XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Official Website: XCOM.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and Ryan Scott
Eric Neigher, Samurai Delicatessen: Look, I usually like to hide the ball a bit with my reviews — let the reader think I might go one way, head-fake his ass Kobe style, switch hands… and then, ONLY then, actually disclose my opinion. But dude, XCOM: Enemy Unknown might be the best game I’ve played all year. This thing is so addictive, cleverly balanced, cool-looking, and nostalgic, that I don’t know much else that we can say about it that hasn’t already been said about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs. But maybe you feel differently (i.e., are wrong).
Ryan Scott, On the Jazz: So, I’m a big XCOM noob. I never played much of the original game, though I’ve got a pretty clear idea of what it is. That said, I too am thoroughly pleased with this updated sequel/reboot/remake/reimagining/re-whatever. I tend to prefer turn-based strategy games to real-time ones (unless we’re talking about something like League of Legends), and Enemy Unknown definitely plays to my preferences here. I especially like the way that it eases you into all the mechanics, which wind up getting quite a bit more complex and granular than they appear at first. Plus, I get to name a bunch of guys after the A-Team and shoot aliens. Since you’re an O.G. XCOM fan (from back when it had a dash in the title), what are you going particularly ga-ga about here?
Eric: You can rename your guys? Dammit, I wish I would’ve known that. It would’ve been nice to have killed the final bosses with a sniper shot by J.C. Chasez. At any rate, I love some of the differences between this version and the original, and I miss other things.
Things I love: It obviously looks much better, the controls are streamlined, and it’s easier to figure out what does what. Alien A.I. is (mostly) improved, and the sense of urgency is hugely heightened both by the storyline and the changes made to the way your little cadre of ass-kickers gets funded. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it’s a much more difficult task (especially at higher difficulty settings) to keep the world’s nations happy (and, thus, funding your efforts). Inevitably, some start to become dissatisfied and cancel funding — at which point it becomes even harder to please the remaining countries, and so on. Plate-spinning to please faceless bureaucrats is all about what working for the government is, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown does that really well.
What I miss about the original X-COM: UFO Defense, though, is the sense of “anything can happen” in a battle. In that game, your guys (and the aliens) could pick up stuff they found in the environment, or on dead bodies, and try to use it — with unpredictable results. Shots wouldn’t just miss; they would miss and continue on their line of fire, potentially hitting friendlies or destroying structures. And UFO Defense’s levels were procedurally generated in a semi-random fashion, whereas in Enemy Unknown, you get one of about six or seven dozen pre-fab levels every time you deploy. It’s not a huge issue, but it makes things more predictable with every match you play.
As a newbie to the series, did you feel like you were able to pick Enemy Unknown up and get into it right away? How was the learning curve? And has it held your interest?
Ryan: I’ve definitely also noticed the same repetitive handful of maps, and I’m not even all that far into the game (yet). Sounds like this thing pulled a Diablo III, eh? But as far as the learning curve goes, I think Enemy Unknown eases you into things nicely. The trickiest part, to me, is making sure I’m constantly looking at things from every angle. Too often, I’ll send one of my squad members into what I believe is a pretty safe spot with decent cover, and I’ll get blindsided by hostiles from a location I really wasn’t expecting. This game punishes mistakes rather harshly, too — if you screw up and wander into the line of fire, you’re only a couple of shots away from death. That tends to drive me a little bit nuts, since I’m a “no man left behind” kinda guy when I play games like this, and I don’t like anyone to die (especially my A-Team). So, from that perspective, I imagine my progress has been a bit slower (and more irritation-riddled) than the average player’s. The one area where I wish the game was a bit more clear was with base upgrades, and what your various purchases actually do for you. I feel like the game doesn’t present that information as concretely as it could.
Eric: You might be surprised with your “no man left behind” strategy and how common it is. When you finish the game, your stats are compared to the global stats — and the average death rate is something like 2.6 guys. Considering you MUST lose 2 guys during the tutorial (well, unless you disable it, which the majority of players probably didn’t), that’s a pretty high rate of no-man-left-behind-ism.
This leads to an interesting issue, though — squad size has been greatly reduced in Enemy Unknown. You start out with only four soldiers, and you can maximize your squad to six. Sure, you usually have to fight fewer aliens (I never encountered more than 18 on a mission) than in UFO Defense, but in that game, you could have upwards of 20 guys on a mission. With just six, the options for squad-based tactics are limited to fire-team style stuff (like run and cover), rather than honest-to-goodness flanking maneuvers, feints, and frontal assaults. I would say that’s one of Enemy Unknown’s biggest foibles: Everything is reduced in scope.
You’re right, though, that your guys aren’t very survivable. Even later in the game, with really powerful armor and weapons, your team gets cut down like tall grass in an instant if you don’t proceed cautiously. That’s especially true in Iron Man mode, where you can’t reload your game — this makes playing through a match of Enemy Unknown a white-knuckle affair, and gives you a real reason to celebrate your victories. And that, to me, is part of what makes this game so compelling. I do wish it had included more technologies to research, though, especially ones that didn’t seem extraneous (like just about everything you can research at the Foundry).
Ryan: Well, as a new XCOM convert, I’ve gotta say I’m pretty happy with this game overall, and it’s definitely on my list of best games for 2012. I know gamers have been pining for an honest-to-goodness XCOM redux for years now, and it seems like Enemy Unknown really fits the bill. Maybe if I manage to get through my normal, pansy-ass save-scummed game without letting Hannibal or Murdock croak, I’ll try your crazy roguelike Iron Man mode. Until then, Enemy Unknown is giving me plenty of tactical decisions to carefully consider, and I’d take this over StarCraft II any day.
FINAL SCORE: 162 out of 180 vaporized alien corpses (AKA the kind you can’t salvage research materials from)
Guest host Carlos Rodela joins us to talk about his new Kickstarter project, Everybody Game. Give it a look, and don’t forget to throw in your support for the Geekbox and the Comedy Button in the 2012 Podcast Awards — you can vote until November 15!
The Geekbox — Episode 193 (2012-11-06)
Wherein we discuss Wreck-It Ralph, annoying people at movies, Everybody Game, Star Wars: Episode 7 rumors, Curiosity, Assassin’s Creed III, book learnin’, digital comics (and comic piracy), The Walking Dead, World War Z, the rise and fall of Kevin Smith, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and Justified. Starring Ryan Scott, Ryan Higgins, Carlos Rodela, and April Scott.
Running Time: 1h 15m 7s
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This week, the GJB cast goes hunting for some Hidden Mickeys!
Good Job, Brain! #36: Happiest Podcast on Earth (2012-11-05)
Zippadeedoodah! Our mind-blowing offbeat Disney episode: the tale behind early Lucas/Disney collaboration, the secret psychology of waiting in lines in Disney parks, Disney song quiz, Walt Disney’s lesser-known roots, Michael Jackson, and… A REAL-LIFE VIDEO GAME ISLAND?! ALSO: Album art music challenge, CSI: GJB! Starring Karen Chu, Colin Felton, Dana Nelson, and Chris Kohler.
Running Time: 47m 11s
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The Comic Conspiracy — Episode 82 (2012-11-05)
Omar’s back from Hawaii, so the whole crew is here to week to discuss how to get Comic-Con tickets, some hardcover suggestions, new creative team on Green Arrow, Justice League of America’s 52 variant covers, how to properly offer variants, the next superhuman president, old Star Wars news, and He-Man: The Most Powerful Game in the Universe. Starring Ryan Higgins, Omar Brodrick, Brock Sager, Toby Sidler, and Charlie West.
Running Time: 1h 12m 03s
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Retro City Rampage
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Open-world action
Official Website: RetroCityRampage.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Jocko Homo: So, I just spent a couple of hours in Retro City Rampage shooting pixelated people in the face with other pixels, and I’m still not sure what they did to deserve it. I just tell myself they were Grateful Dead fans, and that comforts me to some extent. One thing I like about this game a lot is your ability to just not give a crap about what you’re doing. Your character, “Player,” just kind of goes around and randomly runs into pop-culture references and other video game stuff, and it really doesn’t seem to matter what you do or how you play. RCR’s gameplay has a weird, “maximalist Zen” quality to it, where you just kind of roll along and the game almost seems to play itself. I’m not sure if I like it, or if I find it shallow. I know you’ve played in more depth than I have; what are your thoughts?
David Wolinsky, Whipper Of It: I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve been waiting for RCR for years, and even though its prologue is a super-fun roller coaster of nostalgic game references and movie parodies, I began to realize that’s just the track RCR runs on. Eventually, it begins to feel like autopilot. It is, basically, what Grand Theft Auto would have been like, had it come out on the NES — it’s novel and cute, but not enough to support an entire game, because it is pretty blatantly dishing out stuff we’ve all seen and played before. It’s a lot like eating a Nestle Crunch bar with a new wrapper: It might look different on the outside, but we all know what to expect. It’s fun, but I also felt that it wore thin pretty quickly: The missions are repetitive, the references have all been made before, and it has all the same pitfalls that open-world games tend to have. But I don’t hate the Player, I hate the game. Well, not hate… but I’m just pretty bored with it overall. But, hey, let’s shift gears and discuss what we thought worked. What did you enjoy about the game?
Eric: Yes, but what if you eat the Nestle Crunch AND the new wrapper? Ha ha! I have you there, sirrah! I agree with you about the repetitiveness, but that kind of puts in perspective the fact that when you first start playing RCR, it’s really quite fun, and I think that says a lot about the underlying idea here being a good one. It’s the execution that falls flat, or maybe the idea runs out of steam. Speaking of Steam, I really appreciate RCR’s PC controls, which are nice and tight and customizable. I also like the variety of decorative skins you can put the game window in, to further enhance the retro feel.
But I digress; that’s all not-very-important good stuff, right? Lessee, I like how easy it is to just jump into the game and start playing. Leaving aside the various set pieces in the game (most of which ape other classic video games, like The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear), RCR does a good job of just giving you a big sandbox filled with people to kill. And who doesn’t love killin’? Also, I appreciate some of the pop-culture and inside game references, although many are either too obvious or too weeaboo-ish to appeal to someone who’s just looking to have fun with a game on its own terms. I guess that’s a good thing to ask you: Was there anything in RCR (aside from the repetitiveness of the gameplay itself) that outright surprised you? Anything that you weren’t expecting? Or did it end up being as predictable as a college student’s thoughts on economics?
David: You liked how you could customize the controls and how easily you could pop in or out to play. and I enjoyed some of the references — but these are all peripheral things to the game experience itself. I’m surprised that after all this time, RCR wound up underwhelming me. It’s fun at first, but only at first… and I get a bit of cognitive dissonance from the perspective. I am by no means am a Grand Theft Auto junkie, but the series’ earlier games utilized a bird’s eye view. Do you remember that? Like those games, RCR puts you in the position of an observer instead of making you feel like you’re part of the action — that you’re the one causing all this chaos. It distances you from the game itself somewhat, and that’s probably why Rockstar never returned to that POV. On the other hand, maybe this whole type of game is just getting played out, and dishing it out as an 8-bit homage (albeit a very clever one) isn’t enough to jumpstart the old girl. Eric, I wanted to like this game, I really did. But, at best, I’m merely amused… and only for a little while.
I’ll let you take it to the hoop, my good sir. What are your final thoughts on RCR? I’m also curious to hear what you think would have improved this game; I feel like we’re both reacting to the lack of something here, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it. Maybe you can?
Eric: Yeah, you make a really good point. Sometimes a game just lacks that je ne sais quois, and it’s impossible to know exactly why. If it were up to me, I would’ve added some more character customization options to the game — not graphically, necessarily, but RPG-like elements that let me experience the wide-open game world in different ways. If you look at some of the best open-world titles of recent days, especially Sleeping Dogs, you’ll see that they allow you to unlock new abilities (and therefore new ways to experience the game world), as you play. It gives it a kind of Legend of Zelda-esque aspect that makes old areas feel new again. RCR largely (although not entirely) lacks that aspect. I also feel like the game is trying too damn hard sometimes. Like a stand-up comedian at a Star Trek convention, it just keeps hammering on the inside material over and over, until you start to hate gamers, gaming, and, ultimately yourself. Or maybe that’s just me.
FINAL SCORE: 11,437,188 out of 28,592,970 pixelated rounds of ammunition
Below is an image of San Francisco’s police force, hard at work post-World Series. Enjoy the show, and don’t forget to vote for us in the 2012 Podcast Awards!
The Comedy Button — Episode 52 (2012-11-02)
This week, we recall our first impressions of each other, future careers ruined by Google, the awfulness of Twilight, reading non-comprehension, Maxbergers syndrome, local sportsball championships, San Francisco’s useless police force, fun with gas cans, helping elderly people call 9-1-1 for non-emergencies, and the Men’s SWEARhouse. Starring Scott Bromley, Brian Altano, Anthony Gallegos, Ryan Scott, and Max Scoville.
Running Time: 42m 50s
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The 2012 Stitcher Awards are accepting votes until November 5, and the 8th Annual Podcast Awards are accepting votes until November 15. We’re nominated for four awards across the two events, and we’d love for you to vote, and get us some sweet prizes and recognition! Here’s what we’re up for:
Good Job, Brain!: Best Games & Hobbies, 2012 Stitcher Awards — vote every day until Nov. 5!
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