XCOM is a wonderful revival of turn-based unit combat and a welcomed addition to the console games arsenal.

User Rating: 8.5 | XCOM: Enemy Unknown PS3
I had played a download of the original XCOM years after it was already fading from other people's hard drives. Being a student of Lords of the Realm and Total War, I had an appreciation for turn-based tactics but not on a squad management level. I recall thinking how difficult the game was and promptly went back to another game in frustration. Years later, Firaxis releases XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I still stink at TBS combat, I'm still frustrated, but hours later I can NOT stop playing.

I purchased XCOM for PS3 instead of installing it on my new PC. In a genre of game systems that is typically devoid of strategy gaming, XCOM definitely has won a place on consoles. My friends playing it on Xbox 360 are raving as well. There's just something about leaning back on the couch comfortably and moving your troops rather than having to sit at a keyboard. XCOM's slower pace definitely calls for a more relaxed mindset and calmer decision making, and it also calls for a longer attention span and deeper planning, something truly alien to the console crowd.

XCOM is divided into two parts of gameplay: resource management and combat. There is no mining for gold or chopping trees (thank goodness) but how well you take care of members of a council of nations via satellites and crisis response determines how much cash you get for the next month. Early in the game, cash flow is very meager and you have to weigh your immediate needs against your long term plans before going completely broke. Technologies are researched, satellites and other global defense measures are planned, new equipment is built and your troops are trained and hired all on a budget that would make a transient complain. For saving the planet from destruction, the council sure is stingy. The game pauses as you browse your research options and dig new areas to expand your home base, then fast forwards as you wait for the next encounter or event. When a UFO is shot down or the council sends you on a mission, the game changes entirely.

While the structure of combat gameplay itself isn't overly complex, its depth is found in how well you wish to play. If you want to bring all of the troops back alive, salvage as much alien technology as you can and maybe bring in some prisoners, the strategy calls for much care and finesse. If there is a desire to blow up everything in sight and be complacent about casualties, an entirely different game emerges. The latter could lead to a much more difficult encounter with the enemy on the battle maps, however, as the AI flanks, suppresses, charges, and pulls out unconventional weapons to defeat your squad. Rookies are aggravatingly blind and fragile, and leveling up a soldier to where he can take more damage and actually hit something is a meticulous and frustrating process. About halfway up their promotion tree, however, something changes, and suddenly your troops are plugging aliens from halfway across the map and effortlessly kidnapping an alien for a taste of their own medicine. I never got tired of watching my fully developed sniper land critical reflex shots on moving enemy targets as if she were omniscient. Managing cover, high ground, fire arc, and calculating risk leads to beautiful sequences of watching alien forces charge your platoon, only to be obliterated by the end of their turn. Support troops can lay down suppressive fire and heal the wounded, while heavy troops soak damage, suppress, and fire rockets that shake the game map. The technologies researched for better armor and weapons lead to a near unstoppable force with plasma energy rifles, thick plating, and even psychic attacks by the end of the game. The combat was fun, challenging, and never boring. I've read a complaint about repeating maps, but in a large number of encounters in a completed game, I only recognized the convenience store and train station a couple of times. Forests, city blocks, alien interiors, there are plenty of maps with rotating obstacles and varying enemies on them to keep the repetition low. Even when holding out for one last research accomplishment before heading to the final mission, I never rolled my eyes at one more chance to blow E.T. back into space.

The only issue I had with the game's combat system is the size of the maps. Enemy units get a free turn when they first spot you, regardless of whether you're moving your troop or the AI is moving theirs. They immediately get to cover or flank you and have the initiative in almost all encounters. When you combine this with the small size of even the largest map (even the big ship interiors), flanking successfully is almost impossible. As you send a troop wide to the left or right to strafe around an entrenched alien, chances are said troop will run into said alien's buddies. Now your soldier is by himself and stuck between two or more enemies, at least one of which gets a free move. This didn't happen all the time and in areas where I'd already scouted about and had decent cover to manipulate, flanking worked beautifully, but when stepping into the fog of war for an advantage over a single combatant, things typically went sour quickly. A remedy to this is height advantage. I hooked a skeleton suit with grapple (and later a flying archangel suit) on my sniper and sent her up high, and she was nailing 100% critical shots on anything that even thought it had good cover. Again, it's not overly complicated, but the game does require you to stop and think, and to me that makes it a darn good game.

That said, there is a reason XCOM doesn't clear the 9.0 rating with a lot of players. For as fun and addictive as it is, this is not a $60 game by any reach of the imagination. The graphics are simple, very simple, as in over 5 years ago simple. The game boasts the Unreal engine when loading the opening menu and I can only ask "why?". The camera is consistently pulled out with no zoom unless a particular action is taking place or during a cut scene, and the objects and people are covered in a basic color palette with limited detail, shading and texturing. Explosions, water, and gunfire effects are very plain. I almost feel they could have released this game on a touchpad app and it would play just fine. Despite how basic the graphics are, however, PlayStation had a hard time pushing the engine along in the combat maps. Screen tearing and stuttering were a constant, and in the very final battle of the game, it completely crashed and I had to reboot my entire system, a huge black mark on the game's performance. This would all be forgiven easily if the game was released at the $30 range.

Despite some overall shortcomings, XCOM is videogame entertainment in one of the simplest and finest forms. Whether you play for a few minutes or a few hours, on the easier or (incomprehensible) "Impossible" settings, you'll leave the game with a smile. Some new maps and missions were announced for December, and I hope this is just the beginning for XCOM as well as strategy gaming on consoles.

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