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XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) artwork

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) review

"A unique experience where you develop a love-hate honeymoon."

Before I had played XCOM, I always assumed it was a rogue-lite that you play for 10+ hours before you fail. The difficulty XCOM is famed for had always dissuaded me from trying, which might be a common issue; perhaps more people would invest in the game if they knew the challenge level was manageable. However, after I'd completed a 19-hr Normal game and tried 15-hr of Classic Mode (with modifiers like ironman), I came away with the impression that game could often act unfairly with broken mechanics, UI/camera problems and a steep difficulty spike from Normal to Classic.

I won't say the unfairness ruins the game because I want the challenge, but they are all issues. My ideal solution of a difficulty is one that has the AI behaviour of Classic but the leeway you have in Normal mode. Something that's not available in the core game without looking towards mods.

What the Game Does Right.

What Firaxis does considerably well is provide a more streamlined, accessible game for a hardcore niche title. I have tried the original 1993 release of XCOM: UFO Defense, so I have experienced what the old games demanded of the player. While it's clear that the base management, item-inventory and squad-sizes are less demanding, I think the game's focus on squad-tactics, resource-management and the turn-based battles makes for a fun game in its own right.

The best way I can describe the rebooted series is as Civilization's take on XCOM. It's barren on plot, but gives players the chance to grow their own tales organically with tales of missions gone wrong or unlikely heroics of favored soldiers. To my surprise, in a departure from the original, there is a considerable variety of missions--though you'll mostly get three: Exterminate, Extract and Escort, as well as randomized council missions that keep the game refreshing even after 15+ hours.

Normal (Recommended) vs. Classic.

If you are new to XCOM, I would suggest you begin at nothing lower than Normal (with saves). After your first win, you should enable no saves to keep yourself from reloading every turn. (i.e. Save-scumming: reloading after to a save state after a failure to maximize probabilities.) The only worry you have in Normal is of overpowering yourself if you prioritize the base-management/squad-upgrades. You can easily take away the tension. The early-game difficulty returns after you partake in alien base-assaults, when the opposition starts employing heavier units.

Easing yourself into Enemy Unknown is not the only reason to start at Normal. It's not made overly hard or confusing to juggle the finances for base and squad-upgrades, but you will need to learn what to prioritize. You'll also learn which autopsies and interrogations give you bonus "research points" for other research, which is very similar to Civilization 5, except with required materials to study. You will need to collect these from the various ground fire-fights and UFO dogfights you engage in.

Classic Mode is where most would say the true game is found. Enemy behaviors are greatly improved - alien infiltration units mocked up to look like a parody of humanity -- the Thin Men -- spit acid at you while alien front-liners known as Floaters actually fly up to flank you. Early enemies once considered cannon fodder become more threatening rather than being forgotten. Because of this, new players are likely to fail if they start in Classic, and even after familiarizing yourself on Normal you probably won't reach the Alien Base assault for a while. Even with many of the Second Wave modifiers for difficulty, the Normal setting never gets as interesting as Classic.

More Trigger Warnings than Tumblr.

The best tactic I found is to let the enemy spot you, not to actively search them out and trigger their location. It's also the first example of how EU breaks its rules for a consistent challenge. For whatever reason, every time you spot an enemy, they get to scatter freely and then attack you at the end of your turn. Sometimes, the enemy will freeze and force you to trigger them before they move. The best solution is to either scout ahead with someone ghosted or use trackers to spot them from afar, and then hunker down.

I don't have an issue with constant the two-second cinematic. What I do have a problem is how your units do not react similarly to spotting an enemy.

Another related issue is Overwatch, which allows you to open fire on threats outside of your designated turn. Because of the isometric camera, you have to hope that when the alien is spotted that they'll be within range. This could easily be fixed with a range-setting to make it more useful than a prayer on a battlefield. Which, themselves, also house their own set of issues. Sometimes the free-aiming system can be misleading when it comes to altitude. The transitioning of floors can make some encounters hard to distinguish what you can and cannot hit. And aliens can sometimes hide in the one corner in the map with one entrance.

The most obvious broken system is the aiming system of XCOM. It never feels fair for either side. The aiming calculation could be less infuriating with its pure hit-or-miss system. For whatever reason, a sniper-rifle is treated the same as a shotgun or assault rifle. Hit or miss with some critical chance for hits.

Here's one suggestion: Instead of all guns acting the same, we personalized guns to have a certain tactic. For example, the shotgun could have a wider spread (3 tiles) with the central line-of-sight (1 tile) that does the most damage. Too far away, it'll miss completely; up close, it will do some damage which is better than missing. Snipers could stay the same; one shot, either hitting the target or missing completely. Assault rifles, with a burst fire, could have some medium spread while heavies would have the most spread.

A larger issue while playing Classic is the recruits. I consider them broken because if you lose your veteran units, then you've lost the game. Recruits all start out with poor stats/equipment (aside from one Squaddie perk) and have to rack up successful missions to grow. They are randomly given one of three classes only AFTER they get one kill (which restricts them to class-specific weapons only). It just adds needless padding; worse, it can end the game if you lose too many vets in a compressed space.

An XCOMplimishment Despite its Flaws

Enemy Unknown succeeds in providing a unique experience where you can develop a love-hate honeymoon. It begins all tender and carefree until those damning issues make you want to quit or to give up. But, in spite of those issues, there's enough there to make you want to keep trying. You'll think "all failures will be overridden by accomplishing this one thing. It will be the one thing I've done right." Then, nine-months later you find that there's a Sectoid baby. You dispose of it, and you are left pondering where you went wrong and what to do about it now.

Then you start it all over again.

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (February 21, 2016)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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EmP posted February 24, 2016:

I worked through a fair few edits to your base review as it was. You can compare the two to see the difference.

The aspect that stuck out the most was your paragraphing. Every supplied paragraph only consisted of a sentence or two, which made the entire thing read like a list of bullet points rather than a complete review. The points you were making were quite organic and flowed into each other's discussion fine, so employing such a choppy narrative serves no purpose. I've tightened the entire thing up while still keeping the points you were trying to make.

Also worth noting that some of those points weren't really review material, but served more as a FAQ on how beginners should start the game. It's sometimes difficult not to take this path, but it shouldn't be your core argument, nor should suggesting fixes. The game is as it is - it's your job as a reviewer to tell a potential gamer why you liked or disliked it. That being said, I understood a lot of the review because I've played the game in question. Try to keep in mind that the ideal reader is someone who has not played the game at all and has little prior knowledge. You talk about some things under the assumption that the reader will know, for example, exactly what a Thin Man or Floater is. I've tried to fix the most obvious instances of this.

It's not all bad; you show a solid understanding of why you think various aspect of the game have failed and have communicated that strongly. Have a read through both your original draft and the edited version here and see what aspects of both you prefer and try to work towards that in future efforts. Any questions, let me know.
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Brian posted February 24, 2016:

I appreciate the edits you made as it kept the original points of my review. The only grammatical error I saw was towards the beginning, "I've tried the original UFO Defense, so [I] have experience what the old games demanded of the player."

The reason for the weird paragraphing was something I picked up on while reading some popular reviewers (like Yahtzee or Jim Sterling) and most Steam reviews. People seem to prefer spaced out "points" rather than blocks of text. I got into that habit of formatting it for the reader's sake.

I'm a little confused on what points were and were not review material. I understood how the normal vs. classic bit could come off as more of a "How to learn to play" guide." It was meant to point out the problems of both difficulties and why I couldn't find something in the middle to satisfy me.

What I'm not so sure is why is suggesting fixes not a part of the review. Maybe it's a pet-peeve of mine but I despise when people say something is a problem but do not offer a solution instead. When I do offer some constructive criticism, it should, hopefully, not simplify the mechanic or issue but point out 1) why the current system is lacking and 2) why this solution would make it better.

I think my suggestion for various aiming calculations based on weapon-types is a good example.

As for thinking the reader knows everything I'm saying, yeah, I'm aware of that issue and I typically catch myself doing that. The instances here were more of a problem of trying to condense my thoughts on a Steam review.
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EmP posted February 24, 2016:

Thanks for replying. Once I'm back on a platform more stable than my mobile phone, I'll fix my unfortunate typo. I'll also update the review so it's linked to the account you've created to make your reply; it's still your work, so you should have complete control over it, and be free to make any edits you deem necessary.

I'll expand on mechanics fix suggestions. I think that in normal practice it's near obligatory to offer fixes when you're being critical about something, but it's not an aspect I've ever found comfortably fits into reviewing as a whole. Some of that is because it's extraordinarily unlikely that Firaxis is going to stumble upon your review and rework their entire ballistics engine. It's also easy to slip into the realms of fantasy booking and spend more time talking about things that aren't present in the game but you'd rather were. It's of little help to your core audience, who it helps to envision as completely ignorant. That said, as someone who has sunk a lot of time into XCOM, I agree that it's a stupid design choice to have some weapons react exactly the same sans an accuracy slider at certain ranges.
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Brian posted February 24, 2016:

That is true, I really doubt Firaxis will see it. It's ironic that some of my suggestions for improvement are in XCOM 2--a way to train recruits to get their classes outside of missions and an overwatch setting with some area (Kill Shot skill).

I find it easier to use them to be critical of a game and it makes it easier to talk about one thing in relation to another (ex. Overwatch into the aiming system problems.) But I can see where you're coming from.

(The text came out somewhat illegible. Must be an iOS formatting issue like on YouTube.)

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