another, the aliens would be busy searching that area, leaving you free to get around them towards the objective.

          Of course, the biggest issue here is knowing where you can safely relocate to, without encountering more aliens and alerting them to your new location — since, under the current system, if you can see them, they can see you. But you could always just return the squad to stealth mode if nobody can see them, and just say it’s because a small human resistance is good at stealth while the aliens are used to just stomping around in the open. It wouldn’t be quite as powerful as the initial stealth mode, because the aliens would be actively searching for you and more likely to flank and discover you. (Or you can just increase their sight range, but still allow you to spot them first if you move carefully.)

          Alternatively, rather than a “shared sight” system, they could use some sort of noise-based system — so if your main group (including e.g. a couple of grenadiers) was making a ton of noise while your rangers were off doing sword kills, the aliens on the map would tend to gravitate towards the big battle and leave the rangers mostly in peace. (This is in contrast to the current situation, where the rangers can remain in stealth mode and loop around to the objective, but are useless and exposed once they’re discovered, with no diversionary tactics possible at that point.)

          Anyway. I guess I just wish things were a bit more symmetrical. I’m mainly still just bothered by “sit almost completely still and spam overwatch” still being the dominant tactic — on the contrary, staying in one place (moving very slowly) should be a death sentence, as all the aliens would know where you are and should be tactically converging on you. Plus the fact that, aside from spotting you right away, every enemy group still acts like they’re on routine patrol, even once you’ve broken stealth and they’re supposedly on alert.

  5. Unsheep says:

    Played it and definitely enjoyed it, although not as much as the original XCom games and the somewhat similar UFO series.

    The main thing that really bothered me about Enemy Unknown was the recycling of combat maps for the side-missions. There was also nothing distinguishable about each map geographically speaking: a mission taking place in China looked exactly the same as a mission taking place in France, Canada and so on. Previous XCom games, as well as their modern day reincarnation Xenonauts, offered more diverse and adaptive maps.

  6. Trifling_Gnome says:

    While waiting for X-COM 2 to come down in price a bit I’m currently replaying Enemy Within with the long war mod. I saw plenty of people say that it breathes new life into the game, but boy, that doesn’t do it justice. Long War is definitive – I just can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone else who has to wait to get their hands on the sequel for whatever reason.

    • Ivan says:

      Not only that, but I already can’t wait to get my fill of XCOM2 and go back to LW. The difficulty is just more compelling in a non-frustrating way (I find that EU/EW classic is too frustrating, but LW seems reasonable to me on Normal with Friendly Skies enabled), and there’s a lot more meat on them bones.

      XCOM2 is too short; even the Legend length mostly just drags out the acquisition of goodies rather than making you play a bunch of missions with a bunch of different units.

  7. suibhne says:

    Ridiculously, I’ve yet to play the first (rebooted) one. I have the base game and Enemy Within. Should I start out with The Long War from the get-go, or is there some value in experiencing the vanilla base+DLC?

    • JFS says:

      I’d start out with the regular game, with or without DLC. It’s decent enough, and not easy either. Long War is for veterans.

    • Horg says:

      The base game is a decent tutorial for Long War, and you get to use all of its toys quite early on, while long war puts PSI, gene mods and Mec tech in the mid game.

    • Immobile Piper says:

      I’ve looked into it a bit and by most accounts it’s a long experience. Much longer than vanilla (expansion or no). That alone is keeping me away from it.

      I suppose it depends what you’re after. I enjoy reasonably short, self contained campaigns. In that regard XCOM EU/EW makes a solid show for itself. I can win or lose one in a week or two.

    • klops says:

      My suggestion would be to start with Vanilla+Enemy Within, since the DLC makes the game much more fun. Long War is too long for my tastes although I understand why there’s a huge group of people enjoying the mod and understand that you could be one of those.

      The game is quite repetitive so I also don’t see you playing a vanilla+dlc round first and then playing the _Long_ war. At least not without a long pause. Then again, many people have started a new campaign right after the first one so…

  8. Phantasma says:

    Loved Enemy Unknown, couldn’t really get along with Enemy Within. The cyborg and gene manipulation specs would have brought much needed variety mid- to lategame but were intoduced almost right at the start of the campaign, where resources are super tight and opportunity costs even higher (basically, build satellites or die). So the first few hours felt even more cramped than before.

    And then there were the Advent. The first encounter in a timeframe when Mutons are the most dangerous aliens around and suddenly you have to put up with a human faction that bests everything you and the alien invaders have to offer. Where did they get their equipment from while i, supposedly backed by the whole world and their economy, only get rookies with pea shooters and have to beg for every penny?

    I didn’t care for a possible head-canon explanation, it just felt like pacing and the diffculty curve were just thrown out of the window. Abandonded my camapaign mainly for other reasons but these two things made it hard to go back.

    Curiously a case of an expansion making me like a game less.
    So still a bit reluctant to jump into the sequel (besides the looming backlog of course).

    • klops says:

      Advent besting everything me and aliens had to offer? When I played EW, Advent missions were ridiculous since they were so easy compared to the alien missions. About the same level easy as late game bomb defusals with snakemen fighting against my supermechs.

      What difficulty level did you play?

      • Xocrates says:

        Small correction: The alien sympathizers in EW were called Exalt.

        And on Normal difficulty, I found the Exalt missions slightly harder than the regular missions because they tended to swarm you, including dropping in multiple dudes every other turn. Individually they are quite weak and generally their gear was at, or slightly bellow, my tech level.

  9. khamul says:

    I think mastery of a form needs to be admired, regardless of the form (pretty much). And I am awed by the mastery displayed by XCOM2.

    I find it difficult to be precise about what I am so impressed by… it just all flows together. The balance. The judgement. The pacing. The suitability of the art style. The tweaks to the experience curve for soldiers, so they start to reach Colonel just as the end mission comes in view (for me, at least). Tuning damage, so that you can mostly survive one mistake, but not two – as your soldiers start to become more valuable.

    All these decisions are interlinked, they all support and interact with one another, and they are all spot on.

    I’m sure the community (and Firaxis) will tune and tweak them with experience (just downloaded the ‘rebalanced hacking’ mod myself) but for a piece of work out the gate, I am very very impressed.

  10. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    It’s starting to feel like November again, where most of the content on RPS is focused on a single AAA game.

    I was hoping to see more words about Firewatch this week- RPS verdict, John’s promised thoughts on replayability, etc. And the HYP’s last week were awesomely obscure 1990’s weirdness, so it’s a shame to see it as yet more space for words about XCOM.

    I get that it’s a good game, great even, it just sucks when your favorite gaming site gets tunnel vision.

    • Joe Schmoe says:

      Oh that’s not quite fair to RPS, Gritz. Plenty of other content on the site. Sure, they’re riled up about XCOM 2, but who isn’t? Just go back and visit some old articles and wait for the frenzy to blow over. Won’t last long, I assure you. We live in a blessed age as gamers, don’t lose sight of that.

  11. Zekiel says:

    I enjoyed XCOM… for a while. Eventually I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again and didn’t really feel motivated to continue. I think its as much a problem with me as with the game – for instance if I hadn’t reloaded as much then I’d have spent longer getting a full squad of max-experience characters preserving that as a motivator).

    In the end this was the game – more than any other – that taught me that I really need a decent amount of story to keep me invested in a game. It doesn’t even need to be a particularly good one – it just needs to be enough to keep me wanting to find out what happens next. XCOM really doesn’t have much of a story to speak of, and as a result once the gameplay couldn’t hold my attention consistently, I didn’t have anything else to keep me going.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      I’m very much in the same boat. The mid-game felt like slow progress to the next interesting story bit.

      I tried when it first came out, and got bored at the point I did the Alien Base mission (what I thought was the first alien base, but turned out to be the only one).

      More recently I decided I should power through and finish it. It was quite good at the end, but I really couldn’t get enthused about it to the level you see with other people here. Haven’t played Enemy Within or the Long War mod, but honestly a longer campaign is the last thing I wanted from this game, it felt repetitive enough as it was towards the end.

      I’m enjoying the missions a bit more in XCOM2, and it’s holding my attention a lot more. It does feel very similar though, in a lot of ways, just a bit better and a little more varied.

  12. Premium User Badge

    DrollRemark says:

    I’m fairly certain it’s the only game I’ve ever bought three times, because:

    1) I didn’t have a good PC when I first came out, so I got it on Xbox 360.
    2) Enemy Within came out and I didn’t fancy paying full whack for the game again (it didn’t get bundled as DLC for the console), and by this time I finally had myself a PC to play it on.
    3) I saw it got ported to Android and hello, a chance to play XCOM on the go? Yes please.

    I mean, that should give you some idea just how much I’ve loved it. Despite the crushing linearity of the satellite rush Geoscape, and the repetition of the maps, and the limited selection of skills in the basic game, something new would happen in almost every battle. To play something that many times and still be thrust into new situations, and have to figure out how to deal with them, is a sign of a bloody good game.

  13. C0llic says:

    A great game hampered by a paper-thin strategic layer (build satellites or die), and an air game that was just build x number of planes busy work. Even taking that into account, the tactical battles and threat escalation was brilliant and it still gave me plenty of enjoyment.

    XCOM 2 really has fixed that major failing quite well. It still has some fairly non negotiable paths through the campaign in terms of build choices early on, but theres actually some variety and spice that allows for differences and deviations this time around.

  14. Deakul says:

    XCOM is so incredibly overrated, I feel like you have little to no real control to how a battle unfolds.

    You’re at the mercy of an extremely cruel RNG god.

    • Wisq says:

      Nahh, it’s basically just a fancy Blood Bowl. Which is to say: You never know what the dice will roll, but you generally know how likely they are to roll in your favour. Your job is simple: You have to manage the risk.

      If you’re doing overwatch-spam and slowly creeping your way forward, you’re the Dwarves. Stalwart, hard to displace, but not getting anywhere particularly fast.

      If you’re on the clock and rushing to get to the objective, then you’re the team that needs to make a touchdown before the halftime / game-end buzzer. More risks because you have to. If they work, you’ll win. If they don’t work … well, you were screwed anyway.

      In both cases, sometimes you’ll make the safest play and the dice will say “no, sorry, you’re dead”. Sometimes you’ll make the craziest, most “hail mary” play, and the dice will laugh along with you. A lot of the time, it’ll feel like the dice are cheating, because our brains aren’t good at judging randomness.

      But it’s fair, and you just have to learn to understand that even a 90%+ chance to hit is nowhere near a sure thing, nor are you particularly safe even if the enemy has a 90%+ chance to miss. Give your soldiers the best possible chance to survive — and when they die anyway: Roll with it, accept the losses (or load a savegame, your call), and learn to do better where you can.

    • PikaBot says:

      This is because you are playing the game poorly and not recognizing the ways in which you can control its outcome. If you equip and control your soldiers properly, there is always a way out.

  15. Kala says:

    “There is a very real chance I’ve played XCOM more than any game other than Quake III, World of Warcraft and City Of Heroes.”

    According to Steam I’ve played X-Com: UFO Defense for 80 hours and XCOM: Enemy Unknown for 95 hours (Long War giving it a new lease of life)
    So my affections are pretty split, really :)

    (and 72 hours on Xenonauts)

    Though neither of those come near to approaching the amount of hours spunked on Skyrim >.<

  16. Joe Schmoe says:

    I utterly love XCOM. Next to TIE Fighter, it’s possibly my favorite game, and as a franchise (having played the Gollop games back in the day) the one that’s taken up the most hours of my somewhat illustrious gaming career. After two full campaigns on original, and then another campaign on Long War, Steam says I have spent (invested?) 192 hours on that game.

    All that being said, I am hesitant about XCOM 2. It looks fantastic – conceptually, graphically, from a gameplay perspective even. The Internet at large has deemed it a massive step forward. But then it has also decried its apparent technical immaturity.

    So for my part, the only sensible thing to do is to wait. In as much as it might demand tremendous willpower, I won’t be buying XCOM 2 until there’s a -XX% green sign next to it on Steam. Hopefully by then, all the bugs will be worked out.

    Until that time, I wish my comrades-in-arms Skyrangerloads of patience.