XCOM Review

I don’t play many video games anymore but once in a while I find one that’s worthwhile. My go to games are tactical RPGs, Lego games, and I’ve discovered 4x games with Civ V.

The latest to catch my fancy is XCOM: Enemy Unknown which I picked up during the Steam Summer Sale. A number of friends all recommended the game to me and I have to say it’s living up to the recommendations. I fired up the tutorial and dove in over the weekend, played until I got the hang of things, and then started a new game.

Story and Engagement

Before I dive into the mechanics of gameplay, I want to discuss what makes this game so insidiously good. While it’s got a decent story and excellent voice acting there’s not much meat to the narrative. I’m not building any investment through the cutscenes. Where I am building investment is through my squad. I get to name my squaddies and customize their appearances. They each come with an immutable nationality and gender but there’s a huge variety of diversity represented with roughly equal male and female squadmembers from all around the world. Names are mutable, though. Since I have Star Trek on the mind lately (playing/running a Star Trek Fate game on Fridays) I rename each squaddie after the first promotion and class assignment. I pick a name that’s appropriate to the class, gender, and sometimes nationality. That French Sniper became Jean-Luc Picard. The American Heavy is Jim Kirk. The Russian Assault superstar is Pavel Chekhov. The British Support medic is Bev Crusher. This is cool in and of itself – it lets me roleplay the squaddies and enjoy the developments they make. I’m building a narrative out of the actions in the game that is entirely my own. What’s even more sinister and gets under my skin is that each squaddie gets a call sign after being promoted to Sergeant. Ben Sisko now goes by the call sign ‘Emissary’. Bashir answers to ‘Superspy’ and I’m giddy with anticipation for when I can call Miles O’Brien ‘Smiley’. The call sign system only reinforces the narrative I’m building and makes me more invested in the characters. Well played, 2k. Well played.

Because I’m weird and I need an overthought thematic system, I’ve color coded all my squaddies by what class they are which also corresponds to the uniform the character wore in Star Trek (with some variations). Assault troopers are red because their job is to draw fire and this is Star Trek. ‘Wiz Kid’ Chekhov is the breakout star there but I expect ‘Emissary’ to hold his own once he’s been promoted a few times. Heavies get yellow so I’ve got B’Elanna Torres and Worf ‘Son of Mogh’ Rozhenko holding down the line there. Support is blue, so all the doctors are there and some science officers including ‘Red’ Crusher, ‘Bones’, and Jadzia ‘Gemini’ Dax. That covers the traditional colors so I settled on black for Snipers. ‘Voyager’ Janeway and ‘Locutus’ Picard are my major players there. (The most ridiculous name I’ve come up with is Tim Tuvok; that was in my tutorial, though.)

Maybe I’ve played too much Fire Emblem or maybe I’m too attached to my squaddies but I can’t bear to lose any of them and have been replaying missions if anyone dies. I don’t play videogames for the challenger (just playing on easy for now) but for the story. I’m not getting frustrated with my no one left behind policy the way I occasionally would with challenging Fire Emblem levels. It does make for some slow going, though.

Gameplay

The tactical play is great – simple turns for each unit and a good action economy combine with a sophisticated and well planned cover system to simulate modern combat. The basic actions are simple: move, dash, fire, overwatch, and take cover. Each squaddie gets two actions. Any action other than move ends the squaddie’s turn. Dash is a second move. Fire lets you shoot at an enemy if there is one in sight. Overwatch will fire upon the first enemy to move through the squaddie’s line of sight but only triggers on movement, not on an attack. Take cover doubles the cover bonus until the start of the next turn. Each class gets unique actions that add to this menu of choices.

The classes are varied and offer interesting niches within the unit. Specifically, many of the class abilities open up new tactical options that add to the depth of combat. My favorites so far are the Assault class’ Lightning Reflexes – which protects the character from one reaction shot each turn – and the Sniper’s Squadsight – which let’s the sniper see anything the rest of the squad sees provided line of sight isn’t blocked. Lightning Reflexes has so much utility as an ability it’s almost a no-brainer to take it. Squadsight, on the other hand, has fairly limited utility but I’m in love with the idea even though I generally take Snap Shot instead to allow my snipers to move and still fire.

The Assault class carries shotguns and is highly mobile (I think they have a longer move range than other classes), which helps make up for the shotguns’ lack of range. The basic Assault ability is Run and Gun which lets the class double move and shoot every third turn. Lightning Reflexes lets them scout with a measure of safety as well as get up close and personal for big damage attacks, which pairs incredibly well with Run and Gun. They get a second shot with the Rapid Fire ability, which lets them make two attacks at a -15 accuracy in a single turn.

The Sniper class carries sniper rifles (natch) and have the longest range. Their default ability, Headshot, adds +30 critical hit chance to really deal out the damage. They can’t move and shoot (unless you have Snap Shot) so it’s best to leave them in place (thus the strength of Squadsight). Their strengths are high accuracy, long range, and big damage, but they are really limited in their mobility. They can also become absolute monsters with pistols if you choose. When I need to capture an alien, I typically work them down to 1 or 2 HP with a Sniper and a pistol before going for the stun with an Assault trooper.

The Heavy class gets the LMG and their default action Fire Rocket is a once-per-mission thing that will level the playing field. They’re big and beefy with a good mix of damage at a standard range. Rapid Reaction gives them a second shot if they hit with their first reaction shot. This means you’re incentivized to put them on watch, as upping your damage output is always good. They also get Holo-Targeting which improves the accuracy of allies targeting that enemy.

The Support class is the most varied, I think. They can be excellent reactionaries or get great mobility with their first choice between Covering Fire and Sprinter but later choices specialize in either healing or improving their Smoke Grenade class ability. Covering Fire is great because it lets the Support take a reaction shot when enemies fire, no longer trusting on the enemy to move through your line of sight. Combine that with the Sentinel ability once you reach colonel and a Support squaddie can make two reaction shots triggered off enemy movement or fire. I’ve been going the medic route with most of my Supports with Field Medic and Revive because I like healing but I may send Deanna Troi down the Smoke Grenade path. The biggest downside to the Support class is they deal the least amount of damage of any of the classes so they really are mostly support while your other squaddies will be the ones laying down the hurt. My favorite ability for the Support class is the singular ability at major rank called Deep Pockets that lets you equip two items in the squaddie’s backpack.

The cover system works very well and I have very few complaints about it. The game clearly indicates what offers cover, in what direction, and at what strength (full or partial). Destructible terrain makes for some tense moments as I’m left wondering if the wall I’ve hidden behind will hold. There are a few things with line of sight that I don’t agree with but that’s nothing I can’t work around or just accept as part of the conceit of the game design.

The strategic system of managing a base and developing new technologies is also very well done. It’s close enough to Civ V to scratch a bit of that itch. Balancing all the different resources and constraints poses an interesting problem that I’m still gnawing on happily. I haven’t gotten very far but I have built satellite uplink facilities, launched satellites, built a thermo power plant, and experimented on a bunch of alien crap. This got me a laser rifle for my Assault troopers in the tutorial and I’m eagerly working toward that again.

My biggest complaint is the pathing for character movement and how that interacts with 3D terrain. There’s a mission early on where you place some transponder beacons in a train. This is good and an interesting mission with a timer. What’s not good is that the game has a hard time telling whether you want to move to a space inside the train or on top of the train. My play time for that mission went way longer than it had to because I spent so much time trying to get my squaddies to the proper points inside the train and they’d end up on top of the train. Immensely frustrating but I eventually managed to work around it by zooming in and out, which seems to lock the cursor onto a level for a moment.

All in all this game is proving to be very engaging and enjoyable. I haven’t beaten it yet but I imagine I absolutely will, given time. My next post will get into what parts of XCOM translate into good RPG design.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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