X-COM: Enemy Unknown… The New New One

I got my PS3 copy on Monday, and so far I’m pretty satisfied.

For the younger readers, the original X-COM was one of the best nostalgic PC games on the market. I never played as a kid, but I got to see its awesomeness through watching various Let’s Plays on YouTube. Even with its flaws, I think it aged well (and it’s available on Steam). The premise: Aliens have started attacking Earth, and you’re in charge of the international organization, X-COM, tasked with countering the alien threat. You get to build your base, manufacture weapons, reverse engineer alien technology, monitor the globe for UFOs and shoot them down.

That’s where the game’s iconic turn-based tactical combat comes into play. When you down a UFO or respond to a terror attack, you send in the Skyranger with a squad of soldiers you’ve equipped. In the original, your soldiers had Time Units with which to perform actions, and you often needed a little micromanaging because it’s generally a bad idea to run out if you’re standing out in the open instead of crouched behind cover. You really had to think about what your soldiers were capable of doing with their turn, and you could switch between soldiers mid-turn. If your scout moved and spotted an enemy, it would interrupt his movement and you could switch to your sniper and take down the enemy before your scout continues his mad dash for the next piece of cover. It was a brutal game where doing things right didn’t guarantee everyone would make it back to base alive.

Recently, some game companies decided to try to bring the game back, and one of those remakes inspired a meme in the form of SpoonyOne’s cry of “Betrayal!” Why? They made it a first person shooter. That’s not X-COM. That’s not what made us fall in love with the original. It stood out as an example of crass commercialism, making a cheap, paint-by-numbers FPS and hoping the fans wouldn’t care because it’s got the X-COM name. If I recall correctly, Spoony did have some impact in that the development team tried fixing the inherent design flaw by introducing some tactical squad mechanics, but it was still an FPS, not a turn-based tactical squad game.

That’s not the game I’m reviewing at the moment, and not the one I bought. I bought the good one by Firaxis: The one that actually has turn-based combat. I think it’s a solid remake. The mechanics are streamlined in some ways, since you get two actions instead of a bar full of time units, but it’s still good because you still have to move carefully. You get defense bonuses based on whether you have low cover or high cover in the appropriate direction, so watch where you move. Your squad is much smaller, starting out with 4 slots, going up to a maximum of 6 if you pay for officer training. In exchange, your soldiers are slightly hardier in the early game, which makes it a bit easier to get attached. Don’t expect to get away with stupid moves, though.

Squad customization changed in mixed ways. Instead of having several slots for putting items in (and playing a minigame of Tetris), you equip armor, main weapon, sidearm, and backpack item, which feels more restrictive, though I suppose the upside is that you won’t accidentally eat up time units shuffling around ammo clips and grenades. On the plus side, your soldiers themselves get a bit of variety by picking up special abilities as they’re promoted, based on their class: Heavy, Assault, Sniper, and Support. I’ve had fun with the Assault class, using the Run and Gun ability which allows the soldier to shoot after a double-move, combined with Lightning Reflexes where they auto-dodge the first reaction shot against them. Typical result: Shotgun, face. One nice touch is that when a soldier gets promoted to Sergeant, he or she gets a call sign which comes in handy if you’re not familiar with the sort of names from their native country.

Angry Joe, in his praising review (9/10 with his Badass Seal of Approval) brings up an excellent point about the story in both the new and classic X-COM: The memorable stories come from your battles, not from pre-written scripts. Nearly every Let’s Play I’ve seen has some soldier who distinguishes himself by performing some insanely heroic acts against all odds. Sometimes a poorly-performing rookie gets a stroke of luck in a pinch that redeems him in the player’s eyes. That sort of thing adds replay value.

The big thing I have to learn to deal with is managing resources off the field. There’s always so much stuff I want to get or build, and you get paid on a monthly basis. Missions can include money rewards, but they only show up so often. You can sell alien bodies and artifacts on the gray market, but you have to shoot down alien ships, which requires satellites for detecting them, satellite uplink rooms in your base to support those satellites, and interceptor aircraft to shoot them down. There are some hard choices to make.

The choices get harder because there are alien abductions that happen in three places in the world simultaneously, and you’ve only got one Skyranger. You get different rewards depending on which attack you respond to, usually money, scientists, engineers, or an experienced soldier. The cost is that the panic level in the regions you pass on will increase. If a nation’s panic level is five at the end of the month, they withdraw their support from X-COM, so you have to find a way to quickly lower their panic level. So far, the only player-controllable one I know is giving them a satellite.

I’m going to be starting a new game today to apply what I’ve learned. I’m sticking with Normal for now, but sooner or later, I’m going to try “Classic” difficulty to get a feel for the old school unfairness.

3 responses to “X-COM: Enemy Unknown… The New New One

  1. Game update: I’m doing quite well this time. Shot down one of the larger UFOs for the first time (though I had to use two interceptors and my dodge/aim thingies). Captured an Outsider (apparently the remake of Ethereals) and now I’ve got a key to an alien base I’ll be raiding, since I’m worried that leaving the base there might detract from my monthly review in 5 days.

    Lessons learned:

    Deploy a satellite over the US. Developed nations generally give you +100 monthly credits if you give them a satellite. The US gives you +180, so yeah. Probably helps out in spotting UFOs, too, since that’s a lot of land mass, but I’m not terribly sure how that works.

    Keep some money in reserve. You may get manufacturing requests from nations, so it’s nice if you don’t have to wait for the next month, especially if you get money as the reward.

    Build satellites ahead of your satellite facilities. It saves time, and that means you’ll be able to calm down a panicked nation as soon as the facility is up, rather than wait the extra days.

    Controlling panic: Still an issue with me, and I think luck played a part. You can hold onto a satellite and launch it to reduce panic, but having a satellite already in a nation will keep its panic low because you can down UFOs there. I’m inclined to go halfway, putting up as many satellites as I can, but reserving one slot for emergencies.

    Don’t go crazy on laser rifle and pistol upgrades. Just make enough rifles for your assault rifle users, and save pistol upgrades for your snipers. The big limiting factor is alien alloys. You only get them by capturing UFOs early on, so you have to watch that, too. I made the mistake of selling “just a few” alloys to get the money for more facilities.

    The Gunslinger ability: It’s a Sniper ability that gives them 2 bonus damage with pistols. Early in the game, all the enemies have 3 hp, and the standard pistol usually deals 1 base damage (up to 2). Result: Your sniper can still kill enemies with his pistol, so you can move and attack if you chose not to get the Snap Shot ability. It gets better with the laser pistol, since he can do up to 5 damage. Also noteworthy: Sniper rifles suffer a penalty at close range, so don’t neglect the effectiveness of your sidearm.

    Sprinter Ability: For Support soldiers. I’m a big fan of mobility, though I was generally tempted to pick the defensive alternative for a support soldier. The 3 extra tiles of movement really help them get to where they’re needed and often still able to act, which is a big help since one turn can be the difference between a wounded soldier and death.

    The Assault Class: So much goodness. They’re short range since they default to shotguns (they can equip rifles if you prefer), but they can really do some damage at point blank. With Lightning Reflexes to dodge enemy reaction shots, they’re good for using the Arc Thrower to stun and capture enemies, though bear in mind you can’t use it with Run & Gun.

    Don’t hoard your once per battle abilities: Battles tend to be shorter in this one, and a support smoke grenade can mean the difference between your veteran coming out uninjured or being out of action. If you’re being swarmed don’t be afraid to use your frag grenades or rockets, even if you only use them on weak enemies. Even sectoids can do significant damage to a carapace armored soldier if they manage to flank you.

    When a vehicle catches fire during the aliens’ turn, make sure you remember it. Lost a soldier to a forklift explosion when I forgot it was on fire. Also note that chain explosions can occur if the cars are close enough together, though mercifully, it takes multiple turns.

    Pay close attention to where you click when dealing with interiors and exteriors. Had one soldier dash inside a building on the wrong side of the wall when I intended for him to single move up to the door and carefully open it. Unsurprisingly, there were two sectoids inside who had reaction shots readied. Also, if you want to single move to the edge of your range, make sure the blue line is solid. Sometimes when your cursor snaps to a cover tile, it’ll do so from the outside and treat the distance as dashing. Do the snap from the inside.

    The Random Number God is evil: Once, I got a close ranged shot listed as a 99% chance to hit. I missed. One of my assault guys once missed with a shotgun at 2 tiles away with a 94% chance. Those are extreme examples, but keep in mind that high probability shots aren’t guaranteed, and that you’re going to be taking a lot of shots over the course of the game. If you can afford to, have someone else standing by to take a second shot if your first misses.

    Reloading: You’ve got unlimited ammo, but reloading your clip ends the turn. If you’re in a lull in the combat, use the opportunity to reload. One Foundry project I look forward to is Ammo Conservation, which is apparently going to increase clip size for all weapons. Just need another Muton corpse or two.

    Don’t build so fast: It’s easy to waste money excavating and building for your ideal base design. You can probably go through the first couple months without labs or workshops.

    Steam power: I got lucky and had a steam vent at level 2 of my base. Geothermal generators are quite nice to have, and if you can get one, it’ll last you a good while. I’m probably going to move directly to Elerium power without using any regular generators.

    For aesthetics/adjacency bonuses, plan ahead: If you’ve got a dream base design, put the early versions of facilities in the wrong place. That way, you don’t have to dismantle the old ones and then wait for the replacement to come online.

    Pheonix Cannon: It’s a good early upgrade for your interceptors that doesn’t cost any alien alloys. Sure, you’re going to take more damage, but it’s more accurate and has a higher rate of fire, so it’s generally a good tradeoff. When I took down that large UFO, the second interceptor only had to fire one missile to finish the job.

    Officer Training: Don’t neglect increasing your squad size just because you think you’re awesome enough with the base four. The difficulty can spike. Don’t neglect Rapid Recovery, either; you’d be surprised how quickly your veterans can get injured during a period of intense activity. In an earlier game, I ended up facing mutons with three rookies because all but two of my veterans were recovering. Of course, spread out the experience and only deploy all-veteran squads to the toughest missions.

    Chrysalids: They’re not as horrifying as their original counterparts, but still significant threats. Your veteran soldiers can often survive one bite with basic armor, but likely not a second, even with carapace armor. In this incarnation, killing a zombified civilian kills the baby. A zombie left alone for a few turns bursts out a new chrysalid. Don’t underestimate the zombies, either. They’ve got 10 HP and hit hard. Oh, and apparently you aren’t given the option of stunning them. Not intelligent enough to be interrogated, I suppose.

    Mutons: I’ve been lucky in my current game. In my previous games, they’ve been all too happy to throw grenades. Their main weapon is pretty nasty, too, so I’ve gotten into the habit of always throwing my smoke grenade to aid the front line when they show up. From my experience so far, snipers are quite handy as are suppression abilities. Not sure how I’m going to capture one, though.

    • thanks for the tips, appreciated

      Me & The Mrs. spent many an hour huddled in front of the 14″ monitor playing the original and didn’t buy that older remake that really wasn’t

      played the newest a bit then came down with a nasty cold but will put these to good use soon

      • Beat it on normal on Tuesday. More handy tips:

        Just when you start to get complacent, they bring in the really nasty stuff, so don’t put off researching the advanced armors.

        Capture and interrogate everything you can. Research credits can make a huge difference in time. At the late stages in the game I kept running out of things to research.

        Chitin plating: I didn’t look at the stats, so I found this out near the end, when it would have been handy to know earlier: they give +4 HP.

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