Firaxis' XCom, review and comparison to the Orig.

Hello folks! Here is another fan review of the freshly releasedXCom remake by Firaxis. This one is written by someone who deeplyenjoyed the original Microprose...

von - Gast - am: 28.10.2012

Hello folks! Here is another fan review of the freshly released
XCom remake by Firaxis. This one is written by someone who deeply
enjoyed the original Microprose XCom from the nineties and who believes
to know even the more subtle rules of this classic of computer gaming.

I aim this text at other 'veterans' of the old-school Microprose game
and do look at the experience of having played the new game once at
second highest level. I never played multiplayer.
Plus, admittedly, I have only arrived at the battle that has this
distinct feeling of 'a lot of good people lost their lives in getting
us here, and now the destiny of mankind depends on the six poor suckers
who...', well, let's keep spoilers at a minimum!

To the issue: The series has come a long way (counting numerous
sequels and remakes out there) but this one seems to be closest to
the original in terms of basic rules, technology tree, and monster
types. Yet I count it as something entirely new as well, because even
though I continously experienced meeting old friends and enemies
there was always something new added to or removed from the mix.

Let's organize this into chapters.

1. Strategic gameplay.
Yes, the rumours a true: There is one (1) base. Period. Pick its
continent and it will be built and be there for the game.
There is also only one skyranger and if you send your heroic troops
into battle it is effectively like teleporting them there for I never
saw something happen during the skyrangers flighttime even though
some hours do pass. So no way of having several teams on the globe,
no transfering high ranking officers in remote locations to boost
the backwater-troops' morale or to offer them psi-support or high-tech
equipment from that secret development base possibly built in Antarctica.

Also the player will never think: "There are a lot of supply ships in
that area -- let's send an interceptor patrol for there may be a base",
or "there is a terror ship flying towards Beijing -- might as well
send the skyranger on its way right now."
Instead I believe that the larger UFO mission scopes with their
escalation levels from scouts to specialized UFO types have been
grossly simplified. This is my biggest critizism towards this otherwise
beautiful game and maybe it holds at least partial injustice since
for a long time I have been unable to provide adequate reconaissance.

However, there are huge improvements to the strategic gameplay as well.
For instance the original XCom had a lot of no-need-for technologies.
The laser age was so short that I often skipped it and stuff like alien
food or even some of the autopsies I only performed for role-playing-
ethos-purposes. With Firaxis almost every research has some purpose.
Especially autopsies and interrogations for they tend to give at least
basic knowledge accelarating later research.

In Engineering there no longer is need to micromanage the production
of handguns or even ammunition. Instead simpler equipment can be
manufactured instantly given appropriate resources and a large enough
engineering team. Said resources are not seldom alien debris or
dead aliens. Thus the player is loath selling all this dead muton mutton
since he or she never knows for what it might be needed and be it to make
some nation happy who may have a research program of its own.
Only larger equipment like fightercraft or satellites still need
substantial production time.

Where in the olden days the base layout was governed by the need of
defense against intrusion, now synergy effects come into focus. It
is sensible to organize the cumulative facilities into neighbouring
blocks for getting extra functionality boosts. Such boosts apply even
if 'adjacent' means above or below.

As for mission choice: Declining missions is politically very expensive.
Often one can make a choice to prefer one nation over the other and
this not only effects the happiness (one goes good, others go bad) but
also the rewards one gets for the mission.

And as in the original XCom it appears to be imperative to attain
the ability to detect and shoot down larger UFOs. Detecting is done
by placing satellites over the supporting nations -- from a physics
point of view this is interesting for most nations are far from the
equator. Do these geostationary satellites have propulsion? But I digress.
The satellites appear to have blinds before their cameras matching their
countries borders precisely. This way an alien is safe and altogether
invisible if it makes its way over the border and outside the jurisdiction of XCom.
As another consequence a shot-down UFO will never crash into the ocean.
Shooting down UFOs has been enriched with consumable items beefing up
the old interceptors which on the whole have lost a lot of their power.

The last great difference to the old game is recruiting of scientists
and engineers. There is none. A pitiful few of those specialists come
along if laboratories or workshops are built. More often they are sent
from grateful nations. This enters a new element of strategy into the
game and not a simple one for money is scarce, too, and the decisions
tied to these resources can be hard. If there are too few engineers some
equipment just cannot be built. If there is too little money countless
other things may suffer. Only the science team is traditional in that
a small department will solve the problems just slower than a large one.

2.: Tactical gameplay.
In olden days each soldier could handle every piece of equipment and
get better over time and usage -- with the single exception of the psi
amplifier. In 2012 a rookie can handle a gun and some of the less
specialized equipment. Upon deserving his promotion to squaddie he or
she decides what his or her future shall hold and is assigned a class.
An official sniper no longer handles the standard gun but only rifles
and maybe a sidearm. The player cannot control whether a rookie turns out
to be a medic or a heavy weapons specialist. This alongside the fact
that soldiers are often killed or hospitalized motivates to hire a rather
large force of soldiers.

One note regarding equipment: Reading other texts like this one I learned
the rumour that there is infinite ammunition in this game. This is only
partially true in the sense that a soldier never runs out of clips for
his main weapon and that his sidearm needs no recharging at all.
As for all other equipment it is highly spendable. Usually there is only
one specialized item that can be carried. And that class contains
virtually everything that is not the main armor or the primary or
secondary weapon. So a soldier carrying a single grenade can no longer
carry a medkit. It is a trivial flaw in game-design they named that
equipment slot the 'backpack'. No XCom soldier carries such a thing
into combat.

As for the battle itself: It is gorgeously beautiful to see the squad
trudging through rain so thick that rivers form on the streets
even flowing over the lines of the HUD outlining what squares a soldier
may reach this turn. In gameplay huge improvements have been done in
terms of cover. Soldiers may attack their enemies from behind a wall
without really having to step out. Plus a soldier gets a substantial bonus
when attacking from the side or from behind or from higher ground.

However there is a substantial downside, too:
First, the aliens have become fearless. If the squad kills
off 14 aliens in a row the 15th alien may
run for cover but will attack the next round as if nothing had been.
Also while it is still possible to manually throw a grenade or to
place a rocket impact the same seems not to hold true for standard
rifles. This lack of option, in my opinion, is a major setback.
For it is possible for stray bullets to set a car on fire (which in good
American dramaturgy will explode the subsdequent turn incinerating
anyone and anything covering behind it). Or it is possible to punch
a whole through that concrete wall using adequate plasma weaponry.
Here an option to shoot the furniture would have been easy-to-implement
and quite important for the game.

Another issue connected to the latter problem is a downright bug:
Since mind-controlled enemies count as members of the XCom team it
is neither possible to stun them nor to have them shot down after
they where compelled to leave cover. Plus it gets dangerous when
the compulsion ends and the alien is still alive for then it will
not lose a single turn but reenter to fight against humanity right away.

There also is a bad lack of an option allowing for exchange of items
from a soldier's inventory with the inventory of fallen (or active for that matter)
comrades. This would be interesting if the only soldier with a stunner
has been defeated. It would be important if the soldier with the medikit
has been incapacitated. Without any "pick up" action this soldier is doomed to
bleed to death lying beside his own medic equipment.

As for the aliens: They have learned. Aliens that left the
immediate line of fire and disappeared for say 10 rounds have a
nasty habit of returning from the flanks. Plus they no longer shoot
only the heavy plasma rifle and a few grenades. There are continous
holding-fire attacks, there are floaters who rocket across the whole
map, there are aliens sharing powers. The cyberdisc now really
inspires fear especially if supported by its drone's. And I will not
describe here the unspeakable horror struck by the sectopod and its
many weapons that makes the 90's variation look like a tame imperial
marcher squashed by some falling ewok tree. In addition there
are differences in alien strategy. The elusive snakeman-equivalent
is an altogether different foe as the the rather straight-forward
muton or the deadly albeit somewhat suicidal Cryssalid.

Another new feature is that aliens need to be triggered. Meaning that
they stand around in groups of usually three, doing some alien stuff
like sticking sensors into poor green-goo-imobilized abductees. Once
they see or hear the XCom squad they instantly run for cover (regardless
whose turn it is) and will fight from there on. Great idea and most
atmospheric for the game! In my opinion that concept would be perfect
if a fighting alien would also have the ability to trigger other such
hornet nests. It feels a bit unrealistic if the XCom team over a period
of three or four rounds releases the energies from hell to obliterate
three aliens and the next three aliens four tiles further back only
look up when the squad continues its march over the blasted ruins of
their friends. Errata written a couple of days later: Actually if a
small alien squad is hammered they may call for help. Alien groups
that are close-by seem to react to that.

3.: Psionics
It is XCom. Hence it is psychic. Like in the original game soldiers have to
perform psionic training. This is a once-in-a-life-time chance for each
soldier and either ends in 'he or she has the gift' or 'he or she appears
not to have what it takes'.

Believing hints in the game this outcome is dependent on the will power
property and that in itself is dependent on the soldiers rank.
So it maybe a strategic decision not to stick the rookies in the machine
for they seem to fail and thereafter will nevermore become the powerful
psychics they might have come to be.

Upon being gifted a soldier may psi away at the wave of his hand.
Further equipment is available but not strictly needed. If he uses
his powers often he will get new abilities. Enough said.

A large difference is in alien psi abilities. In the old game it was
sufficient when the alien team could set eyes on some poor fellow
with low psi strength, and a more or less close-by but hidden alien
psychic could wreak havoc in the soldiers mind. This fitted beautifully
to the hive-mind mysticism of the series. In the new XCom
the alien psi master must set eyes on his victim personally. Plus
his doing is visible to onlookers since a wavy band of energy seems to
connect the heads of attacker and victim. In addition taking control uses
up a whole turn. Therefore I often wonder if the sectoid commanders
would not fare better with a traditional plasma weapon than with
their impressive abilities. The mere display of his power tends to strike
terror in the hearts of onlookers. But those who resist will blow the
commander to bits and his victim appears to recover instantly not
even losing his or her turn.

4.: Overall
XCom has, with lots of improvements and also some simplifications (only
a few of which are sad), arrived in the 21st century. The game is
beautiful to watch and it runs most stable (once in the tutorial I
thought I could not leave the baracks. But then I failed to see an
instruction box in the lower right section of the screen).

The story that has been evaded by me in this review is told in a nice
military-tough-guy style with an ambitious scientist happily gossiping
away while she reduces aliens on the autopsy table to little more than
mince meat -- the whole scene viewed from a sick camera perspective
almost through the eyes of the victim. The non-player characters are
all very like-able and, the story was new enough that I never really
knew what to expect next.

Here is a game which's rules will take more to
master than "w-a-s-d" and "ctrl". It is a remake, yes. But also with so
a great many new and often even better ideas. The developers had the
courage and probably the will against the marketing devision to produce
a game that is not in the center of fashion 2012. And given the sheer
scope of the project (Heck, 2 DVDs!) they did a wonderful job even
considering that it hurt that upon installation the game first required
to download 2GB of patching.

I do not regret paying 50 euro for this one and would rate it 9/10.
Not quite 10/10 since while this game successfully picks up the XCom
series, it still would not replace the old classic from the nineties.
Largely because the UFO movements where more interdependent in the old
game and because the globe and the distances over the world really
played a rule back then as they do not today.

Be that as it may. Firaxis deserves a final statement that sounds positive.
So here goes: Great game!

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