XCOM: Pithy Remark

Aaaaaand… we’re back! Back in class that is. Yes, now the whims of fate are directed by my weekends instead of the other way around. That being said, I did find time in my fate-bending schedule to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown for three days. Three days. Do you know how long its been since I’ve all-nighted a game like this? Any ways, I’m sure you don’t want to sit here and hear about how good the game is. So, you sit there and I’ll go on about it from here.

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I’ve heard that it was based on a game from the long, long ago: UFO Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense, depending on where you live. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (from the minds of Firaxis and the wallets of 2K Games)  lets you take on the role of the Commander of XCOM: a military organization that was hastily put together to defend the earth from an encroaching alien menace. You receive funding from the various nations of the world depending on how well you keep their populace from panicking, and the strength of your satellite-interceptor response network. You research the technology and creatures you capture to improve and accelerate your development, as well as improve the life expectancy of your various ground troops. Developing the base, doing research, customizing load-outs, managing your networks, ordering construction and deploying your troops are all done from the XCOM base. Once you’ve received a mission, through force of communique, or by scanning the world (a handy mechanism for speeding up time), you select your ground-team and move on to the turn-based tactical game-play.

XCOM does a wonderful job of synthesizing base management with its tactical components, without making either of them seem vestigial. Taken together, they produce an enthralling experience that had me forgoing both sleep and company for another pot of coffee. The tactical interface is pretty intuitive, and easy to pick up. I would say difficult to master, but as mastery usually amounts to figuring out play-styles that work for you, it’s more fun than difficult. That’s not to say that the game isn’t difficult, though. I’d recommend saving-and-loading often, because time is of the essence.

Many of the primary mechanics that the game employs in regards to base management are time-sensitive. As a result, and because the tactical portion of the game is so dependant on the base management (and vice versa), one small slip can have you combating alien ground-troops by having a squad of barely-functional rookies furtively wiggle their eye-brows at them. Some of my favorite moments came after particularly difficult missions, when all my best trained troops were out sick with plasma burns, and I had to complete a particularly nasty challenge with a handful of rookies and a top-notch sniper.

I want to discuss the temporal and spatial aspects of the game in more detail, but I’ll need to spoil a few things to go on with that, so I’ll put together a second post tonight with a more thorough analysis of the game-play, so as not to ruin it for anyone that’s just here for an opinion. Let’s just review this sucker! There are a large number of maps, but they do tend to repeat a bit. However, as the enemy spawns are randomized (except in the pre-assembled levels), and the game has a few different challenge modes, you won’t really notice. Moreover, as you advance you unlock different abilities, so many of the levels open up a bit as you become more mobile. It also might be because I had to play the game through twice-over to beat it, because, the first time, I messed up in the base management portion of the game.

“How did you manage that? Do you have a lemon where your melon should be?” Yes, and no. I’ll let you know now: you can excavate, build, and order multiple items at the same time. So, you don’t have to wait for that satellite to finish, or a room to get excavated, to issue more commands, provided that you have the resources and man-power. That’s a free tip, because I had no idea. As a result, my satellite network was weak, my income was piddling because I was only monitoring three nations, four nations had already withdrawn their support, and my troops were just getting lasers when they needed plasma rifles.

I probably wasn’t going to be able to recover, because if you lose eight nations, or if the overall “Doom Counter” clock strikes midnight, then your carriage is turns back into a pumpkin, with its orange goop splattered all across the countryside. It’s a pretty delicate line to walk, especially if you’re going to do it well. Even on my second play-through, I still lost four countries. All of which raises an interesting question, “If you’re going to be killed in any event, then why are you withdrawing support from one of the few world-wide organizations that has been put together to fight this menace?” It’s not like there are many others. Prompts let you know that the nations themselves are fighting, but they don’t have the reality-bending power of your ridiculous research team, nor the frankly bewildering skill of your engineering department. Given that XCOM is making progress towards destroying the alien menace, it seems a bit churlish to withdraw funding just because you couldn’t keep your citizens from panicking. Then again, I’d be pretty upset if the one steady hope for humanity only deployed one 4-6 man group squad at a time. It’s hard to justify the funding when your population is rapidly dwindling under the claws and weapons of a horrifying enemy and your go-to squad is off somewhere killing ten, large-headed cream-puffs in exchange for two-hundred dollars.

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Like any, the game has its problems. It’s a 3-D, isometric-view, tactical game, so there’s an awful lot of environment clipping. Rarely, a trigger won’t go off, so an ability won’t work quite the way you want it to. The game uses cut-scenes and dynamic camera movements to create tense moments during game-play, especially for kill-shots and enemy spawns, but they can get a bit tiresome. Of course, I’d been playing for almost 19 hours straight by the time they did, so it might have just been the lack of sleep. It’s chance-based, so you’ll probably miss a few shots that seem ridiculous, while the enemy makes a few that will have you clenching your teeth in impotent fury, but there are enough of the opposite events to keep you smiling (They won’t bring back your highly-trained Support-units, though). The most glaring issue is camera movement. There’s no level map, so you’ll have to move around the level a lot. Depending on the terrain, this can be an exercise in patience. Tall structures, multi-storied buildings, or weird angles can cause the camera to freak out, or speed around the level. Nonetheless, if you use the mouse-wheel height system carefully, and get used to feeling out an area’s length instinctively, then you’ll be fine.

That being said, there is still one depth-issue I’d like to address. It’s difficult to tell how long XCOM is, or how deep the rabbit-hole goes, so prioritizing facility development can get a bit sticky. For instance, scientists exist primarily to allow, or speed up, different types of research. However, near what I came to realize was the end of the game, I had so many scientists, and research credits, that almost all of my research finished within a couple days. So, it was a bit difficult to tell if I’d need any more, or if that was just a waste and I should expand the engineering department (much like my local university). It’s hard to tell if you should invest in laser weaponry, or wait for plasma. Should you send some troops for psychic testing, or would that be a waste at that point? Do you invest in building an awesome interceptor, or are there more models to come? Which resources do I keep?! Of course, this is all part of the game, and it’s nice enough to wait around for you to finish certain events before really ramping up the challenge, but it can be a bit bewildering the first time through. On my third play-through (because there will be a third), I’m sure things will go a bit smoother. Then again, that’ll be an iron-man run, so I’ll probably be regretting those words in no time.

Playing without save-scumming, a practice I tried out for about an hour before weeping quietly in front of my memorial wall (Yes, it has one of those), really gives one the impression of fighting a desperate struggle against a powerful, nebulous foe. In terms of mechanics-as-metaphor, the entire game delivers its experience very well, without making it all seem hopeless. I’m sure, with what I know now, I could go back and save that first play-through, and really savor the challenge. It’s worth the time you put into it, and it’s quite a singular experience. That’s why I’m giving it this week’s highest rating: Two Banana-nut Muffins out of One Small Lock of Albert Einstein’s Hair, Lovingly Combed and Preserved in a Hermetically-Sealed Batman Lunch-Box.

I’ll get back to XCOM tonight with a more thorough, and spoiler-filled, analysis of its temporal and developmental components. Until then, keep watching the screeeeeeeennsss…

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