Tagged: XCOM

The Top 10 Games of 2013: A Personal List

2013 was a watershed year in gaming. It was a year that saw countless developers, whether swimming in oceans of cash or struggling to pay rent on studio apartments, pouring their best efforts into an overabundance of amazing experiences that, frankly, the gaming community at large simply didn’t deserve. With such a glut of unforgettable games released over the past twelve months, the act of declaring a definitive top 10 list comes off at best as an exercise in absurdity,  and it’s with that thought in mind that I present a list of the ten games I enjoyed the most in 2013.

10. BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360)

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BioShock Infinite wasn’t the best AAA action game I played this year, nor was it the most visually or mechanically impressive, with textures right out of the pre-dawn ages (circa 2006) and artificial intelligence that doesn’t try even half as hard as the splicers in the original BioShock. But Irrational sure knows how to paint a picture. From its haunting opening moments involving a choral arrangement of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to its shrewd commentary on the time we’ve all wasted on fruitless pursuits, BioShock Infinite is a shining example of this generation’s shift from games as games to games as art, and for that, it’s a game I think everyone should experience.

9. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)

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Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a testament to the players-over-profit design ethic that’s guided Nintendo over the past three decades: give players a simple goal and let them have fun accomplishing it. With its spooky environments, deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and emphasis on physical comedy, Dark Moon feels like a cross between a classic Sierra adventure game and a Saturday morning cartoon, and I still can’t help cracking up when I think about Luigi’s reactions to the various spiteful spooks that haunt him through the game’s 5 mansions. Pure joy, through and through.

8. Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale (3DS)

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As we go breathlessly from day to day, trying not to collapse under the often maddeningly complex state of being known as adulthood, it’s easy to forget how simple life once was. When making friends was no more complicated than saying “hello” to a new kid on the playground. When storm drains were secret portals to the magical and mysterious. When the future was defined not by the ability to pay rent on time, but by the infinite possibilities borne from our dreams. If you’ve forgotten what that feels like and you’d like get it back, Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale will make you remember.

7. Guacamelee (PS Vita)

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DrinkBox Studios nailed the Metroidvania formula with Guacamelee, with its vast, interconnected environments to explore, secret collectibles hidden everywhere, and plenty of sequence-breaking exploits for speedrunners to take advantage of. But what sets it apart from countless other Super Metroid wannabees is its unique, lovingly humorous take on Mexican mythology (you play as a recently-deceased farmer-turned-luchador, on a quest to save El Presidente’s Daughter from a sombrero’d skeleton with plans to merge the lands of the living and the dead.) Also, those snazzy, sassy trumpet anthems. When I reviewed the game in April, I called it “quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform,” which apparently led to the review being featured on the PlayStation Blog. I stand by that assessment. If you love open-ended platformers, you won’t find better outside of a Nintendo console.

6. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)

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I didn’t review Animal Crossing: New Leaf this year, because I was busy packing all my earthly possessions and moving my family from California to New York when it came out. And I’m honestly not sure how I could have reviewed it, because it’s been kind of like a weird parallel to my own life this year — one in which all my neighbors are furries and I only have to pay bills when I feel like it. But in all seriousness, New Leaf has kind of been like the gaming equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul for me over the past six months… a warm blanket to wrap myself in during the extended periods of self doubt and loneliness that accompanied the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life. My wife and I are finally, slowly starting to make friends in New York, but for awhile, this (and FaceTime) were the closest things I had to human interaction. It’s hard to meet new people, but even when you’re at your lowest, Isabelle will always be waiting with a smile.

5. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)

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Super Mario 3D Land is my favorite Mario platformer ever, so you’d logically expect to see Super Mario 3D World somewhere on this list, right? Wrong. As much fun as I had with the game (a metric ton, I assure you!), it was on the wrong platform, and the lack of stereo 3D really dampened my enthusiasm for it after the 500th death caused by my inability to judge space within the game. Similarly, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was a beautiful game that was rendered almost unplayable by Nintendo’s insistence on shoehorning motion controls into the experience. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D eradicates those issues by giving the game the traditional control scheme it always deserved. Both in terms of artistry and game design, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of any other 2D platformer on the 3DS, even outclassing the three legendary SNES games that preceded it. The new levels and optional easier difficulty level are just icing on the banana bread.

4. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

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The Fire Emblem games have always been one of Nintendo’s best kept secrets – expertly tuned turned-based strategy bolstered by well-crafted dialogue, a diverse cast of characters, and stirring musical scores from industry veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko. And though the story in Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t particularly original, it transcends this limitation by inserting players directly into the narrative and trusting them to fill in the details through the relationships they forge and the decisions they make. Add to that a ton of non-essential missions, copious DLC, and dozens upon dozens of characters to customize and develop as you see fit, and this is one game that gives, and gives, and gives. I’m still playing it, almost a year later.

3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (iPad)

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my game of the year in 2012 — a superb modern update of a game I’ve been playing since 1994. Firaxis made Enemy Unknown even better when it released the Enemy Within expansion for consoles and PC in October, but it’s actually been the mobile release of the core game that’s kept me constantly coming back since it launched this summer. It’s never been better than it is on tablets, which is exactly why I bought an iPad Air this year instead of a PS4. Seriously. It’s that good. Also, don’t bother trying to catch me on the technicality that Enemy Unknown was originally released last year. My list!

2. SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (3DS)

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What more can I say about Swedish indie developer Image & Form’s western-themed mining platformer? It came out of nowhere and took me completely by surprise. It blends elements of Super Metroid, Dig-Dug, and Minecraft into something completely new. I love, love, love this game (and in fact, I gave it a 9.5 in my IGN review.) It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Link’s most expensive tools. And I love the ending. But most of all, I love how Nintendo has cut out all the bloat that has been slowly taking over the Zelda series for the past 6 years and built a game that hearkens back to a time when developers trusted players to figure things out for themselves. A Link Between Worlds is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it’s my favorite game of 2013.

 

Keep Your “Next-Gen.” Mine’s Already Here.

Over the weekend, I went to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, picked up the largest capacity iPad Air money could buy, then boarded the F train toward my apartment in Brooklyn and spent the next 40 minutes acting like I wasn’t hoarding $900 worth of hot new Apple tech in my backpack. When I got home, the first thing I did was marvel at how light the Air was compared to my two year old iPad 3. The next thing I did was install XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which I then proceeded to play for an embarrassingly indeterminable amount of time before realizing I should probably get back to my clients.

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When I reviewed XCOM for iPad in July, I gushed about how remarkably complete it was for being a so-called “mobile port” of a AAA console game. And while I briefly touched on my disappointment over how unstable it was on an iPad 3, what I didn’t mention is that I would gladly have bought a new iPad if it meant getting a better portable XCOM experience. Four months later, XCOM is more at home on Apple’s tablet than ever, where, thanks to the Air’s A7 processor, it now screams along at 60 FPS with near-zero load times at 2048×1536. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get anything done again.

What I do know is, I’m giving my PS4 pre-order to my brother-in-law.

There’s been a lot of furor surrounding the launch of the so-called “next generation” of console gaming, but when you strip out all the noise, what it boils down to is that the next iteration of the PlayStation and Xbox brands are dropping into our laps in just a couple of weeks, and a lot of people are very excited. But to be honest, I’m really struggling to understand what’s got you all so batty.  I know a lot of you want to crucify me for this… I’ve already gotten a ton of flack on Twitter for announcing that I’d decided on a new iPad instead of a PS4, as if that decision meant I wasn’t qualified to write about or play games anymore. But hear me out, and share your thoughts on the topics below… maybe we can come to some kind of mutual understanding.

There’s Nothing to Play!

I bought my PS3 in 2008 under the assumption I’d be playing The Last Guardian in the not too distant future, and we all know how that turned out. Okay, so maybe it turned out alright: the PS3 has one of the best stables of exclusive titles of any console released in the past 10 years. But it took 3-4 years from launch for the system to get to that point. As for the PS4 and the Xbox One, there are very few titles coming this year that can’t be done in exemplary fashion on the consoles you’ve already got sitting under your TVs, and I’ve seen nothing coming within the next 12 months that has me convinced I need to upgrade. Honestly, you’re better off taking the $450-$600 you have earmarked for a new console and splurging instead on pretty much every new game coming out this holiday season.

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Breaking News: Super Mario 3D World will *not* be coming to Xbox One!

Think about it for a minute: for the cost of an Xbox One, you can buy Assassin’s Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Origins, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Gran Turismo 6, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Pokémon X or Y, Super Mario 3D World, The Wolf Among Us, and XCOM: Enemy Within. And what’s better: spending $500 to play one or two games, or spending $500 to play 7-8 games?

Next-Gen What?

For decades, platform holders pushed the notion that “next-gen” equaled faster processors and snazzier graphics. And that made sense before the likes of Cave Story, Mega Man 9, Fez and Retro City Rampage started releasing alongside titles like Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3. With developers releasing such a broad variety of software on today’s gaming devices, it’s pretty clear gamers no longer see things in terms of the old paradigms. And if we no longer chart the growth of gaming in terms of “giggleflops” and “mecha-hurts,” what exactly is it that’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

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Does this screen from Assassin’s Creed IV look “next-gen” to you?

Perhaps it’s the slick new social features promised by the PS4? The off-screen Vita play? Maybe it’s the snappy multitasking capabilities of the Xbox One? Now, don’t read my probing as sarcasm; these are all features I’m genuinely excited to see implemented in the next versions of the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems. But if, like me, you define “next-gen” by these new features that are going to fundamentally change the way we play, I’ve got news for you: there’s nothing next-gen about the PS4 and Xbox One. That’s because consoles and other devices have already been doing these things for years.

Nintendo did next-gen in 2012 with the Wii U’s pioneering off-TV play. Apple did next-gen in 2008 when it launched an App Store that pushed games into the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who would never have been caught dead in public with a DS or a PSP. And I won’t even bother talking about how reactive Microsoft has been in its design of the Xbox One, because Xbox Live aside, that’s been the company’s MO since it was founded. Been there, done that. Moving on.

So tell me, again: what’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

Play What You Love

Listen. I know it sounds like I’m down on the PS4 and Xbox One. But honestly, I just hate to see so many people getting excited about spending what little money they have on something that’s going to be a letdown, at least in the short term. Will I be getting a PS4? Absolutely, when there’s a game that I want to play and I can’t do it anywhere else. Will I miss out on the adrenaline rush of a new console launch? Not really: I bought a Wii U last year. But just because I’ve become cynical about the next-gen console rat race, it doesn’t mean you have to be. After all, we buy new consoles because we love games, and I’m sure you’re all eventually going to find something to love about your PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones. In the meantime, there’s just too much to love about the systems I already own for me to care about what might be coming for the ones I don’t.

 

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review – Choice and Consequence

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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a visually authentic representation of America at the height of the Cold War, viewed through a “What If?” scenario in which the country’s biggest threat isn’t Soviet subterfuge, but rather a global invasion of hostile extraterrestrial forces. At its best, it’s an entertaining, squad-based sci-fi shooter played against some genuinely creepy backdrops; at its worst, it comes across as a cynical cash grab designed to capitalize on the success of Firaxis’s recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a game I cannot possibly praise highly enough.) The Bureau isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t X-Com, and the level of enjoyment you get out of it will depend largely on your willingness to accept that fact.

My biggest problem with The Bureau is the way it takes narrative control out of the players hands — something that has always been at the heart of the best games in the series — and forces us to sit through hours of sub-Hollywood soap opera drama. Our central character, one Agent William Carter, is an alcoholic hothead we’re supposed to sympathize with because of his tragic past, yet Mark Hildreth, the actor who provides Carter’s voice, plays him like, well, like Christian Slater trying too hard to sound like Jack Nicholson. It’s sort of like Crypto in the PS2 classic Destroy All Humans, except not funny in the slightest. Listening to Carter speak made me want to skip entire story segments just so I didn’t have to listen to Hildreth’s voice, which is a shame considering the rest of the cast turned in excellent performances. Not that the story makes much sense when you are paying attention… probably because 2K Marin didn’t get enough time to playtest The Bureau’s branching dialogue system, which never seems to take into account whether players have actually been given the proper information they need to understand what anybody is talking about. Case in point: about halfway through the game, a central character contracts a non-fatal alien disease, and after speaking with the character in a hospital, Carter leaves, taking a drink from his flask and muttering a quick prayer that the infected character may rest in peace. Oh, so he died, then?

The ham-fisted storytelling isn’t the only sign that the developer simply didn’t get X-Com, but even taken as its own entity, most of The Bureau feels slapdash and incomplete. In classic X-Com style, you’re encouraged to find and train new recruits — that way, you’ll have a selection of second-stringers to choose from should one of your agents die. But there are two problems with The Burea’s approach. For starters, you can only ever bring two soldiers along with Carter on a mission, meaning any other characters you want to train will have to be sent off on dispatch missions that happen off-screen while you’re handling other business. There’s no risk/reward system at play, since you’re  pretty much guaranteed to succeed as long as you throw enough agents at a dispatch mission. Second, it’s all a wash anyway, since even if one of your agents dies, you can just reload from one of the game’s frequent automatic checkpoints.

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Despite these issues, the actual missions in The Bureau are fairly engaging, thanks to an interesting squad mechanic that has you issuing individual orders from a command wheel. When you bring up the command wheel, the action slows to a crawl, giving you plenty of time to place agents behind cover, flank, target specific enemies, revive downed agents, or utilize special abilities you’ve unlocked. In the beginning, you’re basically limited to pistols, shotguns and rifles that don’t do a whole lot of damage even to the base grunt units, but once you start picking up alien technology, you can fire lasers, lift enemies in the air, engulf them in flaming plasma, and so on. It’s all highly reminiscent of Mass Effect, which is a good thing, but again, it doesn’t really feel like X-Com at all.

The thing that most excited me about 2K’s decision to reboot the X-Com franchise was that it gave some pretty talented artists the opportunity to revisit some of MicroProse’s terrifying, but dated alien and set designs, bringing them in-line with the kinds of things that scare audiences today. And while Firaxis’s work on XCOM: Enemy Unknown was uniformly brilliant, 2K Marin’s interpretations come across as uninspired, uneven, and even a little hokey. Early missions set in eerily abandoned Main Streets and farms littered with dead livestock are quickly replaced by an abundance of robotic tentacles and cold, lifeless alien bases that look they were ripped wholesale from Crysis 3, while promising early enemy redesigns (with the hulking Muton behemoths being a standout) give way to endless variations on a single class (the sideways-mouthed Outsiders.) Also: whose idea was it to turn Sectopods into quadrupedal clown cars?

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It was obvious from the moment The Bureau was announced in 2010 as XCOM that this was not the series reboot X-Com fans were looking for, but with development being handled by the studio that brought us the criminally under-appreciated BioShock 2, I was confident that the game would at least be able to stand on its own as a gripping sci-fi adventure. Unfortunately, the best I can say about the final game is that at least it didn’t come out before XCOM: Enemy Unknown; had that been the case,  it might very well have killed off enthusiasm for the franchise before Firaxis’s game ever saw the light of day. Hats off to 2K Marin for having the ego to completely re-write the X-Com formula; sometimes, it takes an unpopular idea to bring real innovation to the table. Other times, though, you just have to leave well enough alone. And that’s something I think most X-Com fans will want to do with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown iOS Review

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Hi, my name is Michael, and I’m addicted to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

When Firaxis’ re-imagining of one of my all time favorite games launched late last year on PC and consoles, I was excited, but not overly hopeful. 1994′s X-Com: UFO Defense, a game about extraterrestrial invasions, kept me up well past bedtime during the long summer nights of my childhood in Sacramento, California, staring up at the sky after each game, wondering at the possibility of life beyond our solar system, often paralyzed with a fear that I still can’t adequately describe. And as I waited for the modernization machine to transform 1994′s X-Com into 2012′s XCOM, I pessimistically assumed those indescribable, essential qualities of the game that kept me watching the skies well into my teenage years would be lost in translation. How wrong I was. Firaxis’ XCOM was easily my favorite game of 2012, and though it can never replace the original, it stands proudly alongside it.

Now, thanks to an excellent iOS port by 2K China, I can play XCOM: Enemy Unknown pretty much anywhere I can take my phone or iPad. Which would be a very good thing, if it weren’t such a very, very bad thing.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS devices is essentially the same game you played last year, retrofitted with a touch screen interface that you’d swear the game was always meant to be played with. All the nail-biting, turn based tactical play of the console and PC versions is fully intact; every research and engineering tree present and accounted for. A few things have been sacrificed in the translation. Visual fidelity has taken a noticeable (if mostly ignorable) hit, with the game now looking like it’s running on a below-minimum-specs PC. Interrogation and autopsy animations and an assortment of maps have been axed in order to fit Apple’s arbitrary App Store size limitations. And characters mouths no longer move when they’re talking. But once you start playing, you forget all of this, because you’re playing freaking XCOM on a goddanged telephone, which has to be some kind of alien voodoo.

XCOM in the palm of your hand? Uh…yes, please!

That said, while XCOM does run incredibly well on the iPhone 5, the interface is a bit cluttered thanks to the tiny screen space. It’s best played on an iPad 4, but also runs mostly pretty well on the iPad 3, with disappointing frame drops caused by extended play periods (and maps with large alien ships) filling up that device’s memory and forcing you to take a break and hope things get back to normal once you restart. Players with pre-iPhone 5/iPad 3 devices or iPad minis should know that while XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t exactly unplayable on your hardware, you’re going to get a pretty compromised experience, and 2K hasn’t responded to my inquiries about the possibility of device-specific optimizations being made in the future.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily the most expensive app I’ve ever purchased from the App Store, but there’s no question it’s worth every penny, provided you’ve got the hardware to support it. I haven’t been able to stop playing it, despite all the other games demanding my attention lately, and I’m not typically one to champion iOS gaming. But that’s the thing: this isn’t some watered-down smartphone game. It’s simply a fantastic video game that you can now play while waiting in line at the grocery store, or when you’re on a conference call at work, or during your non-driving shift on a cross-country road trip.

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Just, you know, make sure you take a break every once in awhile.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review – Choose Wisely, Commander

Operation Red Fear would go down in the books as the first major turning point in an intergalactic conflict that humanity had given up all hope of surviving. That assault on an enemy base buried deep in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range gave us our first glimmer of hope -  a small piece of intelligence that gave us a critical insight into the hive mind of the enemy, and ultimately led to the source of the onslaught against Earth. It was not the first great discovery in our battle against extinction, nor was it the last mission that would see heavy casualties. But it was the first time it truly hit home for me just how significant every decision we made – no, I made – would be to the survival of our species.

I lost my wife to Operation Red Fear. Captain Delia Burns was a veteran of no fewer than 10 enemy engagements, and she supported her squad with the same dedication and compassion that drew me to her to begin with. When another highly decorated (and mission critical) squad mate found himself in an impossible situation – backed up against a wall by no fewer than six Chryssalids and a small squad of Mutons – she didn’t hesitate in putting two feet forward to extract him from what looked like almost certain death. She died rescuing him, knowing well that the success of the mission depended on his survival. What she did not know was how much that mission would mean to the future of our people.

In those long ago days, we dreamed of children – I was convinced we’d have two, while she insisted on three for reasons I never fully understood – and a farm somewhere in Northern California, far removed from the squalid apartments and 20-hours-a-day social and professional hustling we’d grown accustomed to in Manhattan. Today, while the time for children of my own has come and gone, I look at all that humanity has accomplished in the nearly half a century since the war ended, and I smile to see the faces of so many new lives – lives that will never know the fear we once faced down. And I think Delia would be proud to know of the great joy that her sacrifice has brought to so many of our people.

She always wanted more children than I did. Finally, I understand why.

–Commander M. David Burns, XCOM, speaking on the 40th anniversary of Operation Red Fear

 

Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a 2012 remake of MicroProse’s 1994 PC and PSX classic X-Com: UFO Defense, is a game in which players take command of an elite military operation, fighting as the last stand against extraterrestrial invaders hell-bent on humanity’s extinction. It’s a mixture of genres that might be a tough sell for players weaned on instant gratification: how does “turn-based tactical action slash business management simulation” sound to you? But it’s a remarkable game, a classic made modern by two decades of advances in interactive software design to build an experience that retains the terror, anxiety, and even charm of the original, while relegating the tedium of the former game’s often unyielding complexity to the dustbin of history.

While Firaxis should be applauded for successfully updating such a beloved game for modern audiences, where XCOM: Enemy Unknown truly, truly shines is in the way it bonds players to the narrative experience with the simple mechanic of letting them customize their units as they see fit, then sending them into randomly-generated situations to write their own stories. You can hire new units and leave them as they are – generic military-types that will likely die and be forgotten – or you can turn them into ‘roided-up versions of your friends and family and agonize over each and every death caused by your poor decisions. You will want to congratulate your friends on the successes of their virtual equivalents, and will find it difficult explaining to them when you let them die. It’s a social game writ large into a deeply complex, often unforgiving, and always enthralling experience. And there’s simply nothing else like it.

A sniper faces down a Chryssalid, one of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s most fearsome creatures.

Among the many layers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s gameplay, the turn-based tactical mode is the core experience, though it feeds organically into a much larger one. Players, assuming the role of XCOM Commander, will guide a squad of 4 to 6 elite soldiers through a wide range of environments as they hunt down and exterminate an assortment of invading alien forces. Fog of war and line-of-sight limitations raise the tension as players won’t know what their squad is dealing with until they actually discover where the aliens are hiding, leading to moments of indecision which can quickly turn dire as one poor choice leads not only the death of one squad member, but sometimes several, or (possibly) all of them. Enemy forces range from the tiny, humanoid Sectoid scouts and the parasitic Chryssalid that are capable of impregnating XCOM operatives and ultimately turning them against you, to the grenade-wielding Mutons and towering Sectopod walkers which will take your entire squad to bring down. XCOM units are equipped with a variety of weapons and are typically given 2 actions per turn, which consist of a mixture of movement, attacks, or support item usage.

At the end of each mission, units are ranked up depending on mission performance, and each new rank rewards players with interesting perks that are unique to the specific unit’s class, such as a high-level bonus for snipers that grants an extra action for each successful kill. Units also earn amusing nicknames which seem to be based on their individual tendencies, such as Captain Brian “D.O.A.” Valine, who, despite often overwhelming odds, had a knack for meeting enemy forces head-on. We’ll never forget you, Captain.

Successful missions yield many spoils, be they advanced weapons to reverse engineer, alien corpses to study, or hostages to interrogate. In order to afford the scientific and engineering resources required to utilize these spoils, players will have to placate a global council of nations – whether that’s making sure each member-nation’s airspace is being monitored by satellite for local alien activity, or assisting each country’s military with a donation of precious resources, or responding swiftly to unexpected enemy incursions while minimizing the loss of innocent lives. Funding from member nations goes to XCOM base upkeep, facilities construction, recruiting, and other overhead costs, and the fewer member nations that remain on the council, the less funding you will receive each month.

The Geoscape: a welcome sight for longtime fans.

It’s also literally impossible to keep every nation happy, as one country will often call for help at the exact same time as another, so choosing to help one will always be to the detriment of another. Ignore any country long enough, and it will leave the council; lose enough countries, and your funding will dry up and humanity will go the way of the floppy disk. It’s a constant race against time, one that, if not properly paced, will lead players into dire situations from which they cannot recover. The fact that you can make it 15 hours into a 20 hour playthrough and ultimately box yourself into a corner might be seen as excessive punishment by players who aren’t used to such high-stakes play, but finishing a campaign is a richly rewarding experience for players who manage to make it to the end -  particularly when combining the game’s Classic and Ironman modes, which brings Firaxis’s game up to the notoriously high difficulty level of MicroProse’s original.

Ultimately, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best games of this, or any console generation. It is an imminently replayable game that embodies the best ideas of classic game design, while utilizing modern technology and old-fashioned social interaction to immerse players in its world in ways that even its much-beloved and still-playable progenitor can’t match. It plays equally well on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, and has crossover appeal to fans of action and sci-fi, though I worry console players will give the game a pass simply because strategy and tactical games can be a tough sell on consoles. But in a time when highly-regarded developers are forced to iterate endlessly on the same basic design just to make ends meet, Firaxis’s game is a refreshing change of pace, a stylish, rewarding experience for dedicated players looking for a challenge. If you’re a console player who needs a break from Call of Duty, Pokémon or Mario, give XCOM: Enemy Unknown a chance. It might just open your eyes to a world of gaming you never even knew existed.

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Invisible Gamer’s review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was based on an Xbox 360 final retail copy, which was provided to us by the publisher.  We were unable to test multiplayer in advance of the game’s official release of October 9th, 2012, but will update the review accordingly if the  experience warrants it.

Aliens Versus Humans: At Long Last, X-Com in the App Store

 

Ever since the first crummy Snake-alikes and variations on Klondike started showing up on the iPhone app store way back in the days before App Store was a thing, I’ve frequently bemoaned the lack of a solid X-Com clone on Apple’s iOS platform. In fact, I’ve been throwing a low-level hissy about the series’ lack of portable representation since series creator Julian Gollop’s Rebelstar: Tactical Command landed on Gameboy Advance back in 2005 and proved that X-Com without the base-building, research and manufacturing, and Geoscape mode just wasn’t really X-Com at all.

But getting back to the point: touch-driven interfaces and turn-based tactics go together like milk and cookies, and it’s remained a deep mystery that on a popular platform where everybody’s ripping off everybody else’s ideas, we haven’t seen anything that even attempts to ape a design that’s been ripe for the taking since 1994. Now, on the eve of the release of 2K’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown – a series reboot that looks to successfully mix the best qualities of the 90′s classic with an interface that even your blind granny could navigate – someone has finally gone and done it. Nevermind the fact that the game is called Aliens Versus Humans, and that it doesn’t have a Sectoid or Skyranger to its name: this is the game X-Com fans have been waiting to put in their pockets for nearly two decades.

As it happens, anyone who’s Googled “X-Com for iPhone” in the past year will likely have stumbled upon the game, and quite possibly given it a pass. AVH has been available on the App Store for nearly a year, though until recently, it was little more than a generic-but-accurate riff on X-Com’s tactical layer (like the aforementioned Rebelstar game.) That’s not to say that the work of husband-and-wife development team Jim and Vanessa Cloughley (the independent software company professionally known as Leisure Rules) wasn’t impressive for their first release: it was just incomplete. I’d sampled the game here and there, found it amusing in a sort of nostalgic and “isn’t that cute” way, but ultimately forgotten about it due to many other higher priority releases. It wasn’t until I stumbled on the developer’s Twitter account a few weeks ago and realized there was an update it the works that I decided to give it a second look. And, boy, am I glad I did, because what I saw blew me away. Since the update, I haven’t been able to stop playing, and if there’s any better measure of the quality of a game, I don’t know what it is.

“There’s something out there, man,” said squad member Miles Davis.

The 2.0 update to Aliens Versus Humans – what Leisure Rules calls “Onslaught” – has, at long last, brought the X-Com experience to iOS devices. I don’t know how such a small, inexperienced team pulled it off, and I don’t care: I just want to keep playing. It’s nearly all here: the Geoscape, where alien activity is monitored and missions are launched; the base building and management. The research and manufacturing, purchasing/recruiting, firing and selling; the region-specific biodiversity and day-and-night cycle. The game’s even got an ominous 90′s synth backing track to round out the experience (though it could stand to have a few more.) What’s missing from what I’ve played so far – namely, Interceptor-style aircraft to shoot down alien ships – is written off by the game’s fiction, and I have a hunch it’ll show up in a future update or new game once the Cloughleys figure out how to program it.

That’s not to say the game is perfect: there are certainly a few problems here. For one, there doesn’t seem to be a cancel button for any action outside of the tactical mode, which can make accidental button taps expensive, especially when building or expanding bases. For another, the game seems to lock the research trees away until you’ve completed a handful of missions, even though you’ll already have collected a fair amount of alien technology and stinky Bhodon corpses by the time you’ve completed your first tactical mission. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the game wasn’t as ridiculously difficult as the series it’s based on – in fact, it may be on par with X-Com: Terror From the Deep for mind-numbingly difficult, even on the easy difficulty. I lost 90% of three separate squads of 8 (and one “Skyhopper” – good one, guys) before I’d acquired enough alien alloys to research a basic armor upgrade for my soldiers, and by the time I was able to manufacture it, I could only afford to make one. It would’ve been nice to be able to research armor and a few other essentials from the get-go, and it seems like an odd change to make to the formula when the rest of it is so spot-on.

Of course, none of this really matters when I’m playing Aliens Versus Humans, because when I’m in the groove with the game, I’m no longer playing an X-Com clone – I’m playing X-Com. If this is the closest we ever get to official series representation on iOS, I’m okay with that. This is the real deal, folks, and it’s only $2.99. Hats off to the Cloughleys for pulling it off. Now let’s all throw a bunch of money at them so they can buy their kids some ice cream, and then start making the game even better.

E3 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown Demo Impressions


X-Com: UFO Defense’s parasitic chrysalid is back, and more terrifying than ever.

One thing is clear from the beginning of 2K Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown E3 demo – Firaxis’ re-imagining is infinitely more cinematic than MicroProse’s 1994 classic. If you’ve played the original, you’ll understand this isn’t really a huge feat of engineering, since most of the narrative in the original game played out via text-based status reports delivered at the end of each in-game month, but still: the use of cut-scenes before, during, and after missions adds a nice touch of context to the objectives your squad is tasked with carrying out.

The demo I saw in 2K’s booth, which takes place much later in the game than anything that’s been shown so far, is based on one of the original X-Com’s infamous terror missions, and it opens appropriately with quick, low-angle shots of a city burning while its citizens are tortured and murdered by invading forces. From there, the demo cuts to the actual gameplay, where a small squad of XCOM operatives is surrounded by plasma-blasting Heavy Floaters, melee-based Berserkers, and a psionics-wielding Sectoid commander that is using its mind control ability to make soldiers “eat their own grenades,” as the 2K rep narrating the demo so eloquently put it. The XCOM unit is on its last legs, and a decision is made by HQ to send in what Firaxis is dubbing a “Reaper Squad” – an elite team of operatives that is faster, stronger, and all around better-equipped to handle the alien menace.

It seems as if the tide will turn, but the triumph is short-lived as a couple of the game’s most terrifying alien units, the parasitic Chrysalids, sweep in and start doing “their thing.” For those of you who haven’t experienced this series before, that “thing” is one of the most insidious tactics the aliens have at their disposal. They move in quickly, infecting humans with a zombifying virus that turns them over to the enemy forces; at this point, players have little choice but to destroy their own squad members, or the civilians they’re supposed to protect. If the infected isn’t killed quickly enough, it turns into a chrysalid itself, and XCOM operatives soon become overwhelmed by enemy forces.


With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis wisely sticks closely to the gameplay of the original.

The chrysalids of Firaxis’ XCOM are reminiscent of the warrior bugs in Starship troopers in that they now move around on four spindly, scythe-like legs – a change that may rankle long-time fans, but one that serves to explain how they’re able to move so quickly. In the original game, an infected unit’s flesh would sort of slough off as a new chrysalid was being born, but the birthing animation in the new game is even more effective: infected humans bend over backwards, hands and legs on the ground like they’re crab walking, and explode in a mess of gore as the chrysalid’s limbs burst out of the their arms and legs, with the rest of the revolting creature’s body popping out of the infected’s abdomen.

It seems as if the XCOM operatives aren’t going to make as a couple of them fall prey to the chrysalids, but the Reaper Squad manages to contain the situation before the enemy multiplies to an unmanageable level. The captain of the Reaper Squad – none other than the creator of Civilization himself, Sid Meier – has a surprise in store for the aliens: a psionics expert himself, Meier uses the Sectoid’s commander’s strategy against it, using mind control to force Heavy Floaters to detonate their own grenades, instantly killing them.


A Heavy Floater hunts down Hendrik “Hawks” Mulder.

Despite a camera that seems to capture the intensity of each conflict from the most dynamic angle possible, it’s pretty clear that Firaxis’ XCOM update hasn’t changed much from the game it’s based on, which is certainly a good thing, as MicroProse’s game is generally considered one of the best strategy games ever made. The only real change I witnessed during 2K’s brief demo was the introduction of a grappling hook, used by XCOM units to quickly reach elevated terrain – a most certainly welcome change to anyone who remembers what it’s like to watch an X-Com unit “jump” off the top of a building in the original game.

The demo closes with a triumphant XCOM force ready to tackle its next challenge: a hulking, two legged walker, called a Sectopod, that’s grown a bit since its 1994 incarnation and now towers over XCOM units like a mini Metal Gear. It’s clear Firaxis is having fun with the license, and I can’t wait to see how XCOM: Enemy Unknown fares when it’s released on October 9th, 2012.