Sunday, 25 August 2013

I liked another computer game!

Screenshots in this article are copyright © 2012 Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. and are used here for the purpose of review.

For the last month or so my reading and blogging activities have fallen way behind schedule. Why? Because I've been addicted to a computer game! This is only the second time this has happened since 1995. The last time was Red Wasp Studio's Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land in 2012 [my review]. This time, it was XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis Games: a game so addictive it consumed almost my every free moment until I finished it.

Dealing with the alien threat to Brisbane!

Both Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are specimens of the turn-based strategy genre, one of my favourite types of computer game and one that has been sadly out of fashion for many years now. Moreover, while I thought that Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land was based heavily on the 1994 turn-based-strategy classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a straight reboot of that game. Therefore, I'll share a few thoughts on the game itself and also on how I feel it stacks up to its progenitor (and no spoilers until the very end—I'll warn you beforehand anyway.)

The premise of the game is that you command XCOM—a multi-national effort to rid Earth of hostile aliens that are dropping in. You play it on two levels: strategic and tactical. 

At the strategic level, you are responsible for directing XCOM's research efforts, purchasing or manufacturing equipment to arm the organisation's aircraft and ground troops, and deciding which missions XCOM should take. This is largely a resource-management game, as you slowly build out XCOM's base and expand the organisation's ability to counter ever-more hostile aliens.

The 'antfarm' view of the XCOM base,
showing the various menus

At the tactical level, you regularly lead small squads of soldiers (initially, four) on missions to kill aliens infiltrating Earth's cities or lurking around UFOs that have ended up on the ground in some remote place—either because the aliens landed there or because your interceptors have shot them down. Successful missions get you alien technology and alien beings (dead or alive) to bring back for research.

An XCOM soldier in the midst of
a close encounter. Should be fine.

If you haven't played turn-based strategy before, it would be easy to mistake the screenshot above for a real-time strategy game where your soldier and the alien are fighting it out as you watch. However, in this kind of game, you cycle through your soldiers one at a time, moving them and firing their weapons. Then, the aliens get their turn to move and fight. Think of it like chess. Basically, in the course of a turn, each of your soldiers can:
  • move (dash) the full range of their allowed distance on the battlefield
  • move half their allowed distance, and perform an action (typically, defer shooting until the aliens' turn)
  • fire a weapon
Certain weapons and certain skills available to your soldiers vary this a little, but that's the starting point.
    You can only see a limited amount of the battlefield at a time. As your soldiers move, more and more is revealed, including wherever it is that the aliens are hiding out. The battlefield is also provided with all kinds of obstacles that serve as cover of varying degrees behind which your soldiers and their opponents can shelter.

    Moving slowly and cautiously is essential. Soldiers left standing around out in the open at the end of your turn are just asking to get shot: and one or two shots is usually all it takes to get killed at most stages of the game (yes, you have the opportunity to research better armour for your troops, but as the game progresses, the aliens you encounter tend to be more powerful and better armed).

    As your soldiers gain experience, they specialise into assault troops, heavy troops, support troops, or snipers; each with access to a different set of skills and equipment.

    Successful completion of certain missions along the way advances a storyline that culminates in a final showdown with the aliens and ends the game.

    I love the slow, thoughtful pace of this game. I love that success relies on smart strategy and sound tactics rather than how fast and how accurately you can click a mouse or mash buttons on a controller. Finally, I love the setting and feel of this game: very well realised (although I'd probably fall in love with any turn-based strategy game of this level of quality, regardless of setting!)

    If you've never tried turn-based strategy before, I highly recommend this game as a starting point. No, it's not cheap, but wow, does it deliver bang-for-buck! Really, when a game is the best in its class, you don't mind paying more for it, right?

    For anyone who remembers (or is curious about) how the game stacks up to its forebear, read on.

    How does it compare to the original? Well, obviously, the graphics are better, as you would expect for two games with nearly 20 years between them:

    19942012 (like this comparison
    even needed captions...)

    The gameplay itself is... different. This is by no means a straight remake of the older game. I can probably summarise the entire set of differences by saying that XCOM: Enemy Unknown plays like a slightly more abstracted UFO: Enemy Unknown. By that, I mean that the most obvious differences to me are the way that many, many pieces of micromanagement are absent from the new game:
    • Your squad size starts at four and eventually grows to six, compared to the original's fourteen growing to twenty-six. Turns are therefore much shorter and you don't have to keep the whereabouts of nearly so many soldiers in mind.
    • While in both games, soldiers need to stop and reload most weapons from time-to-time, soldiers in the new game carry an unlimited number of clips for almost all weapons. You don't need to fret about how much ammunition to bring.
    • Soldiers' carrying capacity is far more limited: you only get two weapon slots, an armour slot, and an item slot to play with. In the classic game, soldiers had a variety of differently-shaped spaces in their belts and backpacks to carry a larger number of more varied things. 
      • Moreover, because it was easy to exchange items between soldiers, you could have one soldier carry ammunition for another's exotic weapon. Soldiers cannot exchange equipment in the new game.
    • You only build one base. You don't need to keep track of which soldiers and which equipment is located where. Also, storage space is unlimited and barracks space practically so. It also seems that the aliens never try to invade your base, so layout is mostly irrelevant (although some facilities get bonuses from co-location with similar facilities).
    • The classic game had a few weapons that could fire a variety of ammunition for a variety of effects. This is all but gone in the new game (the rocket launcher can eventually fire a new type of missile as a specific upgrade).
    • Having to complete a mission at night used to be significantly more difficult than during the day. You would therefore try to time your troops' arrival at the site for daylight hours if at all possible, and to see any distance required your troops to carry and throw out flares. While the new game can depict a battlefield at day, night, or dawn/dusk, that depiction seems to have no relationship to local time when you land, or actually have anything but a cosmetic effect: it doesn't affect visibility to any degree.
    • The economics are very different. While various nations might occasionally want to buy some artefact from you, setting up and managing production lines of profitable items is no longer a strategy.
    • The classes of soldiers seem to make a game mechanic out of what many players seemed to do as a micromanagement task in the old game anyway. In UFO: Enemy Unknown, you soon learned who were your best shots, and used them as snipers; you learned who were the strongest and gave them heavy weapons. The game now manages this for you. 
      • Soldiers also differed markedly in their stamina and strength, and pushing them too hard affected them. This subtlety is missing in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
    • Most aliens don't actually spawn until one of your soldiers crosses a line on the map somewhere and catches sight of them. In almost every case, this assures that you will have at least part of a round of free shots at the alien before it can react. Or you can send soldiers to probe ahead, trigger aliens to spawn, then retreat to safety until the whole squad can open fire next round. You still need to move carefully in  XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but not quite as carefully as when every step could be your soldier's last at the hands of an alien hiding unseen somewhere (or ambushing you as soon as you stepped off the Skyranger's ramp!)
      • For that matter, missions now start with your troops already deployed and with good vision of the battlefield. No more shenanigans of an alien grenade or Chrysalid loose on a still-packed transport!
    • Aiming is much more automated. Friendly fire from aimed weapons seems to never happen (and area-of-effect weapons show you precisely what area they will affect and warn you if there are friendlies inside the zone).  This also means you can't use aimed weapons to deliberately shoot out bits of cover. Now it's just click a weapon, click an icon for any of the aliens in your soldier's line of fire, then click fire...
      • Maybe the single most different-feeling feature is the mechanic of moving your soldiers. In the old game, each soldier had a certain number of time units available per turn, and you could spend them on whatever actions you wanted in whatever order you wanted. And everything cost time units, including changing weapons or getting out an item to ready it for use. The new game's more limited choices of action abstract this considerably.
      That's quite a list! But it would be a mistake to think of this abstraction as just a "dumbing down". Yes, there is far less micromanagement, and you probably won't be keeping sheaves of handwritten notes about which soldier is which on which base, and which base needs to transfer which items to which other until the new storeroom is complete, or which date to expand the laser-cannon production line. Nor will you have the fun surprise of the soldier with low stats who you kept around for opening doors with a live grenade in their hand to see if any aliens were inside the building unexpectedly getting really good by surviving so long through dumb luck. (It's been nearly 20 years, but I still remember my brother's soldier Leon who started his career as a suicide bomber but eventually went all the way to Mars!) However, the game balance is still exquisite, it still rewards brains over reflexes on the part of the player, and it's still creepy yet addictive to play.

      I therefore happily recommend it as a worthy successor to the original game. I'll be honest and say that if the choice was simply between this game and a reimplementation of the old game with new graphics and controls, I would probably still prefer the old game. However, it's not a huge margin, and even having just completed the game, there is definitely a faint nagging at the back of my mind wanting to play it through again straight away!

      I want to make a couple of final observations about the game that contain spoilers, so if you're looking to avoid them, go away for now and come back when you've beaten the game at least once.

      The storyline is quite different from the original game, and contains some interesting notions. That said, there are no real surprises here, and the plot is just as linear as the old game's was.

      One feature that is common to both games is the massively anticlimactic ending! In both, you fought hard to discover the nature of the final mission that you had to undertake, then fight your way through a long and difficult level to confront the 'big bad'... which you would they dispatch with a single volley!

      By this stage of either game, it's probably safe to presume that any troops who make it through to the final showdown will be highly skilled and toting some pretty serious firepower. Just as a single volley of plasma fire from these dudes would kill the alien brain on Cydonia, a single volley of plasma fire dispenses with the Uber Ethereal on the Temple Ship:

      Australian sniper Sarah "Longbow"
      Walker drops the alien leader from
      all the way across the room...

      Frankly, this was a little disappointing, and the fact that it was as lame an ending as the original game was cold comfort.

      Still, that really is a very minor point in a game whose addictive qualities lie more in how tactical missions are executed than in its story as such. I still heartily recommend it!

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