Since my favourite game series of all time has recently got a new release, I figured I might as well make it the subject for my first few articles here. I’ll start with the latest instalment, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
When I first played the demo, I didn’t quite get it: nearly everything was changed, the rules were completely different, the overall design seemed to have very little to do with the original series — it just felt wrong. But as I kept playing it, eventually getting my hands on the full version, I was frankly amazed by Firaxis maintaining and even refining the old games’ feel while replacing most of the original mechanics.
The first thing you notice is a near-complete rework of the tactical combat: you have at most six soldiers on any mission, compared to the original trilogy, where you started with eight and went up to as many as twenty-six; the time unit and energy mechanics were replaced by a simple one move, one action system. There is no more inventory management: ammo is unlimited as long as you reload, but all equipment besides standard weaponry is now treated as limited-use abilities. The hitpoints each unit gets have been reduced to 3-4 initially, with armour directly increasing their amount rather than reducing incoming damage. Another controversial addition is the cover system that affects the hit chance to a much greater extent than the distance from the target and combat stats both — in fact, you get a hit chance and damage estimate before taking a shot. All that, along with many more subtle changes, cuts down on the micromanagement and reduces uncertainty. This happens to work well and in the end makes for a much tighter, calculable tactical experience. However, there is still enough randomness resulting from cover being destroyed, soldiers and aliens panicking, ammo running out and so on. The second effect creates, in a word, tension. In the original games, you didn’t really see situations where your soldier was pinned down, unable to do anything: once fire was opened, one party would usually be down by the end of the turn. In the new game, that happens a lot, creating a much more memorable experience, as well as giving you some space for tactical retreats, flanking attacks or other manoeuvres.
Another major change is the base management: you only have a single base this time around, and its storage, living quarters and (once you get the facility built) alien containment space is unlimited. Your air fleet is even stationed off-site, meaning you don’t need to manage the hangar space. And you only have one transport, the Skyranger. On the other hand, money, resources and the space available to build facilities are much more scarce, so while you get less freedom and fewer choices in that regard, these choices tend to be considerably tougher. You will have to think and prioritise, sometimes selling important resources or unresearched materials just to build something you need right now. One more thing that’s missing is any kind of base defence: aliens simply cannot attack the X-COM base. The reason for this might not be immediately obvious, but it becomes clear once you analyse the situation: you only have one base, and if it were to fall, it would simply end the game right then and there in a strategy equivalent of a ‘press X to not die’ quick-time event.
UFOs are now detected by satellites you deploy over entire countries as opposed to detection stations you build on bases. These same satellites also enable countries to add to your funding — the amount added is also visible from the beginning of the game and does not change throughout. A simple ‘panic meter’ for each country gives an easy readout of the data you original games provided in obtuse alien infiltration charts: when it’s filled, the country is likely to withdraw from the project entirely. Lose eight out of sixteen, and you lose the game. This serves the exact same purpose of making the situation easier to appraise and allowing you to arrange some calculated plans.
In fact, almost every single mechanic that was changed from the original series works to either make the gameplay more predictable, remove padding or create the aforementioned tension.
There are, however, some things that don’t quite fit with the rest of the game. The new UFO interception gameplay just doesn’t feel strategic enough, especially before you get the upgrades necessary to order manoeuvres. The soldier class system and equipment restrictions it brings severely limit the customisation options for each operative, restricting their versatility. Aliens get an extra move when first spotted, even if it happens during your own turn, sometimes provoking reaction fire. The only thing this seems to add is rather unnecessary showiness at the expense of tactics — it’s never pleasant to find an alien in a sector you knew thought was safe, especially when it ruins your plan by stealing fire you had readied for something else.
At the end of the day, Enemy Unknown is a great game. It’s certainly not a remake or a sequel, but even though its gameplay greatly differs from that of the original games, it still feels like a true X-COM title. Also, it’s noticeably more approachable, allowing people new to the genre to start playing right away and pick it up going along, which certainly lands on a plus side.