Thursday, 8 November 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

“This alien invasion can only be stopped by clever planning, tactical deployment and efficient ferocity. XCOM: Enemy Unknown forces you to care about your soldiers and the cause, making this more than just a strategy game.”

When the Earth is at a standoff with alien forces, it is up to you and the XCOM initiative to protect the planet we inhabit and avoid extraterrestrial takeover. Indeed this tactical turn-based role-play experience is unlike any other conventional game we see on the market today – rather this is a challenging, engaging and highly engrossing experience that brings about a real emotional connection and a heightened sense satisfaction as you push back the invaders that try to vanquish the human race.

Fans of retro gaming will be aware of the original X-COM: UFO Defense but make no mistake, this is not a mere remake of a classic. Fireaxis have gone boldly forward with their franchise and in some respects, this advancement has paid off. Other additions on the other hand, prove to be frustrating and inconsistent with the game’s seemingly high technical standards.

You will find that gameplay is split into two sections: managing the XCOM initiative and its base while also attacking on the front lines. You will be required to choose a location and set up a base of operations. In this hub players will have a large variety of abilities at their disposal where they can exercise the strategy elements of the game. This underground HQ that is viewed from a cross-section like an ant farm, gives the player all he needs to manage construction of future research projects using resources recovered from missions and funding. The XCOM project works by countries funding your work if you succeed and providing less or leaving entirely if you fail. This is one of those brilliant games where losing is part of the whole experience and believe me, there will be times where you will be torn apart, especially on the harder difficulties. Succeed however, and these countries will continue supporting your research, which will in turn provide more powerful weapons and secret technology.

Your headquarters is also where you manage your global defensive network. The Geoscape (a holographic representation of planet Earth) gives you an indication of where the threats are and it’s up to you to quickly answer any distress calls to avoid panic and keep countries on your side.

How do you avoid global panic? By eliminating the alien threat of course! XCOM’s turned-based gameplay uses an isometric 3D perspective with the camera on top of the action. You control a squad of between four and six human soldiers or robotic allies as you take down the hostile threat while completing any mission objectives at hand. The classic RTS fog of war keeps the various maps and the enemies hidden until you enter their proximity. What makes XCOM so brilliant is the units you control aren’t just arbitrary grunts, rather you keep your soldiers and watch them progress, rank up and become leaders in your war effort. Your soldiers are customizable in a variety of different ways ranging from naming them to upgrading their armor, weapons and special abilities called Psionic powers. It is in your best interest to keep your veteran soldiers alive to aid the effort but expect it to be a traumatic ordeal when inevitably one of your closest allies falls in combat.

The combat itself is well implemented. Upon finding enemies you choose your unit and click on an enemy to initiate an attack. The result is an impressive cut-scene that shows your soldier taking the shot and hopefully, finishing the foe. The environment, skill of the soldier and weapon accuracy all plays a role in keeping the combat varied in the form of an accuracy percentage. You are always given a percentage chance of hitting the target and it’s possible to miss if you’re too far away and decided to take a risky shot. However this balances out when you get a fortunate critical hit that sways the battle drastically in your favour.

The very real prospect of losing incredibly useful soldiers adds a heightened sense of tension and seriousness to XCOM, something that few games replicate. As a result you will find each and every move you make is tactical, is supporting your strongest characters and most of all, the best decision you think you could have made at the time. XCOM punishes players who act without thinking and sometimes puts you in situations where sacrifices have to be made, but it’s up to you as a leader to make big calls in big situations.
If all of this is too much to handle, then you can move away from the core single-player experience and face human opposition online in 1-on-1 battles. Players are given an identical value of resources to spend on units, assemble a tactic that you may have never even thought of during the single player and have at it. Battles online aren’t as extensive as the campaign but due to the variation in how players set up their load-outs, you’ll find some interesting and diverse experiences here. A big shame is the minimal amount of multiplayer maps present or the inability to save more than 1 custom team for your online ventures.

From a technical perspective XCOM is thoroughly impressive. This isn’t the best looking game you’ll see but strategy games never really are. What you will see however, is excellent use of dramatic camera angles and a sense of tension that’s cleverly created by your emotional connection with your veteran soldiers and the XCOM project funding that requires you to be successful. Normally strategy games are best played using a keyboard and mouse, but I was happy on the PlayStation 3 controller so fans don’t need to worry about that. XCOM does suffer from a few technical hitches in the graphical department on occasion and it would have been nice to a deeper and more intricate story in my opinion.

Despite these small flaws XCOM: Enemy Unknown should be commended as it is a solid and bold title that steps away from the generic games we see in the modern market. There once was a time where strategy was a dominant genre but unfortunately this is not the case – however those of you looking to relive this classic style of gaming or looking to try a strategy game for the first time will find it difficult to find anything better on a home console.

8.0 | Gameplay |
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game that pays homage to its classic roots while at the same time, bravely expanding the franchise to a modern market. The result is a highly entertaining and incredibly tactical experience that cleverly forces players to become attached and care for their front-line soldiers. Annihilating the threat brings in more sponsorship from the very same countries you are protecting, so it’s in your best interest to be ruthless, efficient and merciless against those brave enough to invade Earth.

7.0 | Presentation |
Clever use of camera angles makes viewing the base hub, combat and the action all enjoyable. It’s not the most beautiful game but certainly makes up for it in accessibility and depth of gameplay.

8.0 | Replay Value |
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a very challenging game and doesn’t do the best job at explaining the importance of particular enhancements and research projects. As a result it’s more than likely that in your first playthrough you will spend resources on things that might not be as valuable come the end-game as other items. So it’s fair to say your first attempt is a learning curve and when you come back for round two you will really be prepared to tackle the alien threat efficiently. The multiplayer is fun too but nowhere near as extensive or expansive as the single player outing.

7.5 | Final Thoughts |
I always love to see something a little different on the market and picking up a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is sure to provide you with a completely different experience than modern gamers are used to. There’s plenty to do here and a high level of challenge to be had. Fans of strategy and those of you looking for something that’s not Call of Duty or FIFA may want to look into it, but this is generally quite a hardcore genre so be warned, it’s not for everyone.

Igor Kharin.
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