XCOM Impressions

Even with my backlog, I wasn’t going to be able to resist Borderlands 2, Torchlight 2, Carrier Command, Dishonored, and XCOM releasing in short order. I played a little original Borderlands (anyone else think about ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ every time they see that title?) to dull some of the desire there. Carrier Command sounds a bit buggy at launch (from Bohemia? I’m shocked). Dishonored might have to wait until I get a new rig. So I was choosing between Torchlight 2 and XCOM. Despite the price differential, my love for the original series won out, and I got XCOM.

Of course, the new release got me thinking about the original game. The early 90’s is ages ago in games terms. Back then X-Com: UFO defense was a revelation. Despite nostalgic temptation, it wasn’t a perfect game. Certain random events could ruin your game. The aliens could sometimes decimate your team before you even debarked the skyranger. The alien movement phase sometimes showed too little or too much. Your odds of making the amazing clutch shot always seemed much lower than the aliens. Then, the game was often brutally hard at the beginning and the end.

However, the original X-Com did so many things right that it earned its place as a classic hall of fame game. The over game (or meta game or whatever you want to call the global strategic part of the game) constantly had you balancing your radar coverage, troops, research, production and facilities to keep your benefactors happy and your budget in the green. Research combined story with technological developments that unlocked new tools, weapons, armor, facilities and even weapons platforms. But if you didn’t balance your budget, you wouldn’t be able to afford all those new toys.

All that work fed into the tactical game where your team actually fought the aliens. Better weapons and armor tended to lead to better results, but only if you employed sold tactics. X-Com didn’t have the nuance you’d expect from a tactical game today, but it was pretty amazing with multiple elevations, solid line of sight detection, cover, stances and environmental destruction. Not bad for a 2D sprite based game. In short, it was amazing for the time. It did many things I’d never seen before and many I wouldn’t see again for years.

That’s quite a legacy to live up to. So how does the new XCOM fare? The first thing I should say is ‘Go buy this game!’ It looks like an updated X-Com, but more importantly it feels like it. It adds enough modern flair and UI enhancements to make it feel current. So let’s break it down.

The graphics feel inspired by the original game without being needlessly bound to them. Different enemy types are easy to identify. The dreaded chrysalid is appropriately menacing. The environments are largely interactive and look nice generally without obscuring the action. Sure, more assets, especially for different parts of the world would be nice. I had far more wow moments visually than any noticed disappointments.

The controls are pretty good especially since they had to design for both keyboard and mouse and a gamepad. Deaths only come from tactical errors or bad luck. XCOM reminded me why I miss turn based tactical combat. You always feel in control of you team and their abilities. That’s so far removed from the spray and pray of too many modern games. I will readily admit that my twitch reflexes have atrophied a bit over the years not that I was ever good at rocket jumping in Quake. The only problem is that while the internal rules are consistent, it’s not always clear why an option is greyed out. Once you learn the rules, it’s not a problem, and there are ways to find out, but it could be clearer.

The sound is great. It provides the proper atmosphere. It can be quite creepy and paranoid at times which is just perfect. You can identify enemies and weapons by sound. Ambient sounds are nice and appropriate, but could use more localization base on the mission’s area of operations.

So how is the AI? I didn’t play around with all the difficulties, but you won’t win without caution and sound tactics even on the easier difficulties. If you want a cakewalk, you probably want a different game. Enemies are aggressive, use their abilities well and don’t hesitate to press their advantage. Yes, it can feel unfair on the harder difficulties. You are taking on a battle hardened enemy wielding superior technology. With research the playing field levels out a bit.

In summary, the parts of the game come together to make something greater than the sum of the parts. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to fans of the original or the genre. Like I said, go buy this game.

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