As-I-Play XCOM: Invasion Initiated

by Kristin Bezio

So I haven’t played very much in XCOM: Enemy Unknownxcom-eu-wallpaper yet, about forty-five minutes, and most of those I spent horribly confused. XCOM is the first game I’ve played that seems to be a weird hybrid of a real-time-strategy (RTS) game and a shooter, and it’s also turn-based, none of which I actually knew before playing it (although I’m sure if I’d gone through the process of reading more about it, I would have).

What this means is that I have no familiarity with the control system or with how I’m actually supposed to interact with the game at all. I’m playing on PC (yay Steam sale!), so I’m using a mouse-and-keyboard system, and while the game will nicely pop up the hints to tell me that to quietly open a door I need to hit [V], I’ve had to just sort of figure out what I’m doing as I go.

It didn’t help that my training mission was more of a “follow orders and choose the only option available” mission in which I had no idea why I was doing any of what I was doing, nor was I terribly clear on what controls actually made things happen for the first several commands.

The premise of the game is rather predictable, with the opening cinematic showing some sort of alien probe landing in the middle of a street, curious humans approach it, and then it opens and horrible things happen to them. I like sci-fi as a genre, I like the idea of aliens, but I’m not actually terribly keen on the “all aliens are evil and want to enslave humanity” genre. I’m more of a District 9 or Mass Effect kind of girl, really, where my aliens are no more or less intrinsically evil than my humans. But okay, that’s the premise we’re going with, so I’ll go along with you and shoot the aliens. After all, they did eviscerate that guy in the bus stop in Germany.

My first “real” mission began with a choice – deal with an alien abduction in Hong Kong or deal with one in Dallas. I could only choose one. My penalty in either nation was a +1 panic. I’m still not really sure what that means, other than “bad.” I would get 4 scientists if I helped Dallas, and §200 for helping Hong Kong. I don’t know what § actually is, either, although I assume it’s money of some variety. Not sure what the relative worth of § is to scientists, either. So… let’s be unlike the vast majority of good American gamers and go help Hong Kong.

For what it’s worth, I was shown the “panic meters” for both China and the US after I completed the mission, though, which kind of annoyed me, since it turns out that the US started with 2 already and China only had 1, so now the US is up to 3 (and China is still at 1). It’s all very Pandemic. Wish I’d known that before I made my choice. Oh, well.

This is the point where I start to wish I’d checked the little box at the beginning that says “Iron Man.” It’s an option where the game autosaves for you in a single save slot and doesn’t let you go back on any of your decisions. Normally when I play games with complex choices, I’m paranoid about screwing up the narratives so I’m very careful to save before making decisions. Since I have no idea what I’m doing here, I decided not to click it. But now I can see the horrible temptation to go back and redo everything, and I wish I hadn’t given myself that option. I’m going to try to pretend I can’t undo things, though. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, Hong Kong. Kill the aliens. Okay. I have a combat veteran from the training mission from Argentina who has a rocket launcher. Except he was clear across the map so I had my nice lady from Saudi Arabia kill them with grenades. The German guy got shot, but not killed, so he’s out for four days (I anticipate this will become more annoying later). My two women performed admirably in combat and received promotions (the other is from the US).

This leads me to a happy point about my soldiers. As generic as the idea of a global Council dealing with an alien invasion might be, I do like that all my soldiers are from different places and that they’re (so far) pretty evenly distributed between men and women – even my training mission had one woman and one black man (I don’t know if he was African or African American or African European…) among the four (along with the nice man from Argentina, who is my surviving veteran).

So even if Ubisoft can’t be bothered to include women in its games, XCOM can and did, and I approve of that. Even if they have no personalities. Of course, the men don’t have personalities, either, so that’s pretty egalitarian of them.

The people I “talk” to the most is an American dude who keeps telling me to pick missions and use certain weapons (which I mostly ignore), a nice German scientist who is very curious about the aliens and happy to research things for me, and a shadowy Council figure who reminds me of Mass Effect’s Illusive Man in appearance but sounds like Admiral Hackett. Generic Council is generic.

So thus far I’m not impressed and I’m mostly still confused. I’m not disappointed, either, mind you, just confused. I’m not sure who these people are, who I am (beyond the ubiquitous “Commander” without a face who maybe telepathically orders my soldiers around? I don’t know), or what I’m doing. Call me Ishmael. Or Marlow, I guess.

I am curious to see where this goes

Comments (3)

[…] Here’s the first “As-I-Play” post for XCOM: Enemy Unknown over at TLF. […]

Well, this is a coincidence, I also bought this game on the Steam Sale. We seem to be at the same place in the timeline too.

I love that you can tweak the faces and races of your soldiers. I spend way too much time doing this in every game where it is possible.

This game seems to be a “remake” of the first ever X-com, which was in lovely isometric 2D. The difficulty curve of the first two games was atrocious, you could have your entire team wiped out by an invisible alien shooting guided missiles into your landing craft BEFORE IT WAS YOUR TURN. On your first mission.

The best game in the franchise is without a doubt X-com Apocalypse (which I am currently replaying for the umpteenth time), which takes place after the first two games. Instead of being the commander of a global strikeforce, you are the local X-com chief in a futuristic megacity. You hire-and-fire soldiers, engineers and scientists, construct your base, and buy city property to build more bases. You buy vehicles and weapons. When an alien incursion occurs, send out your hoverbikes to shoot the UFOs down. Send in a strike team to kill survivors (which leads to a turn-based or real-time mission in which you control individual soldiers). Bring back alien corpses for your biochemists to dissect. Bring their weapons and vehicles, your quantum physicists can study them, and your engineers can then replicate the technology.

You also have to manage alien infiltration levels of the various corporations and lobby groups within the city. Is the senate infiltrated? There goes your funding! Weapons manufacturer turned against you? Hope your engineers can build alien blasters! There are dozens of organizations, all of which have some kind of impact on your ability to function. If you piss them off too much, they might even start to attack your vehicles and invade your bases.

On the topic of race: there are now alien/human hybrids living in the city, as the now defeated sectoids from the first game seem to have settled peacefully and interbred with humans. They live in the slums and projects, along with the free Androids (former work-robots who have achieved sentience and demand to be seen as equal to humans and Hybrids). They both have their own lobbying groups and can be recruited as soldiers to X-com. Unless they have been infiltrated, as per above.

All recruitable humanoids (except Androids, of course) are male or female and their random portraits show them to be black, white, or asian. All employees have randomly generated English, French, German and Japanese names. So you could have a black biochemist called Heinrich Shinoda, or an Android soldier called Jacqueline Schneider. This is a lovely futuristic utopian/dystopian thing, methinks. Humans have finally managed to look past race, as they now oppress Hybrids and Androids based on species instead.

The futuristic walled city reeks of Randian libertarianism, with clear class divides between the senate, the luxury apartments and the run-down slums inhabited by hybrids. All vehicles look like they have been plucked from a 1950s pulp cover, in keeping with the out-of-date futurism of Rand. You know, hovercars with absurd amounts of chrome and fins.

So in conclusion, Apocalypse is a game that knows exactly what it is and where it comes from, and is one of the best games I’ve ever played. I have yet to see evidence of this in the new X-com game, but let’s hope for the best.

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