Thursday, 21 November 2013

Not Quite Review Corner: XCOM Enemy Within

Yes, I write for the Escapist; no, this has nothing to do with the Escapist.

Firaxis' XCOM Enemy Within is conquering the gaming world, and with good reason. It's a fun title, a worthy successor to XCOM Enemy Unknown, and if you're a fan of strategy games it's well worth your time. That said, there's one big problem: bugs.

I'm not talking about the Sectoids, Thin Men and other aliens who've arrived on spaceships to enslave humanity. I'm talking about game breakers; bugs that crash the game, and destroy any chance of completing the level. I've just finished a round where I had to abandon mid-match, because the AI refused to believe I'd won. All the Sectoids had been shot, bar one, who happened to be standing next to a car when it exploded. Except the game didn't recognize the exploded Sectoid, and because it didn't the only other way to finish the match was to abort the mission, giving up all the rewards I'd fought for. It's also crashed to desktop at least four or five times for reasons unknown, and one particular EXALT mission has a nasty habit of not activating once you reach a certain checkpoint. Trouble is, if it doesn't activate then you can't complete, and as this is a story mission, not just some random match, you really don't want to abort. 

All of which will be very frustrating if, like me, you play Ironman, a game variant where every death is permanent and you can't restart from a previous save. At least three Ironman games had to be dropped because of that EXALT mission bug.

Now the bad part's out of the way, let me talk about the good.

XCOM, for those not familiar with the series, takes place in a near future Earth, which has been invaded by aliens. Nobody knows why they're here or how many of them are out there, and it's your job, as Commander of the elite special forces unit XCOM, to sort things out. You have at your disposal the best of the best, who'll research things for you, build things for you, and go out into the wide world and shoot things for you. The heart of the game is that last bit, where you guide your troops across the battlefield, looking for aliens to shoot and special rewards, like Meld, to collect.

Your first few missions are fairly simple, which is good news, as your base needs work and your soldiers are inexperienced numbskulls who can't hit the broad side of a barn. Over time, as you gather more materials, collect Meld to enhance your troops, autopsy the aliens you shoot, and level up your soldiers, you'll put together a crack force of hardened veterans, build a base filled with laboratories, workshops, and other useful gadgets, all in preparation for the endgame where you track down the alien base and destroy it.

You'll find yourself switching from tactical view to battlefield, eying up the best chances and making swift decisions. Do you intervene in India and stop an alien attack, or is it a better idea to wait and heal your troops? Nigeria, the USA and Japan are all screaming for help, and you have a satellite handy. Do you launch it and pacify one of those three, or save it in case of emergency? Russia's asking for materials from the UFO you just shot down, and promises aid to the project if you comply; is it a good idea, or do you need those materials more than Russia does?

As a tactical wargame experience, there's nothing as good as XCOM. When it works, it's the perfect squad-level game, and there's plenty of mission variety. The UFOs you shoot down need to be searched, alien attacks must be stopped before global panic spreads, the Council of Nations who signs the paychecks demands you do something dangerous in Canada, and so on. Enemy AI is extremely sharp, and will often outwit you if you're not careful. Plus there's an extraordinary variety of opposition out there, from human quislings EXALT to the savage Crysalids, Mutons, and psychic Sectoid Commanders. And that's just scratching the surface.

If it wasn't for the bugs ... I keep coming back to that, because the original game - though it had its faults - wasn't nearly as buggy as this. It's particularly aggravating in Ironman, where you can't take back a mistake. It's one thing to be stymied by your own stupidity, something else when the game smacks you in the face, potentially ruining hours of play.

Even with the bugs, it's getting a recommendation from me. Just don't play it on Ironman, at least not yet. Wait until it gets patched.

That's it for this installment! Next time, something for Night's Black Agents.

 PS: Since I wrote this, I've tried playing straight Classic, no Ironman. That seems to work fine. I haven't had a single crashout or experienced any major bugs. I'm beginning to wonder if this is something that only affects Ironman's save-every-turn function. In any case, I'm sure future patches will solve the problem. 

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