Originally published on GameInformer.com March 15, 2013, at 8:00 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 3/21/13.
4,760 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
A funny thing happened on the way to the alien invasion. This strategy game neophyte ended up enjoying my extraterrestrial visitation in the form of Firaxis Games' XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Whether playing the solo campaign or online in competitive multiplayer, the game has proven accessible without sacrificing depth.
There is only one other strategy game that I've had fun playing, and that was Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution. So it should come as no surprise that it shares the same developer and publisher (2K Games) as XCOM. Firaxis is developing a reputation for making strategic gameplay feel like a walk in the park, albeit one with enemies behind every tree.
This is no small feat, as I typically prefer real time combat to turn-based battles that tend to be too slow, methodical and, frankly, complicated. The height of attack strategy for me is deciding whether to equip fireballs in one hand or a shield. Plasmids or Biotics are a happy stretch but that's where I draw the line.
Firaxis typically finds a happy medium. In XCOM, gamers have myriad choices both on and off the battlefield, but they don't overwhelm and tutorial elements ease you into each facet of the game. For instance, combat basics are introduced early on, such as point to point movement (above). Simple controls and visual cues help in every choice.
While the deep gameplay provides the raison d'etre for XCOM, elaborate cut scenes frame the action set pieces with a compelling story of alien invasion. It's not The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the overall narrative, tension and quality production values make for a solid context to the elaborate action.
And whether due to the scope of the action or the premise for it, the choice of a more stylized presentation fits well with the atmosphere of the game. It's neither the pulp treatment of the amusing Destroy All Humans or the more realistic portrayal of countless shooters, and that's to its benefit. Still, the design is top notch whether cut scenes or in-game action.
From the colorful palette to the detailed animation and particle effects, from the thoughtful level design to the intricate environments, and from quality dialog to decent voice acting, many elements are here for an engrossing playthrough. Even the helpful heads up display is unobtrusive despite the level of detail. My one real caveat is a sometimes odd camera angle.
There are a lot of options when it comes to the gameplay, though squad members are typically limited to one move per turn. I don't recall the names for all options, but they can include repositioning, shooting, fragging, reloading, etc. It plays like a less precise, though effective, alternative to Fallout 3's VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System).
As a lifelong shooter fan, I enjoy the third person shooting mechanic despite the indirect squad control as opposed to direct first or third person control common to the shooter genre. Like VATS, it displays probabilities for regular and critical hits. If chosen, a brief cinematic will show the outcome of your decision.
Grenades or rocket launchers are among other potent weapons in one's arsenal. But tactics such as Overwatch or Hunker Down, if I remember, are equally viable. Maintaining a keen situational awareness when in the theater of operations, and exercising careful tactics, is imperative if hoping to have one's squad return victorious -- and intact.
In between deployments, a central hub serves as a portal to management tasks that involve research, engineering, etc. Research, for instance, will require allocating resources for the study and development of materials that could aid in the war effort. How you choose to direct those efforts is up to you, as is the case with other management tasks.
Deployment to hot zones is one of the more challenging choices one has to make. Panic will be reduced or at least contained in the zone you choose, but it's at the expense of greater panic in the zone you neglect. Plus you'll have to weigh which zone's resources are more valuable to your effort.
Barracks are also available from the central hub, and here one can customize squads. The character creation tool is relatively limited, but at least allows some differentiation among squad members. Also selectable are character class (mostly standard choices), loadout and abilities (I believe these can use alien tech for more welcome variation).
All in all, it's a fairly broad suite of choices that further help budding Sun Tzus weigh the options that best reflect their gameplay style as well as mission objectives and each unfolding scenario as it develops. It should be noted that navigating the various menus in this game is a fairly intuitive and user friendly process.
My Fantastic Four out of the gate (above). L-R Brian Seavey, Rich Dickinson, Emily Wargo and Jeremy Brown. The only difference is they don't need gamma rays to kick alien behinds. I frankly can't remember if they've been on a mission together yet, but their mere presence might be enough to convince the alien menace to turn tail.
In fact, to this point in the game I'd only played through to where the demo ended. If you haven't sampled the game or demo yet, I highly recommend you try the latter as it seems to provide a good introduction to what XCOM has to offer. Indeed it was on the strength of the demo, and word of mouth, that I bought the game.
I also managed to play a couple multiplayer rounds with Jeremy (mojomonkey12/jmb78). I use "play" loosely, as both he and I were pretty rusty having not played the campaign in awhile. And I use "rusty" loosely, as our gameplay can more accurately be described as corrosive.
While the game is relatively accessible, there is a learning curve given the breadth and depth of options available. Cycling between squad members and options related to the overhead isometric view (related to actions like move, attack, reload, overwatch and hunker down) and the behind the back view (related to attacks like firing or fragging) can be disorienting.
I initially confronted macro issues like selecting the proper squad member or positioning the camera to a practical viewpoint, while Jeremy faced micro issues such as selecting and implementing the proper action. Our initial battle in particular was more with learning the control scheme than with each other, though this was less a factor of design than unfamiliarity.
The match itself was fairly well set up, with an open map that afforded various paths and cover along the way. We both had squads of six, I believe, and could choose from several character classes. I can't speak for Jeremy's alien horde, but human classes were fairly standard though augmented by some other worldly tech I think. Much like in the campaign.
Indeed for the most part I think it played out like the solo story mode. At least in my limited playthrough I didn't notice any appreciable differences between offline and online gameplay. That said, the parameters of custom matches can be tweaked to one's liking. In that regard, I'd chosen 120 seconds per turn, which didn't afford much time for strategizing.
For instance, I had a few different character classes, but only had enough time to figure out what basic actions I wanted each of the six squad members to take irrespective of their class. However, it did keep the match moving at a decent pace. So finding that comfortable balance between strategy and action might take some further finessing.
The first match proved more of a tutorial as we familiarized ourselves with the control setup. That led to a few face to face meetings (above) while we figured out how to dispatch each other. At least in this scenario, we were obliged to kill each other, unlike in our co-op games where teamkills are the order of the day.
One caveat to the complex but generally well designed online matches is that in both the maps we played, we were unceremoniously kicked out of our game when selecting "continue" and back to the main multiplayer page if I recall. It was annoying to have to set up a custom match and send out an invite for each map we played.
As mentioned, the camera is a mixed bag. Generally, it provides helpful perspectives for combat, though sometimes it can obscure the action especially during an opponent's turn. The initial isometric view allows you to see your squad without giving away enemy movements until they enter your line of sight. Breakaway facades help with that process.
However, if trying to follow the action as a spectator, the results are less precise. sometimes the camera will focus on one squad member and in a direction that hides activity. When trying to correct, it is a challenge to easily control. Of course with practice its manipulation can only improve but at least initially it can frustrate at times.
I think Overwatch is the move I used that most bedeviled Jeremy. When chosen, the respective squad member will observe the battlefield for signs of alien activity. As soon as a foe comes into view, the squad member will fire. This means that during your opponent's turn, their squad can still take damage. This proved to be a very useful tool.
In the interest of full disclosure, Jeremy did take out some of my squad members (above), especially when we settled into using the game's controls. I just wasn't fast enough with my screenshots to recognize the imminent demise of my troops. Indeed despite our best efforts to prove otherwise, I think the squads are fairly evenly matched.
We didn't take advantage of the more unusual abilities afforded some squad members, but on one occasion I did attempt to control one of the alien drones. To his credit, Jeremy spotted this tactic and during his subsequent turn first took out his mind controlled squadmate. But such abilities should make for a much more dynamic competition.
Toward the end of our second match, Jeremy put up a pretty good fight when faced with superior numbers, I think taking out a couple of my squad members before succumbing to injuries. All in all, I look forward to playing XCOM's competitive multiplayer more. With practice, it should provide a nice alternative to other multiplayer options on the market.
Likewise, the single player campaign promises to be a strong mode in and of itself. Take it from an avowed non-strategy gamer, Firaxis knows how to make accessible, entertaining strategy titles whether XCOM or Civilization Revolution. But don't just take my word for it, read others' blogs on the former (like Noobtubin8er's), which are plentiful.
In closing, read about the game, play the demo, and decide for yourself. In the meantime, I hope to spend more time battling the pod people and, if you already are playing (on PS3), look me up and we can mix it up intergalactic style.
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