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.
Community review by Brian (February 21, 2016)
Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.
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