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XCOM: Enemy Unknown | Review

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When X-COM: UFO Defence released way back in 1994, it established itself as one of the greatest strategy titles of all time, still holding that honour to its name even in today’s market. Its exploration of science fiction kept gamers glued to their seats, perspiration dripping from sweaty foreheads as each new alien type was uncovered, the next always more fearful than the last. Microprose had nailed the turn-based gameplay, yet over the last decade, the public have seen their strategic outputs take a real-time, rather than turn-based approach. Should Firaxis Games have sped things up in their reboot of this old-school classic, or should we revel in the slow paced, intellectual action that hooked fans to the original in the first place?

Like the original, the reboot is essentially the same game in format. Set in the near future, Earth comes under attack from an alien force, instigating the launch of the XCOM project, assigning you as commander in chief. It’s your job therefore, to ascertain the nature of your enemies, and dispatch them with extreme prejudice, thereby restoring the planet to its former glory.

It’s worth noting that if you enter XCOM: Enemy Unknown expecting a gripping tale between man and beast, you’ll be left severely disappointed. The narrative takes a constant backseat to the core gameplay, and despite the addition of several cut scenes, these are merely present to serve as updated objectives, helping the game to progress. This is no harsh criticism however, as the core gameplay is where the game excels. You’ll be so gripped by its turn-based format that you won’t need a reason to remove Earth’s latest inhabitants; the lure of victory will simply be enough.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is essentially broken down into two forms of gameplay, turn-based tactical squad command, and strategic base management. When in combat, using an isometric 3D perspective similar to other strategy titles, the player gets a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, although terrain not within your soldier’s line of sight is covered in shroud. This viewpoint helps keep the tension high at all times, as an enemy could always be lurking around the next corner.

As a result, you’ll develop strong connections to your squad, with cover playing a vital role in whether you’ll succeed, or ultimately fail. For those that played Full Spectrum Warrior, combat takes place in a similar format. Starting with a squad of four, which can later be upgraded to six, you’ll want to engage, suppress and flank opponents in order to have any chance of returning to home base.

Whilst most missions assign you the objective of eliminating all opponents, there are others of a greater variety that help to alter your strategic approach and keep things fresh. For example, in one scenario you may be tasked with locating and disarming a bomb, forcing you to press forward at a greater pace at the sacrifice of cover. Another may ask you to recover a priority target important to the project, causing you to detach a soldier from your squad to permanently guard the civilian on the battlefield.

Such missions serve to ask you constant questions as a commander, and essentially, there’s no right and wrong, just a consequence of your actions. This is essentially how the game teaches you, with the in-game tutorial limited at best. There’s enough to demonstrate how the core game is played, but far too little to help you get an initial edge over your superior enemies. This can lead to great frustration, especially when played on the higher difficulty settings. If you lose too many soldiers on one mission, the cost of replacing them with basic rookies can often be too high, causing the remainder of the game to be a downwards spiral before your inevitable defeat.

Those that played Mass Effect 2 will have fond memories of the game’s advertised suicide mission. However, after completing that game on the hardest difficulty, its encounters proved to be a cakewalk in comparison to your assigned task in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. On the higher difficulty settings, the game can often become one of survival, with the challenge being how long you can last before you become overwhelmed and the project is cancelled.

For those that prefer an even greater challenge, you can activate Ironman mode, an option which prevents you from creating in-game saves, forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. This experience really helps to ramp up the anxiety, with battles becoming a test of patience, as well as skill.

When your soldiers do eventually engage targets, you’ll want to ensure they remain in cover, which comes in two formats. Half-cover, such as a park bench or the front of car provides you a small boost to defence, whilst full-cover, such as a tree or large vehicle, offers you greater protection against enemy fire.

That isn’t to say such shelter is conclusive however. You can have one solider behind full cover, only to see him taken to an early grave due to a one-shot kill from the other side of the map, despite your greatest attempts to protect him. The same frustrations are also apparent in attack. Firing on a target is broken up into percentages, with factors such as cover and distance affecting the likelihood of a round entering your foe’s cranial cavity.

As a result, you can be placed five feet away with a 90% chance of success, only to have the shot miss. This can then be followed by a rookie’s shot from across the field with a 10% chance of hitting, to see the round not only strike, but cause critical damage.  Therefore, no matter how great your strategic approach is, luck can always force you to bite the bullet, literally. This helps add a certain unpredictability to combat, but such occurrences happen far more frequently than expected, slightly devaluing the importance of tactical intellect.

As well as basic attacks, soldiers are split into one of four classes, Sniper, Heavy, Support, and Assault, with each getting the advantage of exclusive abilities and bonuses. For example, a Heavy unit can fire a rocket when you need to clear some space, whilst an Assault solider can move twice, and then fire, allowing him to reach greater distances on the battlefield.

Such perks can prove to be a lifesaver in combat, and as units acquire more kills, they can be levelled further to provide access to greater opportunities. Should you lose such a unit however, they are permanently gone, and you’re forced to recruit a new solider, whereby you’re required to go through the same process over again.

Thankfully, the environments in which you fight are varied enough to delay repetition, with a range of suburban locales partnered with sprawling forests, helping to keep combat both tight and frantic, as well as open and methodical. As your troops can be called to duty at a variety of countries around the world, expect to see architecture and objects befitting such locations.

When combat eventually ceases in these areas, the mission is completed and you return to base, whereby you are assigned control over a variety of structural mechanics. The research department for example, allows you to study and analyse alien fragments discovered on the battlefield, which can then be built in Engineering for use by your soldiers who are located in the Barracks. As you can see, each feature of your base serves to compliment another, helping to create a feel of co-operation and progress in between encounters.

Such actions cost resources however, whether in money or alien technology, neither of which comes plentiful. This forces you to sacrifice areas of importance in order to specialise in an alternate field. In truth, it’s often difficult to know which is the better option, due to the game’s lack of information given to each player decision. For example, do you want to employ more engineers or more scientists? In your first playthrough, you won’t know which is more important or vital to your developments, but take to an online forum and the informed opinion is overwhelmingly biased.

This lack of information works well in games such as Dark Souls, where the player is isolated from the world. However, as the commander of a military force which contains some of the greatest technologies known to man only to lack the understanding of what tools you have at your disposal, breaks immersion and is defunct of narrative sense.

When searching for aliens, battles are initiated through the Geoscape, a virtual globe that allows you to keep track of panic levels across Earth. Should a country sustain an alien onslaught for too long without interruption, expect that country to withdraw from the project. If eight countries extract, the game is over, and again, little information is given as to this eventuality, and how to successfully prevent it.

Occasionally, you may be tasked with shooting down an alien UFO, and this is done through a simple minigame, which involves one of your ships engaging with the alien craft until one or the other is destroyed. Depending on what you purchase in Engineering, you can deploy items that boost your accuracy or increase your defence, but this feature is extremely limited in execution.

Fortunately, each mechanic controls excellently, especially on consoles where the strategic genre is almost unheard of amongst the community. Every action is almost a button press away, keeping gameplay fast and smooth, allowing you to focus on the combat at hand. There’s also a multiplayer feature present for those that want to test their strategic intellect online, although this mode could have benefitted from some greater depth. With only a one versus one gameplay mode available, it’s likely any action fought online will simply be a trial or test for the encounters present throughout the campaign.

On analysis, it may appear that I have come down harshly on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but need not fear, as Firaxis Games offer some of the most addictive gameplay mechanics seen this year. As someone who finds it difficult to engage with the strategy genre, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has gripped me where critically acclaimed products such as Starcraft 2 did not. As a new player, you simply have to be prepared to accept failure.

Is this reboot as good or as important to the industry as the original? No, but it doesn’t fall too far short. It’s a more streamlined version to be sure, and PC gamers may herald the rise of console gaming as the result of this development change, but this means Enemy Unknown is accessible to everyone, due to its simplistic controls and limited features. As a result, Firaxis Games can only improve upon the franchise from here on in, and as a reimagining of one of the greatest games of all time, the enemies may be unknown, but the quality of this game is apparent to all. XCOM: Enemy Unknown may be one of the most addictive strategy games of this generation, and as a result, deserves to be tried by everyone, regardless of your expertise within the genre. The question is, just how long will you last?

( Xbox 360 version provided by 2K for review, thanks from the Only Single Player team!)

ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE

Story – 5/10

Gameplay/Design – 9/10

Visuals – 6/10

Sound – 7/10

Lasting Appeal – 9/10

___________________________

Overall – 8.5/10

(Not an average)

 

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3,

Developer: Firaxis Games

Publisher: 2K Games

Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 12+ (BBFC)

Editor for Only Single Player - Daniel likes Single Player experiences so much, he once locked himself in his room for a year without food or water to pay homage to the solo adventure. Now back from the dead, Daniel can often be found perusing over the latest developments within the industry, whilst celebrating after successfuly completing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Classic Ironman. Suck on that aliens! You can also follow and harrass me on Twitter @DanMightyNuke. Let me know what you think of the solo experience!

Review

The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not

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The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 1

Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.  

One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.

The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.  

Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals. 

This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell. 

The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying. 

Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.

Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.    

The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.  

The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 2

So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.

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