Thursday Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Enemy Unknown is a reboot to the X-COM series that attempts to modernize the gameplay and graphics but keep the things that made the series good. Being a modern recreation of an older game series serves it well, but also has some major flaws. All-in-all, the game’s pretty good, despite some noticeable differences and gripes.

Stylistically, Enemy Unknown a lot shorter and easier than I remember the other games being, but this may be a consequence of the fact that I’m a lot better at the genre and style of game than I used to be. I finished the single-player game in a long day, logging a whole six hours in one play. Even though it wasn’t the longest game, I found it to be pretty enjoyable.

Plot-wise, Enemy Unknown isn’t winning any awards. Most of the characters are randomly generated recruits that could theoretically die throughout the course of play, so the storyline largely evolves in spite of your squad, with a couple of named XCOM officers and a few minor characters that get a little individualized screen time. That said, I found Enemy Unknown to be rather non-lethal; I lost about ten soldiers throughout the course of the game, counting the three that the tutorial killed arbitrarily. It’s somewhat of a shame that the squad members didn’t get even an effort at forming random narratives or a  group rapport; other than panicking when their buddies get gorily dismembered right in front of their eyes they seem rather apathetic to each other, which is a bit of a shame since three of my characters went on about 90% of the missions in my campaign together.

In terms of gameplay, Enemy Unknown provides a somewhat lighter degree of play than its predecessors, with less granular control and a move to a more abstracted system. When I was playing I immediately thought of Shadowrun Returns as being pretty much analogous in terms of how the play feels, though Enemy Unknown definitely felt more polished at certain points. The destructible cover felt spot-on, which added a degree of fun to the game as I was able to leverage my explosives to rearrange the battlefield and aliens alike.

Enemy AI fell in the range of “decent” to “very good”, with the distinction being that I had the darnedest time with the AI sometimes. At one point a Thin Man hopped up on top of a crashed UFO and hid up there for about fifteen minutes of squaddies running around trying to find him, then popped down through a skylight to get a LMG nose piercing. However, I’m not sure what caused this; the AI explicitly seems to fight fair, but they also don’t seem to think along the lines of “they fled down that hallway, I bet they’re waiting in that cover there” or make great long-term tactical decisions. Sure, they’ll move into cover, but not on opposite sides of the street to ambush my team as they move on.

One aspect which Enemy Unknown did pull off extraordinarily was presentation. Its subdued but cartoon-stylized graphics and epic martial soundtrack played well together to create an experience that was engaging but didn’t cause my machine to come to a grinding halt, and generally I didn’t have any gripes with it. The aliens felt very stylized in a mix of B-movie and more mainstream action science-fiction, and everything came together well. At a couple points the game applied annoying full-screen effects that felt gratuitous and didn’t really add to the scene, but they soon passed and it returned to its own merry way.

Unfortunately, Enemy Unknown has some major issues. Its camera has little clue what it’s doing; cluttered interior scenes are disorienting at times and there are times when walls fail to draw at all, particularly in some of the alien ship environments, which is more than a little bit confusing and hurts the visual appeal. The fact that zoom is mapped to the keyboard while height is mapped to the mouse wheel means that it’s easy to accidentally go up or down levels without thinking about it, and the fact that the three-dimensional environment doesn’t ask for confirmations when multiple surfaces could be intended almost got one of my men killed when he climbed up to a vantage point, then dropped down over it into a pack of enemies, forcing him to spend a week in the infirmary as I cursed XCOM’s lack of verification. I recognize that asking for an undo button would perhaps defeat half of the point of the tactical experience, but with the fact that I had not just one but several pathfinding quirks where soldiers moved to an inappropriate surface basically demanded it, and while cleverly rotating the camera would fix these issues in some cases the fact that it is fixed to ninety degree angles and rotates as slowly and clunkily as possible made it troublesome in and of itself.

So, in short, Enemy Unknown is a worthy, if somewhat simplified, successor to the X-COM franchise, though veterans might be a little disappointed by its simplifications and newcomers might be a little bothered by its quirks. Perhaps I’m harsher on Enemy Unknown because I grew up with the originals and their open-source remakes, and it’s certainly better than what it could have been, but while it definitely offered quality it often lacked some polish, and it was short enough that it presents a mere sampling of its depth rather than a thorough examination.

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