Or, XCOM: Enemy GETS TO MOVE DURING MY TURN
Or, XCOM: Enemy CAN BE HEADSHOT OUT OF SIGHT THROUGH A CAR WITH AN 88% CHANCE TO HIT
Or, XCOM: Enemy IS LESS DANGEROUS THAN MY OWN PANICKED SOLDIERS
Most of this article was written earlier in the year shortly after I’d finished with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. For a spell I was convinced it was going to lie indefinitely in my drafts but with XCOM: Enemy Within just around the corner, as well as Botch and a few others expressing interest in hearing my thoughts, it seemed as good a time as any to dust this off, brush it up and get it published.
Steam tells me I’ve put 29 hours into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which isn’t a lot to be honest, especially given that Meho says he spent over 150 hours with it. Yikes. I expected to be playing it a lot longer but after my last few combat drops my desire to continue has waned so incredibly that I feel compelled to write about why. Perhaps I’ll return to it, but my snatches of time with OpenXCOM and hearing a friend’s stories from S2: Silent Storm has prompted me to re-evaluate which game I’d rather spend my turn-based energy on.
The title of this article and some of the alternatives above are based on in-game occurrences that, over the course of my 29 hours with the game, drove me mad, until eventually I rolled up in BollocksToThisVille and quit. Certain other foibles didn’t lend themselves to snappy titles so lets take a look at those as well as the aforementioned ones in a little more detail.
Two moves per soldier
At first I welcomed this change. Juggling over five or six soldiers’ time units in the original was often laborious, but as I played more I realised that this simplification lessened the tactical depth of the combat. In UFO Defense (I’m going to go with the US name of the original game for clarity) I remember dashing my soldiers out of cover, getting them to hurl a grenade into a bunch of aliens or taking a few crafty pot shots, then having just enough time units to get them back behind cover. Time units allowed my soldiers to do a number of things in one turn provided they were moved carefully. They were flexible. That sort of thing just isn’t possible in XCOM: Enemy Unknown (at least it isn’t early on) because the two move limit usually reduces your options to 1) moving a few squares and doing something 2) doing something and forfeiting any further action or 3) moving twice as far. Yes, there are certain abilities like run and gun that allow you to extend your move, or, as in the case of overwatch or suppression, potentially extend your move into the enemy’s turn, but my point is that your options are much more limited.
Me personally? I would have loved Firaxis to have done something similar to Frozen Synapse with its hybrid real-time turn-based combat. Plan your moves for the next 5 or 10 seconds (there’s your time unit currency), commit them, then watch them collide with the enemy’s moves using various clever calculations to determine the victor of each individual exchange. This would have had the added benefit of being able to watch entire conflicts in real-time at the end of a skirmish. How cool would that have been?
Move forwards and overwatch. Move forwards and overwatch.
That’s pretty much how most combat drops go until you encounter enemies. Why? Because the moment one of your soldiers spots an alien a cinematic plays that interrupts your turn before they disperse and take cover. Isn’t that great? Overwatch, an ability similar to snap shot from UFO Defense, allows your soldiers to fire at the first thing that moves in view until the next turn (with a -10 aim penalty) giving you a fighting chance of killing one or two discovered aliens before they scatter. If you decide to bowl forwards without employing overwatch then the odds that you’ll hit an enemy once it’s behind cover are seriously reduced without flanking it or blowing it to smithereens (wasting valuable explosives and destroying researchable items). Overwatch is crucial to catching aliens out while they’re in the open before they make their move.
In open areas however, the distance between the newly discovered enemies and your soldiers set to overwatch can be substantial enough to make their chance to hit so miniscule that you wonder whether it’s even worth bothering. The only way around this is to keep your squad closer together so that if your scout up front spots any aliens (triggering their dispersal cutscene), everyone in overwatch just behind has a better chance of landing their shots. The problem here of course is that moving a squad together so tightly is slow, tedious and really bogs down the experience — all because of that pesky bonus move the aliens get when you spot them.
I like overwatch, I think it’s a great mechanic and it works admirably in more enclosed spaces where your squad is naturally closer together but the fact that enemies are allowed to move during your turn to take cover necessitates this tedious creep-crawl approach. In UFO Defense getting the jump on an alien was an opportunity — a gift not to be squandered — but Enemy Unknown quite literally snatches them out from under your nose. You see them, they disperse, they hide. So you move forwards and overwatch, move forwards and overwatch, just to try and catch them out. It feels cheap and gets old, fast.
There’s also the danger of moving inadvertently forwards during a firefight and spotting (and thus triggering) even more aliens. This is guaranteed to ruin your day and considerably reduce the life expectancy of your squad.
To hit or not to hit
I think it’s time for some pictures.
Predicting how XCOM calculates the to-hit percentages is baffling. Sometimes I’ve had better chances of hitting an alien further away than I have when I’ve moved a soldier in closer. Sometimes I’ve had better chances keeping a soldier lower down than moving them higher up to gain a better vantage point. Sometimes aliens have been easier to hit when completely out of sight than when they’re at point blank range practically perched on the end of my soldier’s gun. To add insult to injury such misfortune rarely seems to befall aliens in similar situations. It’s really quite incredible, and when the game hinges on each one of these unpredictable calculations it’s unsurprising that your soldiers end up going home in body bags. It completely undermines the very strategy that the game is supposed to be built upon because you can’t reliably position your soldiers to maximise their effectiveness. It’s a mess.
No free-aim and the panic system
Picture the scene: you’ve lost a few of your best soldiers to chrysallids, and their reanimated corpses, as well as a few zombified civilians, are sloping their way towards the last vestige of your original squad now entrenched amidst a few burnt out vehicles. Oh, and I forgot to mention the chrysallids themselves are huddled around the nearest car. It’s looking grim to say the least. But wait, what if you blew up the car so the chrysallids and a couple of the closest zombies were caught in the blast? That would conserve ammo and buy you some time! Well, you’re out of luck, because in Enemy Unknown, you can’t free aim with standard weaponry. Cars can be shot and they do explode, but only if caught up indirectly in crossfire. I should know, I lost a few soldiers this way. I just can’t fathom why this artificial restriction was implemented. It’s madness. I remember in UFO Defense shooting at a petrol pump to blow an entire station sky high because it was crawling with aliens — this was before I knew for sure that certain world objects could actually combust. To see that station explode, one pump at a time, leaving behind a cloud of impenetrable smoke, was a real watershed moment for me despite playing it over ten years after it was released.
Anyway, the design decision to omit free aiming has other far more egregious implications.
Panicking. Soldiers panic just as they did in the original. That’s great. What’s not great is that, because there’s no free aim, panicked soldiers shoot directly at aliens or directly at their squad mates — and nothing else. It wasn’t uncommon for me to lose one soldier who would then cause a chain reaction of panic firing amongst my squad resulting in several deaths and heavy casualties. In UFO Defense, soldiers panic fired everywhere. They sprayed bullets, beams and missiles in every which way because free aiming allowed just that. This made sense. If an alien got caught in the fire then excellent. If a soldier did, then that was unfortunate — that was X-COM (or Murphy’s Laws). In Enemy Unknown however, I found that freaked out soldiers zeroed in on their comrades with merciless accuracy and annoying frequency. In fact, it seemed to me that panicked soldiers were better shots when they’d lost their shit. It’s telling that I tried modding panic fire out but unfortunately it didn’t work.
On a few occasions I had enemies appear out of thin air in areas I’d just ‘cleared’ or in direct sight of my soldiers. And no, these weren’t Thin Men. Apparently it’s a glitch that has something to do with the way aliens ‘patrol’ using spawn points rather than physically walking around. Not only is this potentially catastrophic (particularly in ironman if a bunch of aliens spawns behind or on top of your squad), it’s downright sloppy handling of alien movement when UFO Defense had proper free-roaming aliens.
Update: apparently this issue has been fixed or ‘minimised’ according to the XCOM wiki.
No picking up
Time for another scene to picture: your support soldier goes down — he’s the guy with the medkits. Thankfully you’ve a soldier nearby so if you send her over quickly she’ll be able to pick up a medkit and stabilise him before he bleeds out. I tried this thinking that the 2013 XCOM would feature something as simple as picking up items, but nope, the best she could do was watch the guy die. I’d have no problem with non-support classes being unable to use medkits due to insufficient training but this limitation applies to weaponry and other equipment as well — items simply cannot be picked up, and they can’t be thrown either. There’s no throwing magazine clips across an opening, or passing primed grenades to soldiers closer to the target. There’s no rummaging through fallen squad mates’ gear for precious supplies or to commandeer that rocket launcher to deal with the cyberdisc that’s got your squad pinned down. Whatever is equipped is set in stone and immovable until you start another mission. I’m fine with there being no inventory but taking away something as basic as picking up items is just stupid. Perhaps XCOM armour is too bulky to bend over or something?
One forum commenter obviously knows the truth:
Every item is super glued to XCOM soldiers’ hands. Super top-secret battlefield strategy.
Captains, rookies and pawns
To break things up Firaxis created four main classes (heavy, assault, support and sniper) that rookies can (randomly) specialise in once they’ve acquired enough combat experience. These classes gain unique abilities which add a great deal of variety and dynamism to the combat. The longer they last and the more experienced they become, the more abilities they acquire. For me this class system is one of Enemy Unknown’s better new features but rather perversely it brought to light another issue.
In XCOM your soldiers have a tendency to expire. They expire quickly, unceremoniously and often. The leveling system further compounds that sense of loss when your favourite high ranking soldier takes a zap to the head or — worse still — a chrysallid to the throat. This all works. In UFO Defense soldiers gained steady stat increases so that sense of progression was fairly subtle. Here though, that progress is right in front of you: your heavy now has suppressive fire, your sniper can disable enemies for a turn, your support can toss smoke bombs, your assault can flank that enemy and so on. When you’ve got a crack squad of captains and majors the combat really opens up; you’ve got options and the ability to handle situations with some degree of finesse and creativity rather than just lucking out on dice rolls behind useless cover, as is often the case with rookies which you inevitably have to deploy, either to get them into fighting shape or because your elites died horribly in a previous drop. Rookies have no special abilities, they aren’t especially good at anything (particularly aiming) and they shit their pants if so much as an alien lets out a cheeky parp on the other side of the map. They’re a liability, especially when panicked, but more pertinently, a real downer after utilising the abilities of your higher ranking soldiers and getting a taster of better, more nuanced and intentional combat. To go back to rookies, particularly a squad of them, is to boil your options back down again; it’s like playing with nothing but pawns in Chess. Move forward and overwatch. Move forward and overwatch. Enemy Unknown allows you to promote rookies to squaddies when they’re enlisted — provided you upgrade your officer training school — but I would have preferred a few more generic abilities right off the bat to make the basic rookie combat more interesting, not necessarily easier. Like, I don’t know, a focus ability where a soldier can forfeit a turn to increase their aim substantially on the next.
Base invasions and other stuff
And finally, XCOM doesn’t feature base invasions which is just really disappointing. (Apparently they’re coming with XCOM: Enemy Within. “Within”, hint hint.) I also miss being able to scramble multiple interceptors and send out several skyrangers at once to different UFO sites. And I miss the day and night cycles affecting combat drops too. Oh and the cool autopsy images to accompany reports.
Enemy Unknown can be incredibly silly, unfair and rage-inducing thanks to all these things. The dodgy chance to-hit calculating, freak alien spawning, lack of free-aim, doolally panic firing, the inability to pick items up (or throw them), aliens moving during your turn the moment they’re discovered, and I’m sure there are plenty of other things I’m overlooking or have blanked out. UFO Defense was often nasty but it was rarely this cheap.
When it comes down to it, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has simplified, reworked and in some cases discarded entire systems from the original. But I can’t help but feel as though quite a few babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. Yes, it’s more accessible, and sure, there are a number of improvements and welcome additions in there (like the more dynamic combat and the sleeker interface), but it’s also a more regimented, artificial and linear experience. It feels less organic, as if there are fewer systems at work; fewer moving parts, fewer surprises, less granularity and a lesser sense of time and impending doom. You can feel the game waiting for you in Enemy Unknown whereas in UFO Defense there was this terrifying sense that there were far greater forces at work just outside the scope of your radars or the sight of your squad; forces that weren’t going to stop for you.
And I think that’s it: XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t an alien invasion simulator in the same way X-COM: UFO Defense was — or still is. Is that a problem? On its own, I don’t think it is, but coupled with the issues above — particularly because of the issues above — I find it both fascinating and hugely disappointing that in the 20 intervening years since UFO Defense’s release, Enemy Unknown is the best crack at a proper X-COM we’ve had. To me, Enemy Unknown is very much an XCOM; the hyphen absolutely matters. I can only hope that the success of this reboot will go towards making a sequel that follows in the original’s footsteps more closely — as steep a climb as that may be. And if not, there’s always Xenonauts or OpenXCOM.
Now if you’ll excuse my I’m just going to go and recondition myself into saying UFO: Enemy Unknown and spelling ‘defence’ correctly. It’s not easy being British around here you know.
To contact the author of this alien tongue email firstname.lastname@example.org