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This is not an XCOM: Enemy Unknown review


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out tomorrow in the US and on Friday in the UK. A few of us have been playing it and, in between dodging Muton grenades and exploding Cyberdiscs, we’ve managed to form an opinion or two. Now that all our Skyrangers have returned to the PCGamesN compound, we’re ready to talk about what we did and saw, and what we think of it. Tim Edwards is chairing the discussion as Joe Robinson and myself share the secrets of battling the extraterrestrial menace.

First question: tell me a bit about your background with XCom/UFO: Enemy Unknown.

Rob: I missed it, to be honest. It’s weird to think about now, but if you didn’t nab a game when it came out in the early 90s, it kind of vanished from store shelves. So in my case, I didn’t have a PC that could run X-Com, and by the time I did, it was two years later and X-Com was a memory.

I didn’t actually play X-Com until a couple years ago when we did a show on it for Three Moves Ahead.It was interesting to encounter that classic almost twenty years after its release. When the first soldier off the ramp of the Skyranger took a laser bolt to the head and dropped dead, I knew this was a game that predated any modern conventions about learning curves, tutorials, or mercy. And I loved it.

Joe: Never played it – is that a bad thing? I could go into a past vs. present debate with regards to games like this and what we do for a living, but I won’t as this isn’t really the forum. There were many 90’s PC games I missed out on as, at the time, gaming was just one of my many hobbies. I was just as likely to read a book as I was play a videogame, and these days I don’t really ‘do’ retro.

I made sure I read up about it as much as possible though, understood what it was and what it tried to do etc… so I could provide a little context for my thoughts.

Anyway, I’ve been following this Enemy Unknown since it’s announcement, and throughout all the previews etc… I really liked what I saw, and so I dived right in as soon as I could.

Explain to me how the tactical portion works. The XCom I remember had time units that you could spend freely. This is different, but I don’t understand how.

Joe: Each soldier has two ‘Action Points’. You can move a certain distance, and then perhaps take a shot, use an item, go into Overwatch or whatever (some items/weapons cannot be used after a movement though), or you could use up both points and move a greater distance, but be unable to do anything when you get there (unless you’re an Assault trooper and you use the ‘Run & Gun’ ability).

Funnily enough, if you choose not to move and take a shot/use an item/whatever from the off, you DON’T get to do two things during that soldier’s turn (again, unless you have an ability, like the Heavy does).

In this way, the tactics are very much concerned with moving from cover to cover, making sure someone is always on Overwatch in case you trigger a group of X-rays, and making sure you don’t rush your guys in too soon, or too close. The class system and the abilities that come with them come into the fore when managing your squad. Your sniper can’t move and shoot in the same turn (barring an ability you can get that reduces his aim if you move & shoot), so you essentially have to ‘spend’ a turn getting him into a good position for the next turn.

The Assault, as mentioned above, have an ability that do let them use both Action points and still either take a shot, or go into Overwatch (but not items) when they get there. This makes them good for running up close and finishing off an enemy, or for getting into a good position to cover the rest of the team as it moves up. The Heavy can use ‘Suppression’ fairly early on, which is a good way to keep X-rays in check, and can move and shoot not problem. If you want better aim though and if you want to use the Rocket Launcher, you have to not move.

The Support-class is basically your medic, and can be upgraded through abilities to move further then they normally can, you basically want to them moving and doing something, whether healing, covering, or dropping some smoke for extra defence.

Presumably, you’ve both got a preferred squad setup. Tell me about them.

Rob: I have a few. There are a couple different missions types in XCom, and they imply different challenges and battlefield terrain. So for boarding a crashed UFO, I’ll want to bring extra assault soldiers for room-to-room fighting. In open city streets, where we’re just hunting aliens, I might want to focus a bit more on range.

But ideally, I want one of each class: Heavy, Support, Assault, and Sniper. With my extra two slots, I’ll probably take one extra Heavy, and one extra Assault. I want the extra Heavy because their suppression fire is a huge advantage in combat, but it also consumes ammo at a staggering rate. It’s one-and-done power. So having two allows me to have one reloading while the other keeps up her fire.

The extra Assault might be kitted out with a shotgun or a rifle, depending on whether I’m going to be aggressive or defensive. Either way, Assault troopers give you a lot of flexibility thanks to their “run and gun” power, which lets them do a full dash action and still fire. They can sort of zip all over the map like that.

You were my best Assault trooper, Tim. Until that thing with the mind control. That was very sad. To be shot by your own men… well, you’re in good company. It happened to Stonewall Jackson! Not the mind control part, though.

Joe: Assuming we’re using a full squad of six, my typical ‘srs business’ set-up usually consists of a Heavy, a Sniper, two Assault troops, and either two Supports, or a Support and then a S.H.I.V. – a replacement for the tanks in the original game.

The basic S.H.I.V. is just a mobile robotic light machine gun. Later you get the ‘Alloy’ S.H.I.V. a bot that acts as a mobile robotic LMG AND mobile cover, which is really, really useful. The Alloy variant has a ton of armor too so you can use it to scout ahead and trigger encounters without worrying about being pasted next turn. Interestingly, it’s also really sad when your first S.H.I.V. dies… . It’s a bit like that moment from Short Circuit.

There’s also a ‘Hover’ S.H.I.V that flies, which is less slightly less cool. S.H.I.V’s can also be upgraded to the better weapon types, Laser, then Plasma.

As the missions get tougher though, there is more emphasis on keeping your soldiers alive and with enough health to see things. Considering even a levelled-up Support can only use their medkit three times in any one match, that’s not going to cut it when your troops are being shot up left,right and centre AND some guys need stabilizing before they bleed out. Therefore, towards the end then I would swap out the S.H.I.V. for an extra support trooper for extra band-aids. Plus they can also suppress which is useful.

But If it’s not a critical mission, or just not that tough a mission, I just throw in whoever needs promoting as it’s good to have back-ups for all of my main guys and gals.

I wondered if the reduced number of people in your squad (compared to the original) meant that you might feel that you had less flexibility in how you chose your squad. Did you feel that?

Rob: Yes.

Well, that’s a bummer.

Rob: But it’s a good thing! It means I really have to make some hard choices going into a mission. I can’t just bring my full complement of ace marksmen, machine gunners, and assault troops. I think it’s very easy to get stuck doing rote tactics when you have a ton of flexibility, because you can find what works and do it over and over again. XCom forces you to choose a place to be strong each mission, and a place to be weak. The decisions get even more interesting when you consider that some soldiers are injured.

Joe: I would say no, but then I never played the original so can’t really comment there. Keeping it in context with this game though… there’s flexibility through the class system. What kind of warfare do you want to engage in? Ranged? Shot-gunning everyone in the face? I didn’t really experiment that much with trying out new combos, so I don’t really know how viable they are, but if you want to go all in, Assault-style, you can.

Plus, six is a great number as it still gives you a lot of assets to wield on the battlefield, but still lets you get personally invested in the soldiers you command. Anything more than that and it starts become less fun and more micro.

The only annoying thing is that the game doesn’t let you choose what classes your soldiers are assigned to when they first get promoted, which leads to annoying gaps that you spend far too much time filling. There is an upgrade you can buy via the Officer Training School that instantly promotes all new soldiers, so you can then see what you have to work with, but it’s kind of annoying up to that point.

How’s the AI in the squad combat? Did you feel that they hunted you down and responded to your moves?

Rob: I find the AI tricky to assess. Part of it is because all the aliens on a map don’t really fight as a group. You usually encounter them in pockets of three or four. Once you spot them, they start reacting and do a competent job taking cover and flushing you out of yours. But because they tend to stick in the same place you found them, it’s not like they’re doing a ton of clever maneuvering.

I’d say the way missions are set up is where a lot of the challenge actually comes from. If you try to flank an enemy squad, your flanking force might stumble into another group of aliens and now you’ve got real trouble!

Joe: Rob’s right to a certain degree, the AI does tend to stick to the zone you found it in. Although I had many instances of the lone survivor of a group actually retreating, and then you follow it and find yourself triggering yet more encounters, so the tide keeps turning.

The AI does seem to be programmed with an imperative to flank you, concentrate on weaker opponents… even use grenades when there’s a bunch of you together… all of which my guys have been subjected to. Pretty sure my housemate was killed by a flanking attack… but then I didn’t really mind because he’s a bit of knob.

I haven’t really noticed instances of the AI being actually dumb, though.

Is it hard?

Rob: Normal can be a bit too easy. Of course, I say this after losing 5 squaddies in a routine engagement last night. So it has moments of real challenge, especially as the campaign goes on.

Classic is another beast entirely. The AI enemies shoot straighter, and there are a lot more of them. You can’t get away with any mistakes. It’s savage.

Joe: Normal is a manageable challenge provided you play it smart. I had a really tough time during the late-mid portion of the game because of bad resource management, and I struggled to keep myself equipped and everyone happy at the same time… but once you get things going again, and especially once you get all the cool high-end gear, it becomes a matter of ‘When’ you win, not ‘If’.

Classic and Impossible though… well, as Rob said. A whole other kettle of really-bad-things-that-want-to-kill-you. On Impossible it took me four or five goes just to complete the first mission, and then I lost the mission that followed that and three countries went straight to the highest panic level. Fun times.

Tell me about the bases you both built. Where did you invest your money? And where should our readers be putting their cash? Any dead ends/useless upgrades they should avoid?

Rob: So I invested in satellites early in the game. They help keep panic lower across the globe. Regions with no satellite coverage start losing their minds, while providing coverage means more money and other rewards from those countries.

But this also meant I had fewer goodies to use in battle. That cost me, badly, when I started hitting tougher enemies with the same rifles and pistols I’d had at the start. A lot of good men and women died for that satellite umbrella, let me tell you.

As for useless things, not really. Perhaps extra science labs were a bit of a waste, because I never really felt I was struggling to keep up on tech.

Joe: I didn’t invest in satellites early in the game, which meant I was unable to prevent India and Egypt from thinking they’d be better going at it alone. I wouldn’t say there was any one area I invested all my cash in though, as I went through phases.

After I lost those two countries for example, I really invested in Sat. Uplinks and Nexus’, when some new toys were developed, I made sure I could outfit my A-team with all the latest gear, and then when I got a soldier to a high-enough rank, I bought a load of soldier upgrades through the Officer Training School…

The only thing I will say is that you probably won’t need more than one of anything other than Satellite buildings (and the power generators to maintain them), not on Normal anyway. Plus they are the only buildings worth trying to make sure you chain together for bonuses (XCOM has this thing where if you build the same type of building next to each other, they get a bonus onto their base ability), as it allows for more satellite coverage.

That might change though in harder games… more Laboratories means you research things faster, but then interrogating aliens and getting more scientists on staff help you do that as well, which are cheaper (although not always easier) to acquire. Same with Engineers – building more workshops means you can build thing cheaper (although not always quicker), but you can get engineers through other means. It’s a matter of choice and where you want to concentrate your resources.

What spec PC were you running it on? And how was performance?

Rob: I played it on an i5-3450 running a GeForce GTX 560. Performance was great! Although sometimes it seemed like the action camera slowed way down, for reasons I can’t understand. Perhaps it was just awkward slow-motion, but it looked like poor performance. This only happened when the camera zoomed in on a soldier taking a shot. At all other times, load times were short and framerates were smooth.

Did you come across any technical issues that are worth noting?

Rob: I never had a session of multiplayer that didn’t glitch or disconnect. If Steam has so much as a hiccup on either side, you lose the game. Even though you can see it successfully reconnect as you crash back to the main menu. There’s also a selection bug in multiplayer where you simply can’t give order to any of your soldiers anymore. You have to cycle turns, and then control comes back.

Oh, and developers: the PC is not an Xbox. I don’t have one mike plugged into my machine, I have three, and I’ll decide whether I want to use your damned voice chat or some other VOIP solution. Don’t make me trick Steam into using a dead-mike so I can Skype with a friend.

Joe: There’s a couple of basic design decisions that result in some…peculiar scenarios. These aren’t so much bugs as by-products of how the game was made, but they are kind of annoying. Missing at point-blank range because the shot-chance is *only* 90%, for example, the fact that you can shoot (and be shot at) through walls and objects (but without damaging said objects) is silly, and the very end of the game is just a bit naff.

There were some bugs too though – the Alloy S.H.I.V.s I mentioned above glitched completely and prevented me from choosing one for my squad, so I had to use Hover S.H.I.V.s instead. It’s just not the same man.

Do you recommend our readers buy it?

Rob: Yes. With the possible exception of Dishonored, I’m not sure what else I could possibly need for the rest of the holiday season. The moment I finish my normal difficulty Iron Man campaign, it’s on to Classic!

Joe: Yes, Definitely.