Tuesday, 25 September 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Demo) (PC)

Today I'm having a go at the demo of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the remake of classic 1994 turn based tactics game UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-COM: UFO Defense. I guess they took the bits they liked most from each title and combined them.

This is the tactical XCOM game by Firaxis by the way, not the first person shooter one by the Bioshock 2 developers. I don't know why publishers keep getting the idea that what classic strategy game fans would really like to play is a fast paced shoot 'em up. Fortunately this time there's a game for everyone.

Click the pics for a slightly better resolution.

The game begins with a quote from sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke:
Two possibilities exist:

Either we are alone in the Universe
or we are not.

Both are equally terrifying.
Well I'm not going to argue with the guy who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it sure seems like a strange way to start a game about an alien invasion. Put it this way, imagine the same game, except it turns out we are alone in the universe. XCOM: Enemy Unavailable.

Anyway, that meteor from the last screenshot turned out to be... actually, you already know exactly how this all goes down if you've ever seen War of the Worlds, or anything remotely inspired by it. Weird alien thing crashes down, dumb humans investigate. Surprise, it's not the last son of Krypton in there!

Look at these two watching it all on the security feed. I bet they're doing their own Mystery Science Theatre commentary over it. Oh by the way XCOM is one of those cool government agencies that can tap into any security feed on Earth apparently. It's Big Brother versus the Space Mutants.

Hey, I recognise that street from the title screen. Poor folks were doomed before the game even started.

The demo (and perhaps the game) skips all that base building and Geoscape business and gets straight down to brass tacks. I've got a four man squad, and I'm being sent to assess the situation at the impact site and locate a missing recon team. I'm sure those guys will be fine.

Okay, I want one.

Also it looks like we're in one of those shiny 'lens flare' sci-fi universes, like modern Star Trek and Mass Effect. Works for me.

It seems that the first level's a tutorial, and they're going to take things step by step. I'm being told to move my group up the street, sticking to the cover if possible. It's turn based, and the tutorial is adamant that I must move each character to a specific piece of cover each turn.

That half-shield icon below the orange arrow means that this particular piece cover is only half effective. If I was hiding behind something more substantial I'd get a full shield. Seems like a reasonable way of handling it.

UFO: Enemy Unknown (Amiga AGA)
Here's the original game to compare it against. So many cryptic buttons, who knows what they all do. It's wise to run for cover in this one as well, though there's no cover system. If I wanted to duck behind that wall I'd have to be careful not to use up all my time units on movement, so I have a couple left over to crouch when I get there.

In the remake all you do is click next to cover, and they'll handle the rest themselves.


Well we've found the missing team. Turns out... the aliens got them.

The graphics aren't quite AAA quality perhaps, but they're not bad considering they're meant to be viewed from a distance most of the time, and the game probably didn't have a great deal of cash thrown its way. It's not like they were expecting to make Call of Duty sales figures with this one.

I'm a bit surprised I'm getting mid-mission cutscenes at all in an XCOM game to be honest. It's not traditionally how they operate.

That's cool, I moved my men up to a building at the end of the street, then clicked to send this guy inside, and he automatically found his way to a door and smashed through in little cutscene. It wasn't my idea of course though, I'm still following strict instructions that I must not deviate from.

I'm not complaining about that by the way. I'd rather an indepth tutorial, than being dumped right into my first battle with 30 buttons on screen and left to figure it all out myself.

My soldier finds a member of the lost recon team standing there with a grenade in his hand and 'I've been possessed by an alien' eyes, and his first instinct is to walk up close and shine a light in his face? The guy deserves to get blown up. Which he does.

And then the aliens came out.

My team is getting taken apart here, and shit is officially going down! But yeah I'm still following instructions so my input here is minimal. The tutorial's playing the game, I'm just sitting here clicking the mouse for it and taking notes.

I can use a character's skills (like shooting guns and throwing grenades) by clicking the icons at the bottom of the screen and using hotkeys, or I can go into CONSOLE MODE (they probably gave a different name for it). This brings the camera down near my current character, and lets me use the left and right arrow keys to chose my skill instead. Handy for people using game controllers I expect.

There's no snapshot/autoshot/aimed shot options here for my assault rifle, all I've got is 'fire'. But with 84% chance of a hit, I can live with that.

Anyway the tutorial got most of my team killed for me, and the sole survivor flew back to base for tea and medals.

Wow, they've painted an anti-alien logo on the side of their troop transport. 50 years from now people in the XCOM universe are going to look back and laugh at how racist that is.

Right, this is the XCOM base screen. I tried zooming right in to spy on each of the departments, but pretty as they were, there's nothing at all to do with them. Clicking on things had zero effect, and after 10 seconds I was bored of it.

It seems that getting around the base is actually done via those tabs at the top of the screen, and everything else is just there to look at. Not that the original X-Com game was much different.

The hero from the last mission has earned a promotion, probably because everyone with a higher rank just got killed, and with it comes the privilege of being able to carry... the rocket launcher. And that's it for this tier, there's only one ability to choose from.

Actually that's it for the entire barracks, in this demo anyway. Doesn't seem like there's anything else I can do here.

Onto the science department. I have two areas of research open to me, neither of which will probably be completed in the time this demo gives me. Nice to know this aspect of the series is still in here though.

There's no equipment or soldier management in this demo, so I went to mission control where a job was already waiting for me.

Well it looks like occasional glances of this globe hologram is the closest I'm going to get to the Geoscape screen from the original game.

It seems the aliens have cunningly attacked two places at once this time, knowing that there's only one group on Earth who can be bothered to stop them, and we've only got the one transport. I can choose between helping out the US and getting 4 scientists for the cause, or helping out China and getting 200 bucks. Well science is all well and good, I'm a big fan of science, but I could buy a new TV with that cash so we're flying to China!

Oh no, another tutorial? The last tutorial got all my men killed, so I think I'd actually stand more of a chance here if I was allowed to move them myself.

This time it's explaining how I can move quietly through doors, and climb up onto a roof for a better view. The trouble with these tutorial messages, is that the keys they've chosen for moves are often strange (V for open door?) and once the message box has gone that's the last you'll ever see of it. There's no way to redefine controls, or even look at list of keys either. So there might well be a way to rotate this camera, I can't figure it out.

Oh crap, I think the aliens noticed me running around on the roof. Hey I've just noticed, they've got no mouths. I guess they can probably use telepathy to communicate, that's a pretty common alien trick, but do they eat telepathically as well?

Well the tutorial's ran off and left me to it, so it's all up to me now. I'm going to try to move my team to surround the aliens, while keeping them safely behind cover.

They've stripped out the time units that powered the original game, and now each character can move a short distance (within the blue lines), then take an action (like shooting, or moving again). Or they burn up both their moves by dashing a bit further (within the yellow lines). If I can keep a move spare, I can use it to put the character on overwatch, ready to automatically shoot the first alien he lays eyes on if they're stupid enough to walk into his line of fire on their turn.

Once I moved my guys, it was the aliens' turn. And I soon found out how good half-cover was, when an alien managed to take off half my health in one shot.

Fortunately my guys are smart enough to shoot out of windows and around corners, then dive back behind cover without me having to do it all manually and waste my precious turns. We outnumber them and we're in a better position, so I should be able to beat them in a good old fashioned firefight.

Uh... didn't mean to do that. I'm sure I pressed a different button. Well that's my one and only shot with the rocket launcher used up. Still, it got the job done. The alien squad is dead, and I'm free to move on. Very carefully.

The path seems clear so far, so I'll take the opportunity to use up one of my medikits and heal up my wounded soldier. I've only got the one medic though, and limited supplies, so I really don't want to get shot again if I can help it.

Oh hang on, this is new. Flying enemies? I've only got a 48% chance to hit and no way to improve those odds, so I don't know what to do here.

Doesn't seem like I've got any abilities that can help me here. Unless I use Run & Gun to run away and hide.

He flew right around and landed behind me! The cheeky bastard. Fortunately I still had grenades left, so that's one crisis over. Aliens don't generally survive one hit in this so far, and he's definitely not walking away from that.

Flying away. Whatever.

The rest of this level seems deserted. I can't find those sneaky bastards anywhere, and I'm probably walking straight into an ambush.

Nowhere else left to go but this building, so either they're in here, or they're all chilling out back in my troop transport, watching the security feed and laughing at me. Telepathically.

I'm going to move my team to cover all exits, then send one around the back to look in through a window. That way I can identify their positions, then storm the building from all sides, giving them no place to hide.

Well there's no one in here but these two perfectly average looking businessmen. Oh well, better shoot them anyway just to be sure.

My clever plan to peek in through the windows kind of backfired on me when I discovered they were peeking out at me. Now they're no longer contained and I've lose the element of surprise.

Okay I'll leave these soldiers outside on overwatch to keep the aliens distracted, while I move the guy at the front door through the house to flank them.

Oh shit, they can shoot through walls? He just blasted my cover away!

Wait... if he can do it, then I can do it. Probably. This thing ain't no ray gun, but I'm sure it can mess up some wood panels.

The voice on the radio said to capture the aliens, so I crept up right behind one of them and... well, I have no idea how to capture aliens so I just shot him at point blank range, blasting him into coloured smoke. Hope this stuff isn't poisonous.

And that's it, mission complete! Six enemies down, no operatives lost. Now I get to feel smug that I did a better job than the tutorial did.

Our victorious heroes ride off into the moonlit skies, travelling back across half the world to return home.

They just went and stuck jet engines all over this thing didn't they? Though I guess that would explain why we're the only military team on Earth fast enough to deal with the aliens.

Oh no, China gave XCOM 200 dollars? PANIC ACROSS AMERICA!

And that's the end of the demo. Maybe some of the interface problems I've been having will be sorted out in the final game, I don't know. It's hard to judge how much depth the final game will have, but I get the feeling X-Com fans might find the game to be a bit watered down without time-units or crouching or a thousand buttons on screen. But its heart seems to be in the right place, the gameplay appears to be solid, and for all my complaints the controls are far less awkward than in the original game.

Oh and apparently you CAN rotate the camera, using the Q and E buttons. I still haven't gotten my head around how to move up and down between floors yet though. Though I suppose it might make more sense if I plugged in a gamepad...

By the way I'm not hating on it because it's been developed with consoles in mind, I mean even the original game had a PlayStation release. But it does seem a bit like mouse and keyboard control wasn't their primary focus. Though hey I could be wrong. Plus it's probably something you'd get used to after a few missions anyway.

If you've got any opinions about the XCOM demo, the X-Com series, my writing, the site, whatever, you're welcome to leave a comment.


  1. Looking at your screenshots, it looks like the China tutorial mission uses the exact same level as the USA mission.

    1. It does. Both missions are identical from start to finish. Everything in this demo is heavily scripted, and it's a very very poor port from the console version with extremely bad non-standard controls that don't make any sense (as Ray said you cannot rebind them, and once the first tutorial message is gone you have no idea what the button was). It feels like it was developed by a team that has never played a PC game in their life, which is weird given it's a Firaxis game. There's no information when you mouse over stuff, suggesting mouse support has been added waaay later as an afterthought, because the console versions do not need tooltips or anything. That's okay when you have half a dozen standardised colour coded buttons to control things. That's not okay when you have 50 random buttons in front of you.

      This game is just so... bland. The demo is really dull. The levels are not that interesting, they're hugely scripted, your soldiers are too powerful, enemies are too weak, 'cover' is destroy by pew pew blasts instantly. Like a single assault rifle bullet will blast open the entirety of a shipping container or the walls of a building. You can finish the entire 2nd level using just 2 grenades and a rocket launcher, without being shot at once. And that's barely even trying.

      The stuff fans actually care about - research, training troops, geoscape etc is almost completely absent. Everything is dumbed down as much as possible, just enough so they can still put a bullet point on the box saying it's there but no more than that.

      Frankly, nothing in this game behaves as you would expect it to act.

      Also: note this is the first Firaxis game to not put Sid Meier's name before the title. Either the game is so good and the franchise so popular that they think XCOM alone is enough to sell it, or Sid isn't convinced the product is good enough to attach his name to.

  2. What a horrible game this is.

    Just pathetic. Riddled with bugs. For example, I cannot get the Xbox controller for the PC version to work properly. I cannot select the Heavy soldier in the China/USA mission (second one) and can only switch between Assault and Sniper.

    This is such a poor pile of excrement, horribly ported from console to PC.

    Controls are horrid, feels EXTREMELY sluggish playing with a mouse, it's just unbearable. Graphics are from the year 2000, can't believe they didn't bother to upscale anything to PC standards.

    Everything is just bland, dull, boring, heavily scripted, you have ZERO freedom in the missions, your hand is being held constantly.

    What a horrid game this is. Gross.

  3. I have no idea what game the other commenters were playing. Seriously. The PC controls work fine except for on one level where you try and go onto a spaceship's roof. On my PC it looked gorgeous too.

    It's one of the best games of the year, don't let these guys convince you otherwise, from their comments it appears neither have actually played the full game, just the demo (maybe not even that!), as many of the things they are saying are just plain false.

    Just to clarify:

    The first mission is in a town in Germany, the second is in a dock. The first has cars and bus stops and buildings, the second has shipping containers, fork lift trucks and a big warehouse and lots of water. Both happen at night, but otherwise the environments are totally different.

    Extremely bad, 'non-standard' controls? What exactly are the standard controls for squad based tactical games? Left click to move seems pretty standard to me. I had no problems besides the aforementioned spaceship roof (a recognised bug. Don't know if it's been fixed yet, I beat the game pretty quick). I haven't tried using the xbox controller with the pc version, like Joey did, but I'm not sure why you would want to use a controller with it instead of the mouse?

    The tutorial messages vanishing happened to me too, I will admit, but in the full game, you can just bring up the controls from the settings menu, so it's not a massive issue.

    Soldiers are too powerful? Enemies too weak? Here is a person who DID NOT PLAY THE GAME. Read any review, or forum or anything for this game and you will see that 90% of players are regularly getting massacred. X-Com is HARD. The demo is not, I will admit, as they have given you upgraded agents from the get go with rocket launchers etc, but in the main game, you will die. You will die a lot.

    Research, training troops, geoscape is all in the game. Base management is pared back from the original game, yes, but then I didn't really like micro-managing how many pistol clips I had. Maybe that's just me! Still felt like X-Com!

    It doesn't have Sid Meier's name before the title because Sid Meier didn't create it, unlike civilization. He's still in it as a secret character, so I think he might be convinced this is a quality title.

    Graphics are from the year 2000? You mean back in the days of the PS1? I wish I had a PS1 like yours mate! These graphics aren't cutting edge, but they're still very nice.

    Zero freedom in the missions? Yes, in the demo, as it's two tutorial missions, but otherwise you have free reign to cock up as much as you want. I generally went with two snipers and two assault, with a medic and a heavy, but my friend went with 4 heavies and 2 medics and just levelled everywhere he went with rocket launchers!

    I don't know what made these other commenters hate this game so much, but don't think this is a bad game based on their misguided vitriol.

    1. Okay lets get the asrdsgkjhakgdg out of the way first.

      This was posted and commented on on the 25th September. XCOM released on October 9th. You're damn right we had only played the demo and not the full game! Maybe you should have checked the dates before trying for a cheap attack on everyone? You will note the title of this page very, very clearly says XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Demo). There simply wasn't a full game released when this was posted to make comparisons with, and frankly even if there was it's a non-issue. If there are issues with a demo there are issues with a demo. Something being good in the main game doesn't stop it being bad in a demo.

      Every single thing you have said is a counter based on what happens in the full game, rather than what happens in the demo. The demo IS scripted, the 2nd mission in the demo IS exactly the same regardless of which country you pick and there ISN'T any geoscope stuff to do at all in it. I absolutely stand by what I said about the demo because the demo truly does play like crap. I will concede it's definitely not indicative or a good representation of the full game, but we can only judge what we have presented in front of us at the time.

      However I did actually end up buying the game, and completed it on classic. http://iruka.webs.com/xcomstats.jpg is my final stats. This took 3 restarts to get the strategy down, but once I did it was a cakewalk. I didn't play on Ironman because I kept getting frustrated by losing entire squads from soldiers moving to the wrong level in multiple floored buildings. I didn't reload every shot, just when I felt I had lost because of an error in the game rather than my actions.

      I feel more than welcome to challenge points you raise regarding the game. My overall view of the game is unchanged, but the reasons I would criticise it are completely different. I could argue why I think XCOM is not a good game until I am blue in the face, but I'd raise 5 major issues with the game that cover the majority of problems. Also I am posting this at the turn of the new year so THANKS FOR RUINING THE NEW YEAR.

      1) Soldiers ARE too powerful; aliens ARE too weak

      This carries over from the demo into the full game. If you are having difficulties with XCOM it's because you're bad at the game, sorry. Normally I don't like to resort to the "it's hard because you suck" argument, but the game is so painfully easy once you develop the winning strategy. On anything ecept impossible you are just absurdly powerful compared to the enemy. Your weapons are more powerful, you have better/broken abilities, you engage more troops at a time per firefight (usually 4-6 vs 1-3. see point #2), and after a couple of levels almost everyone can perform two actions a turn.

      If you are struggling to win fights you are rushing forward your squad and rushing the story (which upgrades enemies) without upgrading your squad. There is no reason whatsoever on any mission (even terror missions) to rush forward. The best strategy for every single map and fight in the game is to put everyone in overwatch then move a single lightning reflex/defence specced assault forward. Ideally backed up by a squad of 2 snipers, a heavy setup for anti-mech, a support setup as medic and an optional 6th. Frequently I just deployed with 5 or took a recruit in 6th to level them up. My snipers were killing 1-2 aliens every single turn, sometimes more. At no point were they EVER at risk of even receiving fire. Once you get psi the game is laughable, though it does come too late to really make a difference.

    2. 2) Enemy AI isn't bad; it's nonexistant

      Aliens cannot move or act until discovered by the player, at which point they get a free turn to move into cover. If the player has not yet discovered the aliens then they teleport around the map (yes, teleport, not move) between pre-determined spawn locations. There are several rare bugs in the game that cause all enemies on the map to become visible in the fog of war, and you can see this happening when the bug occurs. This isn't me guessing how it works, I have seen it myself. When it happened I hid at the back of the map and skipped at least 50 turns to see what happens. They CANNOT move and they CANNOT leave these predetermined spawn locations until player discovery. This is why slow and steady + overwatch wins ALL fights. I didn't manage to get a video of this but I have got a few screenshots of the 3 locations one squad was able to teleport between on a UFO map.


      Once players discover the aliens they get the controversial 'free move'. No matter how good or bad you were at finding them they will always not be in cover, and get a free move to move into cover. If it's melee aliens (particularly chryssalids) they will get a free move that usually puts them directly next to your soldiers. Want to flank the enemy before they spot you? Tough. You can't. Once the AI has been activated it only knows how to aggressively charge forward (as melee), or sit at the maximum available range sniping you from cover. The AI does not support its own troops in any way and does not use have any teamwork. They have suppression, grenades and flying units but they never use them in combination to outflank you.

      3) The maps and missions are boring

      Here's a flat map with a few bits of cover scattered about aaaaand that's it. Really, that's every single map in the game. There's a LITTLE bit of verticality in a FEW maps (but not many), but ultimately it matters so little that you only use it when you go out of your way to use it. There isn't a single interactable terrain feature, besides doors. There's no missions to destroy anything, to protect any objects, scouting locations, fighting on the defensive etc. Every single mission, without exception, is deploying to a tiny square map and going on the offensive. Win by killing all aliens. I played through every single mission I could and I cannot think of a single mission where the objective was not "kill everything". There's no maps where you are attacked on multiple flanks, you never deploy in the middle of the area and there's no tunnels or cave networks to make the maps more interesting. EVERY SINGLE UFO crashes in a bloody deserted forest in the middle of nowhere with the exact same setup. There isn't even a slight bit of variation regarding ufo crashes. How cool would it have been to have a UFO crash land in the middle of an urban district with panicked civilians trying to flee the map? Speaking of...

      Terror missions are exactly the same, because there is essentially no penalty for letting all the civilians die and next to no reward for saving all of them. As long as you survive and kill all aliens you're gravy. I moved slooowly forward on these missions and always saved at least 10 people, without even attempting to save them. There's a few (scripted) missions where you have to rescue a useless NPC. These are still just generic offensive pushes - kill all the enemies, trigger the npc, move them backwards whilst killing everything. The aliens all spawn at fixed points when the npc reaches a fixed distance from the exit zone. All of these are identical and an absolute joke with snipers on overwatch.

    3. 4) The research/technology and basebuilding is dull.

      Base building comes down to: build uplinks, build factories, build power plants. That's it. Absolutely nothing else matters beyond 1 of each core building, e.g. officer training school. This is the winning strategy and it works everytime. There is no reason whatsoever to not develop the base like this and nothing will attack your base or cause an unexpected/unforeseen event to occur. It is all scripted and dull.

      Researching new weapons gives laser then plasma weapons. These are flat statistical upgrades, nothing more or less. This is the most boring method of player advancement there is. Where's the new types of guns? New firing modes? Different types of grenades? ANYTHING that isn't just a damage/accuracy upgrade? They simply don't exist. You get the stun gun early on, but for all intents and purposes it's just a low damage pistol.

      Armour is more interesting, but still broken. Stealth armour makes you invincible every second turn as aliens are completely unable to detect stealth. The heavy armours give you so much HP you can survive essentially everything.

      Base/Interceptor upgrades are, once again, passive upgrades. There isn't anything at all to get excited about.

      5) There is no incentive whatsoever to progress, save countries or really do.. well, anything

      Any, each and all missions are randomly generated and have absolutely zero lasting impact on the game beyond the panic levels. Why should I bother to save all countries? Tactically it's better to ignore certain countries (south american ones comes to mind) completely and let them get overrun. There's stupid amounts of money available very, very quickly so losing countries doesn't cost you anything. Provided you only lose the countries you want to lose there isn't a single negative for losing them. Almost every mission is designed with multiple other missions concurrently, so you are consistently fighting a losing battle (even if you win!) until you ditch countries. Your starting location has no impact at all either beyond which free bonus you get either.

      Since every single map is a randomly selected map for a randomly generated mission there is no incentive to care about destruction. Blow up every single object in the map? Who cares. It doesn't matter. They will regenerate for the next time you are in the map, no penalties at all. The original Xcom and the UFO:After* trilogy had tons and tons more mission variety. You actually got attacked by the aliens at points! If you blew up all the buildings in your base you'd actually lose bits of your base. There's incentive there to not blow anything up, which this game totally lacked.

      Opinions will differ on all games. Not all games can please everyone, nor should they. I personally thought XCOM was dull, and I've offered my reasons for why I think it's dull. It wasn't TOTALLY bad; I actually enjoyed the graphics (not the animations or bullet trails though, which never lined up with the guns or the scenery). Ultimately the entire game left me with hours of frustration for every half an hour of fun. I'd recommend it heavily discounted, but as a day 1 purchase it just wasn't worth the money in my opinion. It would only qualify for game of the year because it is in a franchise with so few releases year on year.

      It's not misguided vitriol to dislike a game, it's just a difference of opinion. If you can't deal with people disliking games you like you probably should stop reading websites about people's impressions of games. Now I am done on this game and never want to talk about it again.

      Also: fuck the DLC. Firaxis essentially proved they have no idea what people want by adding a couple of linear missions to the game for an absurd price.


Semi-Random Game Box