Sunday, 31 January 2016

XCOM: The New One (meaning the reboot, not the sequel which is coming out soon, why is this so difficult, maybe they should have named it something else? At least it's not as bad as Prince of Persia)

A long while ago, I played the XCOM reboot. If you were to look back through the various posts on this blog, you'll perhaps notice one of the first games I played through was in fact X-COM, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, the first and best game in this long-running and now rebooted franchise (at least until the reboot sequel comes out, in which case I'd have to consider that one, but let's be honest I'm probably going to always prefer that classic version from my youth).

The "ant farm"
What I meant to say in that previous paragraph was that I'd covered the first X-COM, and I've played through Xenonauts more recently too. The reboot XCOM was less appealing to me, and although I also did play it, I gave up on it a long while ago. Well, this past few weeks I decided to reinstall it and try to finish it before the reboot sequel comes along. I really feel like I should give it a fair chance, since it's very popular apparently. Word is that XCOM2 is much better and so on, but XCOM1 was widely praised at the time.

Building up your base
Unfortunately I've hit the same point in it as I had previously, and begun to really lose interest again. It has a bunch of small, mildly annoying features which just do enough to affect my thoughts on the game, and I expect I'll go through those in such a way which will annoy fans of the game and to many it will seem like I'm nit-picking about nothing. Perhaps I am, but I'm always going to compare it to the older games, and in my mind it doesn't quite hold up to them.

I'll preface the rest of this piece by saying that I'm fully aware that this is a reboot aimed primarily at new players, and that there's a strong board game influence and the developers are experienced strategy gaming people, and so on. There are loads of reasons why people love this game, and perhaps I'll find that love when I inevitably play the sequel at some point in the near or distant future. There's also a modding scene, which perhaps would slightly improve things or alter things to my preference, but I haven't tried any of that, nor have I tried the DLC/expansion Enemy Within stuff either.
The useless SHIV. A soldier is always better
So the game begins with the formation of XCOM to combat the unknown enemy invading the world: Extraterrestrial life! Those pesky aliens are abducting our citizens and livestock, laying waste to our cities and cornfields, and generally being a right nuisance. The opening (tutorial) mission shows "first contact", which inevitably ends with lots of shooting and death.

This opening section also loves to pull the camera out of your control for its tutorial bits and introduces the "cinematic camera" which gives a more "exciting" camera angle when you see an enemy group, or fire a shot or whatever. Needless to say, I turn as much of this off as I'm able to, because I much prefer the overhead tactical view, so that I can properly consider the terrain and enemy placement.
The classic alien autopsy
You also get your first taste of the two-move system. Except it's not really a two-move system, because if you shoot in your first move, you can't move with your second move. It's not a terrible system, and is one of the big "board game" style things of this game, but I do prefer the old Time Unit system, even though that was sometimes hard to grasp. With Time Units, you had a certain granularity to things. You could move a little, shoot, then move away again. You could spend lots of TUs for an accurate shot, or in desperation try using fewer TUs to spam attacks in the vain hope of hitting something.
The Heavy Floater, during interrogation
I can understand the change, and it allows them to add various special skills to your soldiers, some of which give them bonus moves under certain conditions. But I'll get on to soldiers and specialisation later. The other thing to get to grips with is the cover system, which is handled generally pretty well. You usually have plenty of things around (walls, cars, rocks, and so on) which can provide cover, either partially or fully. Of course there's not quite such a thing as full cover, since you can still be shot at, but it reduces the chance of your soldiers being hit to such a degree that you'd be mad not to have them in cover basically all of the time. This makes it even more annoying if you're in an area with very little cover, or if the stuff you're hiding behind is fragile or perhaps not in a good position for you to be able to return fire.

Resource management is a key concern in this new XCOM, as you'll only get meagre amounts of loot from your excursions. They've made enemy equipment destruct upon death, so the only way you'll be able to use their weapons is to build your own or capture the aliens alive. This is mostly a good decision, as it means you'll be using normal or laser weapons for longer than in the original game (which had you swimming in alien equipment by mid-game). I did find myself short on materials several times in my playthrough, and I can't quite decide if it was well balanced or not but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. My only concern is the way the missions occur, which can limit your ability to acquire certain specific things.

On a mission (actually I think this was the Alien Base assault)
You get missions one at a time, ranging from a solitary UFO, a council mission, a terror mission or abductions. They arrive at about one every few days (not sure if difficulty affects this), and although you get a choice sometimes to ignore a mission, you really can't afford to do it. The UFOs are your prime source of certain specific materials, including key plot items. To avoid (or fail) what few there are, would set you back quite considerably. Similarly, failing other missions will increase the panic levels of the host country, which can mean they withdraw permanently from XCOM. The abduction missions are the biggest problem for me.

Gaining ranks means gaining skills, some are hugely useful and others a bit crap
You will occasionally get a choice to make, usually between three missions in three different countries. You must pick one, and each gives you a different reward (new staff or cash), but you can only pick one. The other two will have their panic level raised, and there's nothing you can do about that. This is another "board game" style inclusion, and it can be frustrating. The random nature of the three countries to pick from can mean that they are all "high panic" ones, and no matter which you choose you'll probably lose a country from funding you. At other times, you might want to choose a specific reward (a new soldier, or some cash), but you are forced to pick another reward (2 scientists) because that country has the highest panic level. There are so few ways to reduce panic, that this can badly affect your playthrough.

Onto the base, that is constructed in an "ant farm" style, and is lacking both in looks and utility. You end up interacting with your base almost entirely from the menu at the top of the screen, making your base nothing but background. The individual rooms are not that interesting, so it would probably have been better to have a different system. You have a limited amount of space, and must excavate new areas before building rooms and so on. There are sometimes also steam vents (the most cost-effective power generation) but they appear in random locations and vary in number, so you can't always rely on those.
Colour coded soldiers, ready for a mission
Finally in my list of complaints (don't worry, I'll get to the good parts in a minute!), it's the soldiers. There are options in the game to make their stats more random, to make their damage more random, and to make their stat improvement more random. Under normal settings, these things occur with predictability. What is always random is their specialisation, and their psionic ability. The second I think everyone is OK with, but the first is infuriating at times. In my recent playthrough, I ended up with a large number of Heavy and Sniper classes. The Heavy is the absolute worst possible class, and the Sniper is the best. Both the Assault and Support classes are very good (Support just edges it for me). The problem with all those Heavy soldiers is that inevitably, most of my PSI abilities were with them also.
Your second key mission: Assault, capture and destroy the alien base
I don't want to dwell too much longer on negatives, so let's just round up the other complaints quickly: Soldier customisation skills are sometimes a bit crap, other times you have to choose between two good ones. Classes are limited in their equipment loads, sometimes to their detriment, Soldiers can usually only carry one item/tool/grenade, which feels needlessly restrictive. Soldiers all speak in the same American accents no matter their supposed nationality. Scotland is a separate nationality from United Kingdom (perhaps the independence referendum result was different in this universe?). They reduced the number of soldiers per mission to a max. of six (This does kinda work though, but you start with four and that feels very stingy).

Perhaps one final paragraph to say that I found Ironman mode particularly annoying when I tried it (back in 2012 or whenever), because to lose a mission or even to lose high ranking soldiers is a big setback. Not to mention the way it used to crash (No crashes at all in my recent playthrough, a much smoother experience). A lowly new recruit is awful compared to a high ranking soldier, not just because of stat increases but mainly because of those all-so-precious skills that can really turn the tide.
Mission briefing en route
Anyway, that's enough complaints for now (I've started a game of Enemy Within so I might have new ones later). The game does get a lot of things right, and once I'd come to terms with my initial apprehensions and annoyances, I got a lot of enjoyment from it. I felt a little bored with it at one point (at the alien base, same as previous times), but once you kick on from there the game steps up a bit, and can be completed relatively quickly, but gives you plenty of opportunity to hang back and build up your forces. I thought I was in for the long haul, too many repetitive crashed UFO encounters, but in the end the game didn't outstay it's welcome.

A little taste of late game troops entering an alien craft
Another positive is with the alien design. with the re-imaginings of the monsters from the original generally being excellent. The Muton design is a little over-bulky (the same can be said of the male soldiers), and the Thin Man lacks threat after the early stages, but they all provide a slightly different offensive capability and a different challenge to the player. In particular I would single out the Floater (which gets two variants, as does the Muton) as being the best of the lot. In the original the Floaters weren't very interesting, and their flying didn't provide them with much advantage. The new Floater and Heavy Floater are a genuine threat, and have a lovely bio-mechanical design.

The story progression is quite light, with small progress made at each key event and then a grand finish. I was surprised there was only one alien base, they could be quite common in the original game (they appeared wherever you let the aliens gain a foothold), and while I captured a few Outsiders, only one was required. Similarly, you only need to capture one Sectoid commander and one Etherial to gain the appropriate information to proceed to the final missions. It takes a lot more missions though, in order to build up your troops for the final assault.

An Etherial, flanked by two Elite Mutons
The final mission reminds me a lot of classic beat-em-up games. In games like Streets of Rage, you often get a final stage where you face off against a series of foes that were bosses of previous stages. You have to prove that you're better than them, before you take on the big boss. In this case, the Mr. X is yet another Etherial, but before facing him you have to face up against the "rejects". He tells you (or rather the "volunteer", that is exposed to the psychic link), that they tried many times to help life forms evolve to a higher state. Each one failed for different reasons, giving rise to the soldiers and monsters you face. Humanity is the next in line, and they have high hopes for you.

The Endgame: The Etherial Overlord
Of course, instead of joining their culture, we do what humans are wont to do and destroy it. All the intelligence that they have, and yet they don't foresee that the soldiers we sent would do anything other than kill all the aliens on board. Needless to say, it finishes with a big bang, and the world is saved! At least for now. As for what happened to "the volunteer"? Well, I guess that's a story for another day.

I feel a lot more positive about the prospect of a sequel now, and already the previews have started to roll in. It won't be long before I have to make the decision about whether to buy the game at launch, or wait until there's a sale much later on. It is apparently PC only, but since the previous one was released on a variety of platforms I wouldn't be so sure it will stay that way. I guess since I'm replaying it already to test out the Enemy Within changes, I can recommend this one at least!

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