XCOM: Enemy Unkown – first impressions
I still wonder, if this new XCOM game is actually real or not. The original game still is my favorite game of all time. Just weeks ago, i read about new nuances of gameplay, for the original game. How awesome is that? I try to play the old one at least once a year, but it’s getting tough to endure the pitfalls of 18 year old hardcore PC game design. The first X-COM or UFO is still genuine design, but hidden under a load of crap now. Firaxis had the task to wipe away the crap to only reveal the true depth of the game.
I play the new XCOM on classic difficutly level, wich lives pretty much up to its name. My advice so far would be to start on normal first, cause some new mechanics feel very weird for old X-COM players. On the other hand, this type of game lives and dies by its difficulty. Easy tactic games aren’t fun. The AI needs to cheat a little and oh boy does it cheat. So far the difficulty is real fun. I ragequit two times already, wich never happened to me for at least 10 years.
The secret of the design of this formula is well known. The game is a huge decision tree, slowly building up to epic proportions, with less and less options leading to success. The player is enforced to make smart decision every couple of seconds. On classic difficulty wrong decision are penalized … always, and this is why the game is so fun and rare today. XCOM requires the player to have a brain and to use it … always. In combat the AI will kick your butt, if getting the chance to, wich leads to the real strength of the game. Bad decisions have real consequences.
XCOM nails virtual drama. When you use one of your experienced soldiers just before finishing a long combat mission, the game delivers something almost no other game can. It’s the old trick of conditioning players to use their head, to tell a story the game could not. Those small pixel soldiers gain personality. Players get attached to them and the game is cutting the bond if you underperform. This is what XCOM is all about and it’s there. Now here’s the thing, if this happens, i reload most of the time, cause i am not ready for this mechanic yet. The game is demanding enough. If i finished my first playthrough, i will try Ironman mode, wich prevents reloads after deaths of soldiers.
Scratches and dents on the surface
While being pure fun so far, there’s some things Firaxis maybe streamlined too much. First of, the console UI feels plain wrong on PC. The camera is designed for joypad and breaks when controlled with mouse and keyboard. I’m convinced this issue can and will be patched. The first major point to discuss is exploration in combat missions. Here’s the thing, one of the most tension building elements of the original, was exploring the combat zone. This is gone completely, with indicators showing where the enemy is located at. Also? Line-of-sight in this game takes a lot of time to get used to. At least on Classic difficulty, full cover or 80% hit chance mean shit. The game really likes to torture your sensibility for random number rolls.
Combat maps are not randomly generated anymore. I think this would be a major drawback, but it turns out, Firaxis is mixing up things just enough to cloak the handmade-built maps very well, wich leads to the point of scale. The new XCOM feels smaller all around. Squad size is limited to six units now. The original could sport more than twice the number?! I do like the smaller squad scale in general, but six feels neither small, nor big enough. I’d really like to see two more units, wich would give players more freedom for tactics. Again, i really prefers a slightly smaller scale, cause later combat missions in retro X-COM could take two hours, wich would not be cool today anymore. Still, two more units than six and i’m happy.
Inventory management and soldier progression: this is where Firaxis built a whole new system, compared to the original. I like the four classes so far. All of them are valid choices and have decent class skills, some may be underpowered but this can be tuned. I can’t stand the new inventory yet, but i see why they changed it. Every soldier is allowed to have one special item, modifying a core skill, or adding a new generic one. Want to aim more precise, or throw a grenade? Sounds decent in therory but it breaks down with grenades being so much more valuable than many other items. I would’ve boiled it down to one defensive and one offensive special slot for all soldiers. Putting armor upgrades into grenade slots is just wrong.
Game of the year so far?
All in all this XCOM still is one of the best games i’ve played in years, even if it lacks some details of the original. It makes it up for with recreating awesome moment after moment and enables to tell your individual story of the game. I’m so hooked to this, even if just scratching the surface yet. It’s the kind of game, i did not expect to be made anymore. Firaxis tried hard to sell a slow, dry and demanding genre, to an audience conditioned being spoonfed positive reinforcements with every simple button press. I have no idea if this game becomes a financial success like it should be. It’s outselling anything else on Steam for now but its new audience is on consoles and i’m not sure how they will embrace it, if at all.
If XCOM fails in the market, it paints the bleak picture of its audience as i always suspected. This is a great product for one advanced audience. We’ll see if such a thing still exists. I can’t wait to play more of this. It’s so good.