XCOM: UFO Defense and its somewhat underwhelming deep-sea-themed sequel stand as titans among the strategy genre. I remember back in the 90′s playing UFO Defense on my IBM Aptiva. What really stood out about this oldy-but-goody was its attention to detail and its punishing difficulty. The game didn’t hold your hand like Command & Conquer or Warcraft (yes kids, Warcraft used to be a strategy game); however, that may have led to the game being widely considered a cult classic by today’s standards, rather than one for the ages. There was nothing more heartbreaking than to play for like 15 hours only to be utterly defeated, but in this game that was very possible. Some gamers today may be unaware of XCOM’s pedigree, but that doesn’t change the facts: this new game had a whole lot to live up to in the eyes of purists, and needed a fresh coat of paint to attract today’s FPS-hungry and fickle video game consumer. Can a turn based-based strategy sim make it in today’s market, or is this nostalgic trip down memory lane too litte, too late?
Turns out the game rules and rules hard. Some changes have been made to streamline the gameplay with controllers in mind, and the graphics are obviously better than what I remember playing on my 366mhz machine of the past. The game is at once accessible and incredibly straightforward to newcomers or strategy dabblers, while still hiding enough complexity and difficulty to make XCOM loyalists pump their fists at the right moments. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the developers to have one foot planted firmly in the past of a glorious series while taking significant risks with the gameplay, but it has been pulled off to great effect.
This game stays true to its name by having a ton of stuff to do. The game starts with an alien invasion (surprise!) and the government activates the shadowy XCOM project, which draws funding from all over the world to battle the threat. You are the faceless commander of this effort, and the early portions of the game function as a somewhat comprehensive tutorial. You pick a region of the world to place your base. As with many choices you make in the game, different regions have different benefits that relate to funding or other resources, and can drastically affect the game depending on how you play. Starting with more scientists may allow you to get more research projects done quicker than you would have been able to otherwise, but it may come at the expense of something else. If you didn’t invest in getting more engineers somewhere along the line, you’ll find that the weapons and armor technology earned from those scientists can’t be fabricated and put to good use. Like any good micro-management sim, it’s often good to think a few moves ahead and try to anticipate your needs. In this way, the game stays very faithful to its name.
Graphically the game succeeds, but it’s more of a big-picture experience. The base is abuzz with activity and looks great from a distance, but the ant-farm zoomed out view hides the ho-hum simplicity of each individual module, and it doesn’t look great up close. The game went with a pretty stylish cartoonish look that gives the game personality, with the aliens looking fresh and interesting. The textures on the battlefields can be a bit muddy at times, and the lighting effects aren’t the best I’ve seen, but this is a fast-paced strategy game, so you can give that a pass. The rocket launchers and grenades cause great looking real time damage to objects and structures in the environment, and the weapons themselves all look powerful just from the animations. The guns have kick, the grenades get all explody, and rockets go boom. The soldiers and character models themselves are simple but effective, and the battlefields are varied enough to stay fresh throughout the game, but unlike the original, this game has only about 12 pre-made maps rather than randomly generated ones like the original. Eventually, you’ll memorize them all.
To get a basic idea of the flow of gameplay, it is broken down into two major components: management and engagement. During the management portion of the game you build new structures/weapons/items, set research targets, view and customize your soldiers, and engage in other administrative tasks. How you perform in this phase is very important, because you have to maximize the time and resources you have on-hand. Once you have set your research objectives, started all necessary production projects, and equipped your interceptors and soldiers with the items you like, you go to the command center and begin to sweep the earth for alien activity. Days go by fast here, and your projects will finish at a fast clip (provided no activity is spotted), causing you to change gears quickly. Once one project is done, it’s usually wise to immediately start another. Once alien activity has been detected, you begin the engagement phase of gameplay, which takes a few different forms. If a ship is spotted, and you have interceptors within range, you can try to shoot the ship down. If you are successful, you then deploy your soldiers to the crash site to dispatch whatever aliens remain. Oftentimes when you discover alien activity, it will be occurring in a number of places in the world at once (usually three). You have to decide which country to help. Each country will offer some manner of reward for your aid, and any country you don’t help will see its panic level rise. If the panic level gets too high in any one place, then that country’s government will stop funding the project. Juggling risk and reward is the name of the game here, and make no mistake, you will have to make tough decisions that will often have pretty realistic consequences. Giving the player choice is something many games do, but punishing players for being careless while still making it fun is a big plus. The game does have a loose narrative, but it’s not very obtrusive. At times, your higher ups will have a special assignment for you, and there are a few points in the game that essentially push the story forward, but you will see them coming, and the game lets you decide when you’re ready. Make sure you’re ready for these priority assignments, because difficulty tends to ramp up with each one, acting as a sort of stepping stone through the game.
When you aren’t micromanaging your base, you’re going to be in combat. Combat is uniquely simple, but carelessness is almost always punished in brutal fashion. Early in the game, you can have four soldiers in a combat zone at once (although you can max this out at six with upgrades later). When combat starts, all your units are on one side of a battlefield shrouded by the fog of war. You have to inch your soldiers forward from cover to cover to maneuver to shooting position. Each soldier has essentially two moves per turn. They can move twice, move and shoot, etc. Keeping your soldiers in cover isn’t a suggestion. It’s how you play. Leave a soldier out of cover and it will die. Always. Combat often tenses up when you manage to get a soldier into flanking cover to take out an alien, or when your sniper on a rooftop gets that headshot. The camera zooms in and shows all the action up close and personal, and it looks pretty good, although almost all the animations will start to get a bit dull after you see them for the millionth time. Aside from just moving and shooting, your soldiers level up in battler, and you get to choose perks for each of them each time they go up a level. You can give a soldier more movement distance, give your sniper a grappeling hook to reach a better position, or allow a soldier to carry more medpacks. Before long, you kind of bond with your veterans, and you will mourn their passing if they die. As you research alien weapons and technology, your soldiers can start to equip lasers and other cool technology, and by the end of the game, you feel pretty evenly matched with your aggressors, and you feel like a badass.
While the core gameplay is undeniably solid, a few issues creep into the experience. The music is a bit drab and basic for the experience. There isn’t really any standout musical performance anywhere in the game that I heard. It’s serviceable military/sci-fi stuff, but by no means is it memorable. The voice acting is also a little lopsided. The head researcher in your lab has what I assume is supposed to be a German accent, but the forced delivery from her character made me cringe every time a priority research task was done and I had to listen to her talk. That’s more of a personal gripe, but that’s what I do. Another issue that some gamers might have is that the game takes a little while to heat up and let you off the leash, and when it finally does, you can easily feel unprepared. The game’s difficulty is brutal at times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some players got a little frustrated at first. The game also leaves a few things out of the tutorial that you can easily figure out on your own, but it would have been nice to know how to get more engineers before I was halfway through the game.