Sunday, October 21, 2012

PC - X-Com: Enemy Unknown

As some of the very small number of people actually following this blog on a regular basis might know, some years ago I had a  severely failed reunion with my old love; X-Com; the masterpiece from Micropose and one of the huge hallmarks of the 90’es. Depending on your country of origin, whether we called it UFO defense or Enemy Unknown seemed to vary.
What a lot more of you out there have surely noticed is the newest smash hit that has taken to our hearts and tried to proclaim itself as the best and truest follow up to the all time classic that was X-COM: Ufo Defense and the also popular sequel; Terror from the Deep.
I’m not going into a full sum up of the premise of these games as those of you who know them are likely more than familiar with the mechanic and those who aren’t would do well to just read up on my previous article as it explains it rather well. In a super short nutshell, Earth is fucked and attacked by aliens; you’re the supreme commander in charge of a paramilitary organization known as X-Com and through science, engineering and tactical squad initiatives you have to kick their ass back to outer space. 

In the eyes of a veteran…
Undertaking such a task with a game so popular is certainly not an ordeal taken on lightly and I imagine that most people reading this have the same speculation as I did; does it really hold up. Some of the newer initiatives in the area of X-Com barely deserved to bear the title, such as the Take Two Interactive project and certainly did manage to evoke some rather vocal reaction from its fans:

But we’re not about to beat that horse anymore. You want to know whether this game, this new game, truly holds up to the predecessor.

The short answer is yes.

The longer one is definitely yes.

And the longest one is; there are several aspects of this game which I can truly recommend to anyone who loved the first two, but to put it into a fair analysis, I find it reasonable to post where I’m coming from with this review. For good or ill.

What I loved in the old games (in this regard; Ufo Defense and Terror From the Deep)
The true gem of the old games mainly consisted of the ‘unknowing’ aspect. You knew so very little of your enemy to start with, you would go ‘woah’ whenever a new type of alien entered the field. You wanted to drag it home, ask it questions and then slice it up to see what it looked like inside. Then you’d take its weapon like a manic kid high on sugar finding his dad’s gun; blasting apart anything that moves.

The decision making and the importance you had to decide on various progresses. What needed to be researched? What could have funding and where did you have to cut corners?

The progress, starting from a small squad in spandex suits, firing nerf-guns, till you flew around the battlefield in metal-armor, smelting alien brains with your superior mental prowess. 

The music and sounds. Both games are ugly by modern standards (I’m sorry, but they ARE!) and yet the eerie effect is well in place, especially in Terror from the Deep.

Challenging. You had to take your time, you had to think, you had to survive. Kiddies, go home and sob over your shooters and “Press button not to die”.

What I hated in the old games
The unnecessary amount of base management. Having multiple bases was fun. Managing fuel for every single one and every single plane, with clips for every single soldier at every single base pretty easily got tedious. This is not contradicting previous statement about challenge because it was rarely hard; just boring.

The unnecessary long levels of Terror from the Deep. Again, not associated with hard, because everything in TFTD was pretty hard - but some of the levels were simply too damn long and took way too much to complete. It often clocked the game down entirely for me.

The fact that Mind Control was done as long as anyone on your team had line of sight to an enemy. Meaning both you and aliens would simply keep Professor Xavier comfy in his leather chair back in your plane and fuck up every detected brain in the level.
Even though having multiple bases was kind of fun, you grew progressively more detached from them all the more you got.
Base defense. A lot of people are on about this, regarding the new game. I’m sorry, I hated base defense; it seemed like nothing more than a detriment for the game, in the long run. In the first game, it pretty much served as the “Get your ass moving and finish this game soon, will ya?”.
So about this new thing?...

All your base are belong to us!
X-COM: Enemy Unknown makes little change to the overall premise; Earth is still attacked from outer space and X-Com, funded by various donor countries, steps in to make things right. This time around there is a much heavier emphasis on the cinematic storytelling, especially if you start out through a tutorial. 

Pretty quickly you will learn that you’re now only in charge of one single base, which is more or less managed through the same mechanisms as the classic games, except you see it from the ant-hill perspective. This was one of my original biggest concerns about the game, but having only one base works surprisingly well and keeps you invested in what’s going on in it. While you likely won’t use the zoom-in ‘Sims function’ that much, it’s good to see it develop, although the fanatic micromanagement people will more than likely feel left out.  A nice addition is how your selection of base placement gives you various bonuses, such as the US improving your air space and interceptors, and south America letting you autopsy aliens instantly.

The primary resource for building is money and power. Funny enough. Whereas living quarters and general stores were necessary foundations for the first games these are entirely gone now, and friggin good riddance! Your facility-progress hinges on building power plants now to power them up and maintaining a budget with their maintenance in mind. Scientists and engineers  are added to the base on a monthly basis or through building more labs or workshops. Some missions will also reward you with some; you simply don’t buy them anymore. We also assume your base has enough room for all the junk you drag home, and of course you still have the option to sell the alien trash you don’t need. Sadly, you’re no longer allowed to sell whatever manufactured gear you no longer need.

Keeping up with tradition, your objective is to make the world feel safe. If you fail, panic starts spreading in various countries and if it grows to a certain point, they will back out of the project and leave you with less funding. Lose enough of them and the doomsday clock ticks in and you’re out. For this purpose the aliens will often strike at various places in the world at the same time, and since X-Com only has one Skyranger now, you can only respond to one location. The remaining locations will have panic spread across all countries in the region. Alternatively, you can launch satellites instead of bases; a launched satellite will make the people below it feel safe, but you have to defend it by keeping Interceptors nearby, otherwise the aliens will quickly shoot them down.

While certainly simplified this is an easy solution to the lacking bases and launching enough satellites is not something you do in an instant. During my first playthrough I barely acknowledged them, meaning I was kicked out swiftly. In my second playthrough I focused all on satellites and Interceptors during the first two months, meaning my soldiers were horribly equipped and got splattered to pieces. But once the system got up rolling the money piled up and things went smoothly.

For science!
The research department is as you know it, albeit it seems a bit like a downer. While you enjoyed the nice illustrations of autopsied aliens in the first two games, this time around you get some text and a very repetitive cutscene of an autopsy. Interrogations aren’t much better off, which is a bleeding shame as it holds so much importance for the series. Also, the results you get along the way are much more serious minded and bland then in old days, in which you could research what drugs aliens took and some really pointless, but interesting, topics about their culture. This time around you get the bare essentials and usually a bonus to other research topics. Some will provide you with interesting upgrades, however, so science still plays an important part.

Your engineers still build your new toys but at a much faster pace now. Some of the projects are instantly completed, to be honest, which seems somewhat odd when you order a truckload of plasma weapons. Often you will also end up at a stage in which you just let the engineering-department pick their noses because you have the gear you currently need, unlike in the past where they would always manufacture lazer-weapons for you to sell.
This time around there are also the classical scienceprojects that will push on the main story and gradually introduce new enemies and aspects of the game, followed up with some short cutscenes. Neither the graphical nor voice-aspect of these are particularly good, but they aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be.

The field of battle
Where the new X-Com likely takes on is the improved battle map and despite some strange Line of Sight glitches there are buckets of fun to be found here. My second biggest concern for the game also involved this aspect when you could tops bring six soldiers with you on missions, compared to the 15 or so you’d bring in the past. Still, this works great as you eventually start growing a lot more attached to your soldiers, and if you’re like me (and a surprisingly large part of the internet) you name them after your friends and poke them on MSN when they die. As an additional detail soldiers now level up and receive specializations in various areas of the game, such as the detonating Heavy class, the healing Supporter or the deadly long range Sniper. As they progress in rank they gain new and rather interesting abilities that can make a huge impact on the game, especially on the harder difficulties. A true downer is the fact that these classes are assigned purely at random and you have no control over what you get. Thus, in my second game I ended up with six Heavies among my soldiers…

The enemies are wide and varied, and while going into detail would be truly contradictive to a game named Enemy Unknown, just allow me to say you’ll likely be pleased if you were a fan of the first X-Com. They are scary and certainly able to instill terror in you as well as your troops, and many of them play intelligently.
It’s the small mechanisms that will likely divide the waters between the fans in this regard. Time units are gone and replaced with a pseudo D&D system, involving each soldier taking one move-action and one standard action per turn, or replacing his standard action with another move action. The latter can be viable as cover is imperative in this game; without it you’re a sitting duck and some of the alien weapons are perfectly able to cripple your unarmored troops. Also there is no inventory, your soldiers have unlimited ammo but have to reload for a standard action when running low (and believe me, this can be crucially annoying) they can usually only bring one utility item, be it a stun-gun, med kid or a grenade. That’s right; only one grenade. No more grenadiers. This is an aspect that somehow simplifies the game a tad too much, in my book, but its impact is not as big as you’d imagine. Instead you spend time managing your soldier’s special abilities, such as double firing, running and firing or when to set them on overwatch. Now you can actually tell them to simply stay put and fire at whatever moves.

This also means  stunned aliens stay down, you can no longer pick them up and carry them around (and honestly, why would you?) you can no longer just blast terrain as all shooting (except explosives) have to target enemy units, and gradual progression is no longer an option. The latter is in this regard monumentally stupid, as you can send your soldier running to a wall, have him spot three aliens around the corner with a perfect shot to him, and yet he continues running straight to the designated spot. One would think he would be wise enough to make a stop and reconsider…
On the positive note the tension is strong, the music is great, the sounds are just right and the actions is big.  Cars will catch fire and explode, killing people nearby. A missed shot with a plasma-rifle will disintegrate a whole wall, a bazooka shot will send aliens flying miles away and the sexy Archangel armor lets you soar across the battlefield with a roar. 

The maps are just big enough to be entertaining, not often drawing out for too long, and compared to the hell that was TFTD they’re short and entertaining, while offering enough variety to feel different. Some levels, such as alien bases and landed, intact UFO’s will indeed test you and your patience, if you want to play it by the book, and that is undoubtedly part of the charm. There has also been left room for some new missions, such as disarming bombs and protecting a key civilian while travelling through an area.
You will beyond doubt make mistakes along the way, and if you play on the Ironman mode things quickly get brutal. If a high ranked soldier dies he’s gone for good, and some of the later aliens are more than capable of seeing to that.

Of course the much beloved terrorsites are still in place, and keeping civilians safe is the same hell that is used to be, especially if you rely on explosive firepower.
Luckily, laser weapons take over rifles, plasma take over laser and eventually you’ll be able to turn alien brains into porridge on the spot. Even the old tanks are still around.The progression is definitely there and seen from a macro perspective, X-Com never outstays its welcome. Once you start growing slightly bored with its premise, the game is just about to conclude.  

So all in all…
I have tried showing you there are plenty of elements that haven’t made it into the game and whether this is a good or bad thing is first and foremost highly subjective. In my personal opinion this game is certainly worthy of its title and near what I had hoped for in all these years. Even then it makes brilliant sense to support these guys because for once we actually get someone giving a damn about the gaming community and listening to our voices.

If you’re still in doubt about it, why not give the free demo on STEAM a try? Frankly, I’d say anyone whining about it without having given it a try; well… It’s quite hard to take seriously. I have no doubt that some will be blown away as soon as they hear ‘unlimited ammo’ and ‘only one base’ and I suppose that’s fine. But it’s a good game in so many other ways that it certainly deserves a try out.
A thing worth considering as well, is getting this for the PC-platform. Last time I checked, the first handful of MODS had already seen their light. I can only imagine that in the hands of skilled modders this game could get much closer to what you’d like it to be.


Great combat
Great atmosphere and music
Very true to the first games, especially UFO Defense.
A lot of annoying micromanagement from the first games is gone.
The levels are much shorter and still a load of fun.

The lack of inventory management seems too simplified.
Soldiers don’t know how to stop their advance once they spot an alien.
No option to customize your soldiers’ specializations.
Limited customization, visually and gear-wise for your soldiers.

Is it worth the money?
Definitely yes!

Will I play it again?

The Wormwood Mutiny pt. 3

(This session involved Jamal the Halfling gunslinger, Logan the human rogue, Jack the human oracle of Besmara, Sandra the human ranger, and Pig the dwarven alchemist/barbarian)

The gang of misfits were ready with their hands bloodied after the recent ambush from the pirates, so they decided to take a swift decision. While they knew little of the runner, they dispatched the corpses into nearby crates and managed to cover up the trails of blood as best they could.
 Moving up as casually as they could, they noticed the last guy cowering in fear in the other end of the ship, doing his best to stay the hell away from them as possible. They spent some time standing there, sending him angry and warning gazes; snitchers would be sliced into pieces. And he knew. And later that night, they snug out and dumped the corpses into the ocean, discretely and silently. 
During the upcoming couple of days, there were several questions about the missing sailors and very little answers. But the heroes certainly felt Scourge’s cold eyes on their back whenever the topic was raised…

That’s so shellfish!
Things were progressing nicely on “The Wormwood”; there was high spirit among the crew that the first sight of booty was well within reach in only a couple of days. Captain Harrigan decided to celebrate this with a fine meal for himself, which meant someone would have to go ashore at a nearby small island and gather a fresh supply of crabs. Mr. Scourge smiled at this notion as he sent the heroes off.

In a small rowboat they reached a small desolated island with white sand and a few palms. A nearby reef housed plenty of craps, and as they took their time gathering the shellfish, they couldn’t help but notice the strange trinkets of gold hanging slightly hidden between the green leafs. Succumbing to the dark side of greed, Jamal and Logan inspected them more closely and realized they were religious trinkets of sorts. They decided to bring a few for the trip. Pig didn’t like this, however; stealing from the gods was never a good idea. This fact was proven true as Sandra immediately shrieked in terror from the coast, where two demonic looking lobsters suddenly broke through the waves and attacked.

There was much cheering and celebration from the ship, as the party attacked the reefclaws. They didn’t prove much a challenge and were quickly slain, but the heroes didn’t want to take unnecessary changes and quickly returned to the Wormwood. Much to their luck, some of the misfits figured out that Reefclaw-meat was quite the delicacy on the high seas, so they gutted the shellfish and brought them home to Ambrose. Captain Harrigan was so pleased with this that he rewarded the gang with a prize from his treasury;  a wand of cure light wounds! (In the original chapter there are surprisingly few options for healing downtime for parties without channel-people. Even then, I decided to play it a bit more fair and reward them with a small wand instead of a moderate potion.)

The Man’s Promise
As the days went by the torture and slavery gradually decreased. Not due to an act of mercy from the officers, but a need to maintain the crew intact for the upcoming battle. Whispers passed among them and finally Mr. Plugg announced they would be coming up on their target in the near future; the sailing ship known as The Man’s Promise. Everyone was to prepare for battle the following day. The heroes visited the armory and stocked up on crossbow bolts, gunpowder and weapons and spent the remaining afternoon in company of their closest friends; Sandara, Rosie and Mr. Shortstone.

The following day, Sandra was approached by Mr. Plugg who gladly told her of her group’s assignment. They were to board the poop-deck and take control of the steering-wheel, all the time making sure to disable any life boats and foil attempts of escape. There were bound to be heavy resistance, but with a sly smile the officer assured her that ‘things would be fine’.

At the same time, Kroop was ordered to butcher some pigs from the cargo and toss the remains out into the sea. Not long after, a vicious school of sharks were circling the ship in a blood-infused hunger.
As they closed up on the Promise, Captain Harrigan took deck with his sorceress and trusty officers, who utilized foul magic to improve their odds in battle. The Promise seemed eerily silent as they approached, with the heroes holed up in their corresponding poop-deck, ready to launch themselves.

Battle erupted as everyone sprung out of hiding and fired a volley of bolts towards the Wormwood. The barrage fell some of the sailors, but the remaining went into a frenzy and locked the ships in battle. Harrigan and his troops marched resolutely across, slaughtering any signs of resistance, as they made their way towards the hull. The heroes managed to fling themselves across nicely, landing in the midst of six Rahadoumi sailors with crossbows. They took some deep wounds, but Jack was soon in their heels with his heals, turning the flow of battle against the sailors. Seething with rage they growled “Bloody pirates!” through their teeth and drew swords.

The battle pressed on for several rounds, the heroes slowly getting the upper hand as Cause Fear spells sent some sailors running and Jamal’s gunpowder shot crippled another. At one time, Pig noticed a hidden sailor make a feeble attempt at backstabbing the unknowing Captain Harrigan, and immediately called out. The captain angrily turned around and fell his opponent, giving a nod of approval to his trusty henchman.
Logan sprang to the railings and had a cinematic fencing-show with one of the sailors, while Sandra skewered one of the few remaining. At this time an explosion went through the ship, as Kipper set off a barrel below deck. Everyone was tossed around, making acrobatic checks to remain on deck. While Jamal got dangerously close to tumbling overboard, he grabbed the railing and hauled himself back up. As he did so, he noticed a civilian couple sprinting across deck, aiming for the life boats. Shouting to pig to do something, the alchemist dwarf shambled to block their path, shouting out a warning not to approach. In blind panic the couple darted past with the infant on the arm, and pig took his attack of opportunity. In one fell blow he killed the husband but the wife managed to drop the already swinging life boat into the water.

With the officers screaming at them, the heroes had to take drastic actions, but nobody knew what. So Jamal took initiative and sprinted for the boat, dropping an alchemist fire in its centre. It quickly caught fire and the remaining part of the family burned to death. (Gruesome, man. Definitely worth some dark side points!)
With more time on their hands, Sandra and Pig started destroying life boats but were interrupted as a fierce woman entered the deck with two sailors. She was a Rahadoumi Officer and plunged directly at the heroes.  She inflicted a nasty wound on Pig and her sailors began chopping up Sandra who was already pretty wounded. Jack couldn’t reach them in time, but the oracle scared off another sailor with Cause Fear and through a use of Rage, Pig managed to stay alive.

All firepower was focused on the officer and she went down soon after. Then they saw two merchants trying to aim for one of the floating life boats; they managed to hit it and started sailing away. But Logan, who had been locked in combat till now, took the jump and landed right between them, aiming his sword for their throats.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you leave just yet, gentlemen…” he said.

Not long after, Captain Harrigan entered the deck with an almost still beating heart in his hand. He grinned and shouted out victory and everyone knew it was over.

In the aftermath, everyone gathered on deck on the Wormwood and split the spoils of war. The situation had been generous for the heroes, who completed all their objectives but a very few and they were handsomely rewarded. Among the cargo from the Promise were several crated with fur and some really strange crates with arcane components, materials and voodoo trinkets.

Skeleton Crew
The party went on all night and the following day Captain Harrigan spoke to the crew. The survivors from the Promise were all very eager to join in on the crew, which had led the captain to decide that she would be sailed to Port Peril along with a skeletal crew, to sell her for a tidy profit. Meanwhile, the new crew would serve aboard the Wormwood well and good. This new skeleton crew would be led by Mr. Plugg and Mr. Scourge who were to set sail in no more than 10 minutes from now. Of course the two officers had in advance decided to take along the heroes and their most trusty friends, along with Mr. Owlbear and Mr. Kroop the cook. As the heroes saw little choice in this they gathered their belongings and wished the Wormwood goodbye, soon sailing into the horizon.

That very night, however, Mr. Plugg addressed the new crew. The heroes noticed that a more or less steady group of nine sailors seemed to stay in good favor with the officer, whereas his gaze could nearly kill as he told them the rules would be much more strict from now on. The hours would be longer, work would be heavier and punishment would be more severe. The heroes noticed how they were now forced to undertake the tasks they despised more than anything, and even though their degree of mastery had increased substantially, they were more than often fatigued and beaten when going to bed every night.

Another thing that truly concerned them was that the ship didn’t sail up the northern reaches as would be expected for Port Peril. To the contrary, it had set sails towards the east. As Mr. Kroop mentioned one night, he had his suspicion well enough. Plugg wasn’t going to sell this ship; instead he was going to see Mr. Squibs who lived near Blood Bay to the east. He would redesign the entire ship, make it almost unrecognizable to anyone, more than likely in an attempt to take up piracy for himself.

But what would happen with the existing crew when this happened? Anyone’s guess was as good as anything, but it likely spelled bad news for the heroes. So that night, they decided enough was enough and took matters into their own hands.

‘Dis be a mutiny, Captain! We’re leaving ya.
Everyone went to bed, but only half the bunks really fell asleep. A couple of hours later, one half of the room slowly started crawling out their bunks and snug up to the various other sailors. On the mark a collective coup de grace was executed and fell eight sailors in one fell swoop. With bloodied blades, the heroes marched up on deck with Rosie, Sandara, Crimson and Shortstone and assaulted Kipper and Patch standing guard. Into the fray came Owlbear who had been chained on the deck as well, and a couple of rounds later Scourge and Plugg were on the spot. 

The battle went (surprisingly) fast.  The mighty Owlbear was put out of the battle immediately by a Hideous Laughter and systematically the group ganged up on one opponent at the time. With plenty of sneak attacks and a ranger with favored enemy: humans those damage spikes were truly hideous and fell Kipper and Patch almost instantly. Both Jack and Sandara made sure that even the nasty Plugg and Scourge wouldn’t keep up their carnage for long, and with a roar Pig cut the evil Mr. Plugg in two. Before taking in his last breaths, he cursed them and their entire crew, calling out to Umberlee that she would only bring them ill fortune on the sea! When Owlbear came around, the crying giant couldn’t bring himself to hurt his best friend, the Pig, who’d so generously spared his life early on. Instead, the group managed to capture Mr. Scourge alive and took control of the ship.

They tied him to the mast and while the celebrations were being prepared, they healed him back up and taunted him for long. Scourge, a cowardly cur at heart, sneered and immediately offered to join them, having plenty of knowledge about their new enemy, Captain Harrigan. Once he found out, they would be in for a hell of trouble! But the heroes weren’t impressed and forced him to walk the plank. As he sank into the depths of Davey Jones’ Locker the party started and went on for the entire night.

Now, show me that horizon…
The heroes spent a long time the following morning on what to do now. The first decision was finding a captain. After some debate they agreed for Logan the human rogue to take the lead. Declaring thus to the crew was met with cheers and the first decision was continuing on to Mr. Squibs to have the ship redecorated. With a dangerous opponent as Harrigan not that far away, they were well aware an overhaul of the visuals would seem in order.

As they set sail, they noticed, however, how a nasty storm was heading in their direction. They attempted to evade it the best they could, but Sandara clutched her small trinket to Besmara and looked worried. Umberlee had apparently heard her servant’s call. The grey skies were upon them in hours and violently shook them off course. The thick and dense rain hurled the ship around and with all hands on deck, there was panic on the already undermanned crew. Several checks were made to ensure the heroes remained aboard and as the night finally started to pass they dropped anchor and decided to wait it out till morning and set out again.
Waking up to a much better weather, they realized they had little idea of their precise location. With blue ocean to all sides, not far away was a strangle large island covered in green jungle. The crystal clear waves washed up on a white beach and the hot weather greeted their tired faces. Doing a checkup, they realized their cargo hold seemed intact, but for very mysterious reasons their water had turned sour. Pig shrugged in fear by this, growling it to be Umberlee’s revenge. Even worse was it, when they realized Sandara and Shortstone were mysteriously gone. The only trace left was her symbol of Besmara, dropped near the railings along with some strange puddles of goo. As Captain Logan inspected this he looked up and into the island. 

They would have to resupply some water and find fresh materials. He had no doubts that they would find it all in the jungle. And no doubts that they would likely find quite a bit more.