Review: X-Com: Enemy Unknown (PS3, X360, PC)

The latest game in the long running X-Com series invaded the Earth earlier this year. X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a tactical turn based strategy rpg for the PS3, 360, and the PC. Aliens have come out of nowhere and invaded the Earth. In response to this, the major nations of the world have formed a council and the X-Com initiative has been… well… initiated. The world’s best soldiers have been gathered and equipped with the best equipment available, and this is where it all begins.

In Your Hands

This is a game that really gives a true sense of both control and consequence. X-Com: Enemy Unknown makes you make decisions where there really isn’t a good or a bad answer. Every element of this game really makes you feel like you’re truly in control… you are leading this defense of Earth. You are responsible for thwarting alien abductions, stopping alien assaults, investigating alien ships, and more… or ignoring them. The most apparent decisions you have to make are which missions to take and which not to take. But these aren’t even the most critical decisions… the decisions that will inevitably determine whether you win or lose are the more subtle ones. Which squadmembers do you bring? How many rookies do you bring? Which veterans do you bring? It is these decisions that really make the difference… and they don’t even feel like decisions. They just feel like gameplay. This is probably the greatest accomplishment of X-Com, the way it gives you that sense of ‘decision’ without forcing all of the decisions down your throat, which is the recent trend in gaming.

The game does a very good job of making it so that every single decision, right down to where you place your headquarters, has a significant impact on the overall game. And not just in the obvious ways… sure every mission has a different reward, sure the characters you choose to level become stronger… but there’s secondary and sometimes tertiary elements to consider in every decision. While picking your headquarters determines which bonus is most easily accessible… it also determines how close you are to potential enemy threats, which can impact how much time you have for various things. While bringing a squad of mostly rookies gives them a chance to level, it also places a greater burden on the veteran or veterans you choose to bring, and that leads to a greater chance of them being injured and thus possibly not being available for your next mission. Sure researching x technology may seem like a great idea… but what if you need the resource you’d use on that for an urgent council mission? These are just some of the consequences… there are many more to take into account as the layers upon layers of risk and reward; of choice and consequence all build upon each other.

Saving The World

The X-Com initiative is the name of the military force you control. It’s a combined military effort by major economic powers around the world. Your squad is built out of soldiers hired from countries around the world and equipped in the best that can be found. The game features two primary goals: Keep the X-Com initiative together; investigate and ultimately terminate the alien threat.

Mission Improbable

The game is split up into missions of various types. Each mission takes place in a different part of the world, has a different reward, and a difficulty rating. When you complete a mission, panic will be reduced in the country the mission was located as well as its continent. However, any mission you didn’t pick will have the opposite happen, panic will rise. You can also reduce panic in other ways, which leads to an interesting layer of choice there. Which missions do you complete, and which do you avoid. Sometimes you have to pass up a really tempting reward to get a mission that is in an area you desperately need panic reduction because panic is the biggest threat to your completion – if panic reaches max level and is still at max level at the end of a month… that country will withdraw from the X-Com Initiative. If 8 withdraw, you lose. Not only that, but you get a reward for having complete satellite coverage over a continent… and you can only launch satellites in countries that are still a part of the initiative.

Most of the missions you’ll do will be random ‘panic missions’, but there are also some government special missions and story missions. Government missions will reward you with a special reward that is more significant than a normal mission and will usually have some special conditions attached, while story missions are obviously there to progress the story forward. The story missions claim they’re time sensitive but at no point did I notice any actual penalty for putting them off while you build up your squad. It makes sense that it would be time sensitive, given the nature of the story, but it feels a little awkward that the time sensitivity doesn’t seem to actually play out.

Minigame: Sim City

Okay, not quite like that, but there is an element of base management to the game. In between missions you have to build up your home base’s facilities so you can get the toys, soldiers, training, and research that will enable you to actually complete the missions. They’ve taken some steps to ensure this is all somewhat interesting. For starters, money is prohibitive enough that you have to really carefully consider what you want to build and when. For example, you might have enough cash to build a new lab to help get your research going, but if you do will be you be able to afford the satellite station you need to boost your income at month-end? Additionally, you have to excavate the land to build things, and possibly even build new elevators to get access to new depths of your compound, all of which comes at a cost – both current and ongoing. Fortunately, they’ve managed to implement this in a way that actually enhances the experience, rather than just being ‘that boring stuff you do in between the fun stuff’.

That’s not all though, there are also a number of other things to pay attention to in the base segments. From council requests, where various nations will offer large rewards in exchange for tech or salvage, to managing your satellite and interceptor coverage to ensure that you can shoot down UFOs that may invade various territories… you’re never really left wondering what to do. The game takes place over several months, and missions trickle in as you detect invading spacecraft, alien abduction attempts, and other related elements. Your ‘downtime’ in between missions is time spent scanning the globe for new signs of the alien threat. It would have been nice for them to make use of this time to allow you to go complete recently passed over missions for reduced reward, but I can also understand the problem with a concept like that.

Class Wars

Once you’re out of the base and onto a mission, your success rides on your choice of squad. There are several classes and among the classes there are different talent choices you get as you rank your squadmates up in their respective classes. There isn’t a lot of choice, with each rank resulting in two talent choices for the most part. These talent choices; however, do make a huge impact on how you play in some cases almost completely altering the functionality of that character. One thing that really bothered me was that several of the class abilities available were actually detrimental, causing you to lose resources if you used them. Yes, if you picked the rocket or grenade enhancing talents, you’d end up costing yourself salvage as any enemy destroyed by a rocket or grenade yields no salvage. Annoying, but not gamebreaking. Eventually, you may get the ability to unlock your soldiers’ psychic potential. An interesting addition, but annoying as it is completely random whether a squadmember is gifted or not. This means you might end up with an entire squad of gifted soldiers, or you might have your entire set of max leveled characters be completely bereft of a single gifted soldier. Again, not gamebreaking but annoying.

When you’re on a mission, it becomes very important to avoid taking damage. An obvious sentiment, you may think, but it’s more important in this game than any other I’ve ever seen. Even taking a small amount of damage causes that soldier to be unusable for several in-game days after the mission. Being critically wounded can mean weeks without a specific soldier even if he is healed during the mission. A huge motivator to not only take very little damage, but also level as many soldiers as you can. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting two difficult missions in a row and having an entire squad of rookies forced to tackle the second mission. All told it does make for a very interesting experience, as you are again faced with that feeling of consequence and decision without really being hammered over the head with prompts asking you to decide whether you want to save a kitten or piss on someone’s grave.

Where It All Goes Wrong…

I have to admit, I didn’t finish this game. I didn’t get to experience the ending, and I have no desire to play it more.

One thing that really bothered me was the fact that they derived the seed for the game’s randomness at the time you created the game and saved it with your save files – which are created every turn automatically. What this means is that the ‘randomness’ doesn’t allow you to reload to get different outcomes. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if they didn’t have a dedicated specific gamemode(Ironman) for people who wanted the permanence to their decisions. Since they do have that game mode, having the normal game mode use such a ‘fake’ feeling randomness just for the sake of adding permanence to decisions was really annoying.

But that would’ve been not such a big deal had it not been for the incredible myriad of bugs I encountered in this game. I played it on the PS3, and I have to say, it was really obnoxious seeing all the bugs. Probably the most frequent was the “Save may be corrupted” bug I saw. Probably half the time I tried to load a file it would tell me it couldn’t load because the save file MIGHT be corrupted. Then I would load the save again, and tadaa – it worked. Guess it wasn’t corrupted. But why couldn’t it load?

Additionally, the game would frequently either freeze, get stuck on an animation, or – of all things – have a character fall through the world. Any of these things would cause the game to stop working and have to be hard reset. I saw each of these probably 4-5 times during my playthrough of the game. I also missed an entire cut-scene because the graphics for it glitched out and went a combination of pixellated, misplaced, and cut out. As a final bug note, I experienced a few situations where I stopped being able to actually issue commands to my soldiers. My controller was still working, because I had to use it to quit the game and re-load, but it wouldn’t accept input from the face buttons to select commands within the game.

Final Thoughts

I played the game on the ‘classic’ difficulty setting, I believe it was called, and I found the difficulty to be at a very good place. What I saw of the story was quite interesting, although I didn’t see the whole of it due to the unforgivable bugs and glitches. Probably the least noteworthy elements of this game were the graphics and soundtrack. I can’t say I remember anything from the soundtrack, and there isn’t really anything to say about the graphics. They’re… okay? Nothing particularly special on either the good or the bad.

Overall

X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a solid game in a genre that sees far too little love these days. Tactical RPGs are just too few and far between. If you are going to buy this on a less buggy platform, I strongly recommend doing so. Sadly, as much as I would love to, I just can’t say that it’s worth it to play on the PS3. But if you’re able to see past the forgettable graphics and audio, you may find a charming little gem waiting for you in this game.