Besides all of these problems, there’s the story of the game, which is incredibly lousy. You’ll be updated by the “Council Representative”, an ominous Vin Diesel wannabe, bald headed and deep throated with his face hidden in perpetual shadow. Is it that hard to invent a real character, guys? He comes off more evil than any alien, and I was sorry to find out that he’s not secretly working for them. The other characters — a horrendously acted German woman, a straight-laced American good boy, and a kindly old Asian — all have rivalries and relationships I couldn’t care less about. At one point, the German woman turns to the old Asian and pleads, “Just trust me — this one time!” I’m sorry, but is there some kind of history that I don’t know about? It doesn’t matter, I don’t want to know. The alien plot is as follows: the invasion of earth is just some kind of test (of course)
which is why they subtly encourage you to destroy their minions. Unit by unit, their overlord explains how they’re all worthless and disposable, which, by the way, is great for making your accomplishments feel significant! They allow you to reverse-engineering their technology in order to guide you toward Psionic Enlightenment. Under the guise of war, they lure humanity into reaching its hidden potential, in order to… you know… ask you nicely to join them… after killing your fellow species.
You create this Chosen One character, who’s supposed to reach the enemy overlord as you board their Mothership. Turns out the aliens you’re fighting are the rejects of their civilization, and they need a new leader or something? But they don’t actually offer you a chance to accept their invitation, so it doesn’t make sense. Anyway, after you kill him, your Chosen One does the thing every hero does nowadays, which is sacrifice him/herself by flying the Mothership into the ionosphere, where it self-destructs as humanity watches happily. For an ancient and highly advanced alien species, they sure didn’t think their plan through.
Finally, here are some odds and ends. As anyone who was reading my Twitter found out, I had some issues. I stayed up late and was beginning to unravel…
Yes, these are real updates I made. And yes, the game really did hide my save files from me, listed them in the wrong order, and loaded the wrong part of the mission only to freeze on the victory screen it decided to show me for no reason. This happened multiple times.
As you can see, after going into the game folder and deleting some save files I never had the problem again, but it was clearly enough to sour the whole experience already. Considering the fact that tactics games are famous for accommodating hundreds of hours of play, the fear of losing all your progress is truly panic-inducing. If I hadn’t backed up my saves immediately and bothered to personally troubleshoot this unfinished game on their behalf, I might never have been able to finish it. Also, due to being a port of a console game you can’t name your saves, which makes it annoying to try to track down a specific one after you’ve been playing for a long time. How are you supposed to remember which is which? I would have loved to create saves at branching points in the game so I could go back and replay them a different way, but I can’t. If it was 1994 I could.
And what about Mr. Jake Solomon? I don’t get why he loved to hype up “cool moments” from original game if he had no intention of carrying them over. Such as being killed as soon as you try to walk off the troop transport ship. There was a gripping sense of dread in the old game as you stood inside the Skyranger, afraid to come out. In many ways it used psychological mind games to keep you on your toes, and it worked wonderfully. But in the new XCOM, you just watch your dudes file out of the ship as part of a cutscene, complete with angry scowls on their faces, and are guaranteed to have a safe start. So why hype it up? It’s just misleading.
I haven’t seen enough of Jake Solomon to know whether he’s a conning douchebag, or just a well intentioned bro who bit off more than he could chew. I haven’t listened to the 30+ hours of him doing interviews, because he gets on my nerves after a while. But from what I have watched, I believe that he’s a big fan of the series, and tried his best to translate the old game into something appropriate for today’s audiences. It just so happens his “best” is not very good. It could be worse, though. Instead of the lackluster interceptor fights we have now, he could have skipped them altogether. Instead of simply removing the threat of aliens invading your headquarters (which he did), he could have replaced them with a poorly conceived Tower Defense game. Instead of simply removing the most interesting aspects of medical kits and radar devices (which he did) he could have given us regenerating health and taken away fog of war (a la the Jagged Alliance reboot, much to its disgrace).
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is tarnished silver, to be generous. Even by its own low standards, it fails to work properly. And that’s the real tragedy. Nobody was expecting the game to be exactly like the old one, and even the biggest fans of the original can agree that it’s rough around the edges, but this is not the answer. You can enjoy it, and you can catch glimpses of what it’s trying to be, but it always falls apart. If you’re accustomed to the mindless trash of the FPS market and sports games I’m sure it will seem like rocket science to you, but fans of the tactics genre know better. If it becomes the ambassador for the genre — as sales figures indicate — it will be unworthy of such an honor, having abandoned the high standard set by so many who have come before it; in particular, by X-COM itself.
Welcome to the -/+ rating system, where games begin at zero and work their in one direction or the other! +1 represents being satisfactory, worth the time, money, and energy required to experience it properly, and for developers to create the thing in the first place. 0 represents a failure to justify its own existence and/or requirements. -1 represents an unpleasant experience that should be avoided.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown attains a +0.9 by not quite justifying the $50 price tag and failing to live up to its own implicit promises — and therefore its entire purpose. However, due to the inherently fascinating nature of “tactics” games, the general framework borrowed from the old X-COM franchise, and the built-in replay value (including multiplayer and some different modes of play,) at a discounted price it would still be worth the cost to players, at least. With patching to fix all of the technical problems, or with free content added later on, the game would also justify its production cost, which couldn’t have been too high.
*This score would be a +0.4 without the ecological significance of the game. Despite not being the focus of the review, I believe the user will appreciate the ecological significance while experiencing the game, and thus it has been accounted for in the rating. (However, anything between 0 and +1 is still not satisfactory.)
(Rating as of October 19th, 2012)