XCOM: Enemy Unknown: A Complete Autopsy

Some might say it’s unfair to compare this game to the old one.  I have no clue why, but some might say that.  So let’s compare it to other tactics games instead.  The lack of depth in this game is downright shameful compared to, say, the Disgaea series, which boasts an ingenious level of randomization, extreme replay value, and obsession-inducing goals to satisfy you.  By the end of my first playthrough in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I had researched everything worth researching, built everything I cared to build, and had lost interest in the struggle to save mankind.  Another favorite of mine is the 1998 title Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate, which almost rivals the original X-COM for best tactics game.  It included a fascinating map editor, staggering levels of detail, and one of the most memorable soundtracks ever.  This game has no editor, no detail, and no good sense of atmosphere.  Need I bring up games like Jagged Alliance and Fallout?  Compared to almost any other tactics game in history, Firaxis’ take on the beloved X-COM series is stale, shallow, and small.

Tactics games are supposed to give you something to obsess over.  Whether it’s equipping your characters with the best gear available, managing your wizard’s mana, or unlocking the next big story development, tactics games have always been driven by depth, fairness, and choice.  In this game, the tutorial mission literally forces you to follow instructions step by step, without even giving you the choice of deviating.  There is only ONE tile you can click on, and you can only RIGHT-CLICK on it.  I know it’s a tutorial, but they could just as easily (if not more easily) have created a Training Room, in which your units are free to run around and practice things.  Test out abilities, weapons, etc. without worrying about permadeath.  I guarantee that pretty soon you’d teach yourself about flanking, hunkering down, and overwatch.  But no, that would encourage lateral thinking!

Having played the original, it’s clear to me that this game was made by min-maxing nerds who wanted to do you a favor by automatically min-maxing everything for you — to the point where you literally can’t do things that aren’t specialized.  Rather than letting me create a small strategic base in Alaska dedicated to storage and interceptors, with another one in South America dedicated to research and development, everything is concentrated in one place, and my options are gone.  At any point in the game, I have no idea how many scientists or engineers I have, and I don’t care.  In the original, I felt deeply connected to every part of my operation, building living quarters for my people, and paying them monthly wages.  Now you simply build and launch satellites (through a series of boring menus,) and earn strange rewards in return.  Making South America happy gives you a special ability to autopsy and interrogate aliens instantly, called “We Have Ways”?  What?  Ah, right.  I forgot about the racism.  You did it again, Firaxis!  (Actually, I’ll admit, as a Ukrainian descendant I was hoping I could station myself in Eastern Europe and receive free borscht every month.  Maybe that could be DLC?)


The Muton Berserker is a “bizarre element” which deserves special attention.  Unlike every other unit in the game, it will always charge at whoever shoots him, immediately after being shot by them, no matter how much it has moved already.  This unit was clearly designed to force the player to concentrate their all their attacks on a single unit before it gets its next turn, or otherwise get out of the way.  The Berserker could easily move five separate times during YOUR turn — and that’s not including its free “alert” move.  Sure, it can be amusing to lead a Hulk-like monster around the map via gunfire, if you can kill him by the end of your turn.  If you can’t, it’s a frustrating reminder why things like turn order, movement radius, and logic exist.  The game doesn’t play by its own rules, which pisses me off, not because its a surprise or a challenge, but because it immediately poses the question: “what’s next?”

As I discovered the hard way, “what’s next” is just as stupid.  How about a robotic foe which — lord knows why — is immune to explosions?  Most machines are susceptible to rocket launchers and grenades (duh!), but not this one (huh?)  The game does nothing to explain the phenomenon either.  In fact, it doesn’t even have the common courtesy of giving you some kind of “Immune” prompt instead of a “miss” or damage amount.  You just watch as your carefully placed Heavy soldier pulls out his rocket launcher, fires, and nothing seems to happen.  “Is there something I missed?” I ask myself.  The next guy throws a grenade; it also seems to do nothing.  “Is my game screwing up?”  For a game that enjoys chiming in with annoying commentary on new developments, this matter is left suspiciously silent.  By appearances it should be the perfect candidate for these attacks, due to its large size and clearly exposed circuits, as well as its huge threat level.  You have an extremely limited number of explosives on any given map, so wasting them on a special enemy that doesn’t obey by the game’s rules is beyond infuriating.

Equally infuriating is the ability for enemies to magically pop onto the map when the game decides to screw you over.  I was playing an escort mission, tasked with rescuing a United Nations representative from the enemy, when a strange chain of events happened.  After reaching his location (and thereby gaining control of him) I began to retreat to the exit zone.  More enemy troops were incoming, they said.  Fair enough, I’ll be ready for them.  But little did I know that the enemy would fall out of the sky, immediately, directly behind my squad, which counts as a “flank”, which grants critical hits against my units.  “Shit!”  But wait, he decided to go into overwatch mode instead of shooting!  Thank goodness.  Now I can pick him off as soon as — Huh?  Another enemy appeared, and this one is taking a shot at the UN representative from across the entire map.  “Weird, the UN guy is behind cover, and far away enough that there’s no chance he’ll be hit by the–”  Oh.  Poison attack.  Guaranteed to hit the enemy, no matter how far away he is.  “Well, I can just kill that other guy and cure the poison–”  What the hell!  The UN guy decides to panic from the poison, which means I lose control of him and he immediately tries to run away… only to trigger the overwatch mode of the magically-appearing enemy, who shoots him dead.

“Looks like the mission was a failure.  Come on home,” says the loyal captain.

No.  Your game design was a failure.  It’s some of the most piss-poor logic I’ve ever seen in any game, ever.  I literally roared with impotent rage as I watched the whole fiasco unfold.  What was I supposed to do differently?  What chance did I have?  Why should I accept that as “failure”?  It’s not even just bad luck, it’s a series of terrible design flaws taking place in conjunction, with the end result seeming like bad luck.  (If you want a positive interpretation, consider that my deep frustration proves how immersed and engaged I was until that point.)

Other parts of the game are just broken.  The S.H.I.V. unit, for example, is a bugged out waste of time.  If you play the game, don’t bother building them until they patch the game.  There were widespread complaints immediately, but it still hasn’t been fixed (even with a 2 gigabyte patch on the second day of the game’s release).  [Updated Nov 9, 2012: They are apparently patching the game to fix the SHIV soon.]  The textures will go missing, the unit’s weapon will be listed incorrectly, and in my case, trying to select the unit on the map will cause the whole game to freeze.  I tried using it three separate times, and each time I was forced to open my Windows task manager and close the program.  Maybe some people are luckier than I, but it’s still broken.

Another example would be the movement system.  Whenever I tried to hover over a space overlooking a ledge, the game got confused and flitted back and forth between the space I was pointing to and the ground beyond it.  The only way to fix it was to rotate the camera so that it faced my character instead of the ledge.  Sloppy design once again.

I hope you love staring at this roof

Oh, and you see this?  It’s the roof on an alien UFO.  You’ll be staring at it a lot, since the game has a funny way of changing your view every time you select a new unit.  In order to see what the hell you’re doing, you need to scroll your mouse wheel down so that you have a cross-section of the correct location.  It only takes a second, but it happens every time you switch between your units, which adds up to dozens of times every other minute.  It’s not like the game can’t handle multi-storey interiors, either.  I have no idea why it’s broken.  [This is also being fixed.]

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