[Updated October 30, 2012: Updated rating image at the end]
Bottom Line: Firaxis transforms a diamond in the rough into tarnished silver.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a force of good in a world gone wrong. It has a few major problems on top of plenty smaller ones, but ultimately its very existence is a beacon of light. It’s a genuine turn-based tactics game with a strong strategy layer on top of it, released for consoles and PC simultaneously. It’s a revival of an old school classic with the guts to retain the old format and open it up for a new generation. All these things are worthy of applause. Let’s call them the “ecological significance” of the game. Regardless of its actual quality, and regardless of its successes and failures in translating old into new, the ecological significance of the game cannot be disputed.
In fact, the gaming media, with its degrading superstitions about “what gamers want” has reacted with perplexed delight, unsure how to react to something as simple, pure, and challenging as this. We’re only allowed to express joy over games that are hyper-violent/sexual/quirky/pretentious, after all! “I don’t know why I like this so much!” game pundits are saying. It could be the start of a new awakening.
But let’s put aside the ecological significance for this review. Once you pay $50 for what could easily be a 30 hour experience, you judge the experience, not the politics surrounding it. Does the game deliver on its promise, which is both implicit in the title, and gathered together from countless interviews of Jake Solomon? The truth is, not really.
A lot could have been done to preserve the soul of the 1994 classic (actually called UFO: Enemy Unknown in its homeland of the UK) without compromising accessibility, but that would have taken a lot of work, time, and creativity. What we end up with instead is quite good compared to other junk on the market nowadays, but one that constantly fails to live up to something made almost two decades ago by a tiny development team. The original game had a unique vision — an ambitious goal — of simulating the ultimate anti-UFO defense force from top to bottom. It was never just a “strategy game”, in which you manage resources and mobilize forces; or a tactics game in which you play out tense combat scenarios one movement at a time; it was an all-encompassing harmony between research and development, micro- and macro-organization, airspace combat, ground combat, political realities, and a healthy dose of accounting to keep the whole thing honest. The soul of the game is actually the emergent experience created by combining all these elements, which each weigh heavily on our minds as we play, just as they would in real life. You don’t have to play the game for long to see that the goal has always been to simulate — and the key to simulation is the interplay between total freedom and dynamic systems. Firaxis tossed this vision aside in favor of creating a smaller, simpler, and unimaginative board game, following stupid rules and arbitrary systems, which completely misses the point.
It’s sad. With a veritable blueprint for perfection at their fingertips, a lead designer who talks as if he worships the original like it was his Lord and Savior, and a legendary strategy game creator (Sid Meier) at his disposal, every problem (with the experience you paid to have, after you were implicitly promised) rightfully deserves complaint. And there are most definitely problems: overarching problems, underlying problems, emergent problems, bizarre elements, and good old fashioned broken shit. In some ways, the game is a quiet disaster.
The only must-fix problem was accessibility, since the old games are just too bulky, redundant, and mysterious for the mass market to comprehend or tolerate. And, as I said, a lot could have been done about that, without compromising the soul of the series. Automation comes to mind. Instead of manually ordering bullets and missiles from the marketplace every month, or choosing every unit’s loadout every mission, automation could be used. Click a little check box to automatically repeat an order of supplies every month, until “X” number of supplies are in storage. Create presets for your units, then simply apply them to your units during the loadout screen. It would be accessible, but it would also fulfill the goal of simulation better than doing everything manually. Another solution would be limited flexibility. Everybody who’s played the old games knows that the pace of the game can suffer from doing math in the middle of your turn, but one elegant solution would be to implement an emergency Action Point pool system, shared across your whole team, which allows your soldiers to stretch their turns a little further than usual, in dire situations. It could only be used a few times per mission, so you’d have to use them sparingly and make them count. Or if you’d like a middle ground that still gets rid of math, you could go the Dungeons & Dragons route and divide actions into “minor”, “standard”, “major”, etc., with units allotted a certain number of each. That’s just one easy way to allow players endless options, without forcing them to calculate.
Unfortunately, Firaxis had a more important goal: making lots of money without doing a lot of bothersome work. Oh, I know Jake Solomon loves to go around talking about how much they iterated on different versions of the game and had programming showdowns to prove whose ideas were stronger, etc. That’s why I was so excited for this game in the first place, why I hyped it up, and why I happily pre-purchased it. But I made the mistake of confusing the ecological significance of the game with its quality.
Overarching problems can be divided into two categories: I call one of them “the Civilization treatment” and the other one “console skewing”. In this case, console skewing includes user-interface problems, which is a big one. Despite being standard issue for the PC, there are no mouse-sensitivity settings, for example, and you’ll be surprised by the lack of drag-n-drop, mouse hovering, or right-clicking throughout the game. I mean, it would feel natural to drag the screen around quickly, zoom in and out with the mouse wheel, or rotate the camera angle without feeling like you’re trying to maneuver underwater, but thanks to console skewing you can’t. Soon enough you’ll feel obligated to use WASD keys, hit “Tab” to select things, the space bar to execute, and even the number keys to get around. That’s just stupid.
But nothing epitomizes the UI console skewing more than the main Headquarters screen — or “ant farm”, if you’d like — which you cannot zoom in on, despite the fact that console users can easily do this using their shoulder buttons. They’ve created a lovely ant farm here, specifically designed to be appreciated up close so you can watch your little employees running on treadmills or scratching their asses on company time, and yet for some inexplicable reason PC users are incapable of having the same fun as the console folks. Way to go guys, at least you have your priorities straight.
The MAIN reason this game was designed the way it was (simple and stupid), and the ONLY reason why it has gotten the attention it has, is because it is was designed for the Xbox 360 first and foremost. I believe this is a 360 game, ported to the PS3 and PC. Firaxis knows where the money’s at, and they lunged for it. The 360 has the weakest hardware, the biggest audience, and it controls the market, so instead of designing the game with the best in mind, they designed it for the lowest common denominator. It explains why the interface is so awful on PC, why there’s perfunctory mutiplayer included, and even why the game’s rules are so dumbed down. It also explains why the visuals are shoddy. I get severe texture popping on my gaming rig, which should be impossible; unless the game is choking itself for some reason. It’s not an ugly game, but even on the highest settings, it just isn’t trying. To me, it’s Skyrim all over again. And truth is, the 360 favoritism was a wise move. If that version had been delayed, or if there was a feature missing from it, or if it didn’t have the multiplayer for all those Xbox Live subscribers stupid enough to still be paying for it, it would have fallen under the radar and be history by now. That’s just the sorry state of the industry right now, which is why Jake Solomon and his friend went to every game journalism outlet on the internet and demonstrated the game with a 360 controller. But that’s politics, and there’s so much to discuss regarding the game design itself, so let’s get back to it!
The other overarching problem is “the Civilization treatment”, which is when you oversimplify something that would work much better if you bothered to simulate it. Civilization games are filled with lazy design choices, follow arbitrary rules, and are designed for people with no imagination who don’t care about logic, but still want to feel smart because “I’m playing a strategy game with lots of rules!” Come to think of it, Civilization is probably the worst strategy series I’ve ever played. They’re all poorly balanced, racist, full of annoying characters who give you ultimatums, and not the least bit engaging. Plus, the game computer constantly cheats to make up for the bad design, which is never a good sign. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not nearly that bad, thankfully. But all the same, you’ll notice that your options have been gutted, the rules don’t make sense, and a cast of annoying stereotypes surround you. And now and then, I strongly suspect it cheats, although I can’t technically prove it.
A perfect example of oversimplification is the “perk” system, where units gain special qualities whenever they get promoted, sometimes granting passive upgrades and sometimes active abilities to be used in the field. Sounds pretty cool, right? Not when something as basic as shooting twice in a single turn is considered a “perk”, which only certain classes, who have earned certain promotions, and are under certain circumstances, can use. The Heavy class, for example, can gain a perk enabling him to shoot twice in a single turn, if he stays in place. Well, hooray! You see, even if you believe that extreme restrictions combined with illogical perks are somehow preferable to having the freedom to spend Action Points however you choose, you may end up kicking yourself when you realize that the Heavy can only equip one type of gun — the shittiest one. For some reason, he actually loses the ability to equip pistols and assault rifles when he’s promoted. Quite ridiculous, don’t you agree? He’s forced to carry a Light Machine Gun and its various iterations instead, which are all woefully inaccurate, need to be reloaded constantly, and don’t even do good damage. So your precious perk, which allows you to shoot with an average 60% accuracy in situations where anyone else would have 80%, suddenly becomes irrelevant. Feel free to miss your shot twice in a single turn! I mean seriously, since when do any characters in any games actually lose options as they level up? And since you don’t get to decide what your Rookies become when they’re promoted, you’re suddenly stuck with a LMG, when you might have been carrying a highly accurate and powerful plasma rifle just the mission before. That’s a kick in the nuts. And it’s just one example among many of the Civilization treatment.