Thursday, October 11, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown - initial impression

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released on Monday, and according to Steam, I've played about nine hours so far. So I thought it was time for my initial assessment.

Note that the original game, X-COM: UFO Defense (in Europe, it was UFO: Enemy Unknown) from 1994 is one of my all-time favorite games. I played it for years, and it's still great (and still available at GamersGate or Steam).

I would have gladly bought a remake of the game if they'd only updated the graphics. Heck, I wouldn't even have needed that - just some new terrains for battles. (I've played it so many times that I've gotten tired of the old ones.)

I had my doubts when I first heard about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the new Firaxis remake. But the reviewers raved about their early views of the game. As far as I could tell, opinions were unanimous that this was going to be a worthy successor to our beloved classic X-COM.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given a build-up like that, but after nine hours playing the game, I'm quite disappointed. If it hadn't been called XCOM, I might be more positive. The game has been fun to play, and it has that "one more turn" appeal of all good strategy games.

But when I compare it to the original, it has a lot of shortcomings. And I have to wonder if this was designed as a console videogame, rather than as a PC game. Certainly, some of the development decisions seem odd - and don't seem to take advantage of the PC as a gaming platform.

As in the first game (check out this post for the details, since the remake is basically the same), you spend most of your time in squad-based battle. But the maps in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are claustrophobically small, and the camera controls are absolutely terrible.


In the first game, enemies could be almost anywhere. From your landing site, you'd always have a huge area to explore in at least two directions, and often three. Heck, just leaving your transport would frequently be deadly.

But here, the combat maps have been very small and very narrow. You normally have only one direction to go (although there's usually no obvious reason why the aliens would have to be there), and you never have to worry during your initial moves.

You can't surprise the aliens (occasionally, they can surprise you), because they scamper to cover when you first see them. The game seems to be a matter of just moving from cover to cover. (I'm playing on normal difficulty, and I haven't lost a single soldier, so far. But I've come very, very close, and I probably won't change the difficulty, not yet, at least.)

True, with the small maps, you get only a very small team to explore them - just four people at the start, and a maximum of only six. In the original, if I remember correctly, I could take as many as 14 soldiers right from the start and up to 18 later in the game.

Now, this isn't all bad. The very small squads and very small maps mean that battles play out quickly. In nine hours, I've fought nine battles (and that includes some considerable time just getting acquainted with the game and looking around the base). So each battle is sort of like that "one more turn" of strategy games. They're addicting. You always want to fight just one more.

However, while I'm still on the battle maps, I must complain about how dark and dreary they are. I dreaded night battles in the original game, and these are almost like you're always fighting at night. I'm not at all impressed with the graphics, and I yearn for a battle map like those wonderful farms of the first X-COM.

In the first game, you'd arrive at a brightly-lit, pleasantly-normal farm or city,... and leave it a smoking ruin when you left. Honestly, that was great fun! And why must you rely on a dark, dim setting to increase the tension? Isn't it frightening to know that scary monsters can suddenly appear in the most ordinary, most innocent of surroundings?

Note that these maps aren't random, either. There are, apparently, a very large number of maps, but they're fixed, instead of being procedurally-generated. That's really disappointing to me, since I'm such a big fan of procedurally-generated content. And it seems to guarantee that I won't be able to play this game nearly as long as I did the first.

If you don't compare it to the original game, this is still fun enough, as a strategy game. But the original X-COM was much more than that. The original was also an RPG, in a way. You weren't just moving pieces on a chessboard, you were defending the Earth from alien attack. (And there were very clever details, like the poor mutilated cows, which were just hilarious. This game seems to have no sense of humor.)


This remake does keep some of that. For example, you can rename your soldiers. And the basic plot is the same. But RPGs need to make at least some sense, given the premise. And as hard as it was to suspend my disbelief in the first game, this one is just completely ridiculous.

This is the entire Earth defending itself from alien invasion, but all they can afford is four or five guys I could outfit myself at a local gun show? And one little jet for transportation? Often, there are three alien abduction threats which happen simultaneously. But you can only choose one of the three, since the entire Earth can only afford to send four guys to one place at a time?

OK, the original game was kind of like that, in that multiple events could happen in close proximity. But you could build multiple bases, you could buy or build multiple passenger jets, and you could have soldiers equipped and ready to go in all of them. Sometimes, you could even fight one battle, then get re-fueled and re-equipped in time to get to a second crash site nearby.

But there's none of that in this game. This game is a strategy game almost as artificial as chess - or so it seems to me. As a strategy game, that's fine,... but the original was far, far more than just a strategy game.

Here's another example: Your initial troops are equipped with four items: battle armor, an assault rifle, a pistol, and one grenade (ammunition isn't tracked separately, so obviously you can't choose different kinds of ammunition). You can research improvements, so suppose you want to put a scope on your rifle. You can do that, but only if you leave the grenade behind. You can't put a scope on your rifle and carry a grenade!

Suppose you want to wear a nano-fiber vest, to offer a little more protection? You can do that,... at the expense of a grenade or a scope. Yeah, wearing a vest keeps you from using a scope on your rifle! It keeps you from carrying a grenade! Can you leave your pistol home, instead (because pistols seem to be almost worthless)? No, of course not. That would be too logical.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has abandoned any pretense of reality, and therefore almost all of the feeling of an RPG. It's apparently meant to be a strategy game and only a strategy game. Obviously, you had to make decisions in the original game. A soldier can't carry everything. But this is just ridiculous! And you're actually limited even more than that.

Unlike in the original game, where you could equip your soldiers any way you wanted, these people are all class-based. Each class is very limited in which weapons and items it can carry. And you can't even choose the class! Your soldiers all start as recruits (with the exact same stats, no less), and when they're promoted to squaddie, the game chooses their class for you. You can't even make that decision yourself!

Recruits in the original game had all sorts of different stats (far more stats than in this one - apparently numbers are too scary for modern gamers). I would always interview a bunch of different people (that's how I thought of it, anyway) and choose the best to be my soldiers. After all, this was in defense of our whole planet, right?

Well, not here. Here, all recruits are the same. And if you'd rather have a new recruit become a sniper, rather than a heavy-weapons specialist, too bad. Of course, you can only take four to six people to a battle anyway (four at first; as many as six with base improvements), and you can choose who to take with you, but that's it.

And you can still rename your soldiers, if you want. You can even change their appearance (although that doesn't show up very well on the battle map, so I don't know why you'd bother). Apparently, that's enough for an RPG these days, huh?

Your base. Don't get too excited, it's just a background image.

Scientists and engineers still exist, sort of, but they don't have stats, they don't need to be housed, and you can't even hire them. They're very, very simplified (details are boring, right?). You get them as rewards for some battles, or you can build base improvements to get more. But note that this is your only base, and you're very limited in room and money. (Apparently, the Earth isn't all that worried about alien attack, after all.)

OK, I'm kind of upset by a lot of this stuff, because X-COM: UFO Defense was such an incredible game. If you've seen the ads for this remake, they seem to try very hard to make it appear no different from any other game. That's not the case, not exactly. (I wonder how many people will be disappointed in that?) But they also seem to have developed the game to appeal to most console players - or maybe just to the lowest common denominator among gamers.

I really don't know how RPG fans can be happy with this, let alone fans of the original game (which was not an RPG, but did have RPG elements). Admittedly, RPGs have also been dumbed down for modern audiences. But I'm just astonished by the glowing reviews everywhere. Wasn't there anyone who also found these things disappointing?

But it's not a bad game, it really isn't. It's very disappointing, as a remake of X-COM: UFO Defense, but it's still fun enough as a game. As a strategy game, it has that "one more turn" appeal that's absolutely critical. That was well done. I've played it for nine hours, and I'll continue to play it, at least for awhile.

And my opinion might improve later, who knows? After all, this is just my initial assessment. Besides, I can enjoy games even when I'm disappointed with them. As with Skyrim, I expected a lot from this game - maybe too much. But that's what you get with an established franchise. I have certain expectations when I've played - and loved - the previous games.

If you don't want me to be picky, just make a brand-new game. Oh, heck, who am I kidding? I'll still be picky. :)


firex said...

I absolutely agree with your review/comments... For me the game is absolute disappointment, because it looked like they understood they just have to copy the jeveland make it shine intodays graphic.. But nooo, always there is some manager or what which decides that you have to go with the mainstream crowd (?) and spoils what could be epic win

WCG said...

Thanks for the comment, firex. I've played a lot more of the game now, and my feelings haven't changed much from this initial impression.

I still think it's fun enough, but nothing really special - not like the original, at least.

WCG said...

Firex, you might check out Xenonauts, if you haven't already. It seems to be virtually identical to the original X-COM (with just some minor improvements), so far.

Admittedly, I've only just started the game, and it's still in development, so I can't say much. But it's very playable and lots of fun,... so far. :)