Thursday, November 29, 2012

Games Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. We all have great memories of things that we consider formative experiences; games we have played, books we have read or films we watched, that were the first time we felt a certain way, or saw a certain thing done, that memory remains so strong, so positive, that anything too similar always fails in comparison, regardless of it's own merits. You can never see that Star Destroyer slam overhead for the first time again and try as you might you can never quite recapture that feeling. For me, as a long-time gamer, UFO: Enemy Unknown is one of those games that sits in my memory, unassailable. Intellectually I can probably talk about its flaws, but emotionally it is one of the greatest games I ever played, one of the games that talked to me about what games could be. And its time has passed, turn-based tactics is dead, and we will never see its like again. 

Whats that you say? XCOM: Enemy Unknown? A modern remake? Turn Based? WHAT? 

Its all been going a bit too well as the team approach the downed UFO. The last two missions - a Supply ship caught on the ground, and a Terror Mission in Beijing - has been cleared without a casualty, and this craft is smashed up from being knocked from the sky by one of our interceptors. They have cleared out the exterior easily, no real opposition. Two men are sweeping around the side towards the shattered hull breach and the rest of the team are at the front door, ready to go in. We open the door. No contact. The team takes positions, watching for alien movement. 

And they move - two Mutons out of a side door. My Heavy opens up with his Gatling Laser to little effect other than scoring the walls inside the UFO. The first Muton returns fire, missing, but his Plasma Rifle destroys the cover the Heavy is leaned up against. Uh-Oh. The second Muton fires and hits him, dropping him "bleeding out", 3 turns to death. Not too bad though. My team rookie moves into the room, taking up a firing position and ineffectually pot-shotting at the Mutons. One of my Support classes runs over to the Heavy and revives him - the first time I've used the ability and I learn quickly that this leaves the Heavy standing there, not moving. My sniper can't get a shot at the Mutons, so has to move. 

Aliens turn. Inevitably, they gun down the Heavy again, killing him outright. The Rookie starts to panic, so I can't order him around till he calms down. The first Sectoid Commander I've seen in the game calmly walks out from behind the Mutons and mind-controls the Support. I'm now swearing at the screen. In my turn I can't do much. The sniper still can't get a damn shot and has to move again. The flank team is now running full tilt around the ship to try and get in and help. Aliens turn again. The now mind controlled Support calmly walks up to the panicked Rookie and puts a bullet in his brain. It's all gone horribly wrong, horribly quickly. 

Thats the game I remember. 

XCOM is exactly what it claims to be - UFO, updated for the modern age. Its slicker, faster, and overall a less complex game, but carries with it a keen focus on what made the original a great experience, a nerve-shredding sense that you walk a knife edge between triumph and disaster, a sense that every shot counts, and ever choice made is meaningful. You see, Aliens are invading the Earth, and only you can stop them. You, and your underground base, Skyranger full of squaddies, and whatever resources you can scrape together and put out into the field with them. 

From your base you can build labs, workshops, satellite control centres and the like, which lets you increase your coverage of the world, detect more threats, and ultimately keep countries from falling to Alien terror and stop funding you. Lost countries means less cash, which means less guns, interceptors and research. Completed Missions get your research options, looted weapons and alien artifacts, and raw resources to turn into more guns and interceptors. At every turn I felt pushed for everything; time, money, manpower. New aliens, new missions, new problems pop up pseudo randomly, as events continue without waiting for you to be ready. 

And at the heart of it is the tactical missions. Turn-based, squad tactics, scoot-and-shoot gameplay of the type we haven't seen for a long time. It's more accessible than UFOs, to be honest, with smaller (but more crafted) maps, a great cover mechanic, and a vastly reduced squad size compensated for by a neat class system that grants special powers to your men as they level up. It's gripping, and occasionally frustrating, but really does recreate the feel of the original, and in the modern gaming landscape feels distinctive and interesting. 

Overall its a great mix of homage to the original, and brilliant rebuild of that concept. There are dozens of little nods in the names of craft and in-game achievements  and the "Gollop Chamber", named after the original games creators. But it's also its own creature, unafraid to ditch concepts that Firaxis didn't like, and add in new aliens, new environments and new mechanics. It's actually an incredibly brave work, to not only take on a brand with such a revered memory, but also just to make a game in a genre that mainstream games publishers seem to have forgotten existed. 

Not only is it a great game, its also been a commercial success, and it is to be hoped that the industry takes notice, rather than continue the drive to turn old IPs into glossy first person shooters whether they warrent that or not. So, if you are a fan of the original or not, XCOM is a great game, and well worth the time you put into it.