Monday, 29 December 2014

X-Com: Enforcer (PC) - Guest Post

Hey look, former guest-posting superstar mecha-neko came back just in time to play the last game to be featured on the site this year! It was only a matter of time before X-Com: Enforcer made an appearance I suppose, and I'm kinda glad I wasn't the one who ended up having to play it.
This was a gift from a most X-cellent person. It was X-tremely X-pensive, so my X-pectations are high!

X-Com Enforcer Title Screen
Once again, the Earth is under attack from a relentless alien foe. Only one cat can possibly stop them.
(Click the pictures to fill your monitor with X-ceedingly high resolution images of X-Com: Enforcer.)

For those folks who hail from a world of mandatory broadband connections and creepy 'content providers' breathing down your neck in your own home while you're trying to play video games, rather than one of bits, bytes, batch files and boot disks, here's a quick introduction to the world of X-Com.

UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-Com: UFO Defense) was a 1994 MS-DOS isometric wargame about the wholesale slaughter of the human race by an invading force of preternaturally observant aliens. Given the task of leading the counter-assault against the alien menace, you're given a stack of cash and told to go off and build a secret base from which you will run your operation and save the world.

You'll fill it with useless soldiers, terrible guns and the wrong ammo, and you'll send them all off on rescue missions which go hilariously wrong as one by one your men will lose their nerve and become gibbering imbeciles, and the last surviving member of your team will have enough Time Units left to pull the pin out of his grenade, but not enough to actually throw it.

It was quickly followed by a very similar sequel that was even harder except Under Da Sea, and then another, this time set inside a single city. Then there was one set in space, where you managed a space station and flew space-fighters, in space. (Bringing back bad memories for me ‐ external link to another mecha-neko review.)

Which brings us to today, the year 2001, and X-Com: Enforcer. A dark time for gaming.

It is the first great extra-terrestrial war and Commander mecha-neko has fouled up once again. All hope is lost. All that remains of X-Com is a secret laboratory buried deep in the New Mexico desert.

Standard's X-Com lab consists of... him. Professor Able Standard. By himself. He must be one heck of an engineer as well as a scientist, as he is about to complete the ultimate anti-alien weapon: the Enforcer robot. He's ran out of time, so he has to send the incomplete Enforcer out alone to save the day.

The Professor squeaks and lisps through his briefing sounding like a mixture between Sylvester the Cat and the Grand Nagus from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

"I designed you with one purpose in mind: to rid the planet of the alien menace and Save The Human Race! The alien invaders draw nearer with every nanosecond! Time is fleeting, Enforcer. Finish charging up, get out there, and do what you were made to do, eradicate those aliens! I'll stay back here where it's... well... safe."

I admire the cruelty in giving a guy with a lisp lines like "Enforcer's sub-system stress test".

Here we go!

Fwish fwish fwish, the aliens are dead. Wasn't the most exciting thing I've ever done.

Oh yeah, this is a third person shooter. For some reason, after making a series of isometric, turn-based tactical wargames, Microprose thought it would be nifty if they set all that aside for a fast-paced, jet-fuelled crazy robot romp, with rockets and alien guts and COMBO! text flying out of the defeated. That's what strategy fans like, isn't it?

"Roll out, Enforcer!"

We'd be making a lot more progress if we didn't have to stop every five seconds for you to tell me what a 'gun' or a 'powerup' is, Professor.

And here's my first new weapon, the Blade Launcher! It fires off blue swirling scythes that slice through enemies. Well, sometimes. Sometimes they get stuck, and sometimes the enemies don't take damage from it. And it disobeys the first law of video game boomerangs! If you successfully catch a boomerang, you should get the ammo back! It's fundamental!

Looks like the level designer was a bit of a Witchblade fan.

To win the level, the Enforcer has to follow the Professor's directions and destroy each of the transporters the aliens are using to infiltrate the X-Com base. After that, I have to find the exit! Or not. I don't even know.

Beep, the level is over.

Welcome to the shop.

The X-Com strategy games all have a big ol' research system where you gather up the broken bits of guns from exploded E.T.s and give them to the men in white coats to reverse engineer. Enforcer has that too! When you kill a creepazoid, it explodes into a shower of 'data points' which I can now spend on new weapons and upgrades for the Enforcer. It's really X-Com, promise!

There's no fancy transitions on these graphics which makes them look cheap. Twenty five years ago, the Bitmap Brothers' Xenon II wowed a young mecha-neko with its big scary talking alien and array of twinkling, spinning gadgets. In the DOS days, software studios would compete with one another to have the most eye-catching installation screens, with special effects, full-screen rendered animations and speech. (Alright, maybe that's just wishful thinking after playing Command & Conquer again.) The higher resolution doesn't quite fit for me. I've never been a fan of high-resolution drawn graphics. They just look strange.

There's a bunch of weapons on the left, a bunch of powerup type things in the middle, and a bunch of armour upgrades on the right. I can upgrade the Blade Launcher or the Flamethrower I found in the previous level, or unlock the Shotgun for later use. I'm only seeing a blunt description of the upgrades, and there's no takesie-backsies. Stock me a Blade Launcher, Professor, I'm sure it'll be fine.

Onto level 2: "Kanyon Kaos". (Ugh.)

Combat is functional. Maybe. It better bloody had be considering the game is little more than a mod for Unreal Tournament (as a glance at the menu would immediately show).

It would have taken some effort to make the basic nuts and bolts of the game engine screw up, and I don't think they cared enough to try. It also means that the game has a multiplayer mode! I don't know whether it's competitive, co-operative, or something else entirely. If I wanted to test it, I'd have to find somebody else who would admit to owning X-Com: Enforcer, and then somehow convince them to install it and play it. Somewhat unlikely.

In this level, I've got yet more transporters to destroy. If I leave them alone, the screen will fill with these nasty Snakemen in seconds.

I don't know if UT does this but X-Com: Enforcer has an annoying dodge move where if you double tap a key, you do an evasive leap. It's stupid; it makes precise movement impossible! And luckily you can turn it off in the options.

(Protip: If you're playing a game and you want to dodge to the side rapidly during a hectic firefight, press the left or right key momentarily. Your character will move to the side, evading enemy fire!)

(Protip, game developers: Context sensitive game controls sometimes work, but not when the control you're overriding already performs a useful function in the current context! Assigning one button to multiple actions makes you a bad person, and terrible things will befall you.)

Ugh, I'm stuck. The Professor keeps lisping in my ear about the 'holographic directional indicator', but it's useless in a maze of flat coloured vertical cavern walls. No map. I'd be so lucky.

"You're going the wrong way, Enforcer!"

So tell me which way is the right way, damn it! I can't tell forwards from backwards in this stupid God-damned level. And I've just dodged myself off a cliff. Splat.

"Now that's going to be expensive to fix."

It's time for that old X-Com staple: the trailer park Terror Mission!

And within seconds it's gone hideously wrong. The aliens have swarmed all over the civilians and I can't find a way to safely extract them. It's a massacre! A completely bloodless massacre with a bodycount of... zero? The aliens can't hurt the humans at all. And neither can I. I can freely loose all the weapons at my disposal at the Grey Sectoid strike force and the humans will just stand there waving their arms about and cheering me on. Stranger and stranger.

To save them, I have to barrel into them like a rampaging bull. How Metal Slug is that! They pat me on the back and then get whooshed up to the X-Com refuge base in a flash of light.

"Thanks, Enforcer!!"

Easy now. We need to minimize collateral damage. It's no good to save all the people if I leave the planet in ruins. These sneaky Greys Sectoids are taking cover in this gas station.

What do I do?

Huh. So I have to destroy the enemy generators to advance through the level, and that makes the gas station explode. And there were civilians inside there?

This just doesn't look like any type of rescue I've ever seen before. My head hurts.

Right now, this game mostly reminds me of Smash T.V. or perhaps Gauntlet, with those enemy generators that need to be destroyed to open up the route to the exit.

The Enforcer has an infinite ammo default Laser Rifle that takes care of everyday business, but he can also pick up temporary special weapons selected at random from those you've bought in the shop.

You can upgrade the specials between levels and unlock new ones if you've found the Secret Shiny Things. The system seems a little strange to me. Randomly appearing guns is extremely goofy when you put it next to the words 'X-Com'. But yeah, okay.

Once you've researched a weapon in the shop, it gets put into the rotation of random guns you can get from powerups. That means that when you unlock a new gun, you get a big ol' steaming turd of a gun mixed in with all the slightly less-stale turd guns you've busted your ass to upgrade so far. There's no way to remove a gun from the box once you've bought it. It doesn't seem like much of an advantage unless you've saved up enough points to take the gun from zero to full power in one sitting. And that's if you -like- the gun. The descriptions are useless; you might end up buying some kind of lousy gimmick gun that just freezes enemies or knocks them about, ruining your HOT STREAK rhythm, and be stuck with it for the rest of the game.

Aliens don't drop weapons, by the way. You want to collect alien guns to research them? What are you, some kinda dork? Instead they drop abstract 'data point' bonuses. Boring.

Because this is X-Com (and it is X-Com, stop laughing!), the aliens work as a perfectly co-ordinated hive mind, splitting into groups to perform different functions as the AI anticipates my future actions and learns from my unique play style:

in every level all teh alens run at u and hit u becaus u r robot

It's what they did on the previous level, what they're doing now, and by God it's what they'll be doing from now until the end of the game, I'd wager.

I'm trapped! The sneaky rats have raised forcefield around me, confining me in a small area while waves of snakes pour in from all sides. However will I defeat them all? I think I'll just hold the Fire button and lurch about like a spinning top. Seems to work.

It's over! I have outlasted their cunning trap and the level is mine.

"Megabonus!", cheers the Professor as hundreds of bonus points rain down from the sky. Thanks! I think?

A deadly alien dinosaurus! Oh no, Enforcer! Look out! He's got a health bar!

A game of this magnitude and badassery: a one-of-a-kind, armed to the teeth, prototype robot who is mankind's only hope against overwhelming alien forces that have defeated the full might of X-Com needs some amazing music right?

It needs a magnificent heroic opening theme! The gameplay needs pounding techno beats that crack the speakers, which break into soaring orchestral bridges as the HOT STREAK gauge rises up from level to level! It needs to let the player know that they're representing the will of the planet to survive, and that the aliens are going to rue the day they ever set one clammy grey foot upon Mother Earth!

The game has no music. I'm not saying the music doesn't work on Windows 8, I'm saying that there is no music period. There was a pre-rendered demo at the start with a spinning robot that had a little, but the menu and the game are silent save for the sound effects.

I'm going to guess that X-Com: Enforcer's soundtrack was originally a set of standard CD-audio tracks, much like how old DOS games would do it. When 2K Games republished the game on Steam, they couldn't be bothered to modify the game to load the tracks from another format. Either that, or Microprose released a retail game without any background music whatsoever, which would be just sad.

Aww, haha. That's so cute. It looked fearsome when it was running at me, but it's so pathetic when you see it from the side. It's like somebody knew how to draw the front and the back of a dinosaur, but then completely forgot the middle bit, ending up something resembling the butt-monsters from PO'ed.

Hooray! With a little help from some exploding vehicles, I defeated the dinosaurus, and it splurts out a fountain of colourful data points like the 'Goal In' chest at the end of a Rainbow Islands level (YouTube link). I really, really wish that Enforcer has the same level complete fanfare.

"Alien Killing Spree!" announces the Professor.

The level end countdown begins, I've got just long enough to barge my way through the level and search for that elusive N letter to complete my set of BONUS letters.

"Biiiiiiiiiiig bonus!"

My reward for finding the five hidden BONUS letters in the last level is... a Pac-Man themed mini-game.

I am officially winding down the windows and throwing my brain out of the car at this point. Don't think I'll need it any more.

Bloop, and now we're in the docks. Why? I have no idea. There's zero context for what I'm doing, or where I'm being sent to. This must be what life is like for an X-Com grunt: don't ask questions, you're in a city now, try not to die!

The Enforcer doesn't care. He's a killer robot that only cares about two things: blasting aliens and quipping about it. And, you know, why the hell not? Standard's been locked away in the desert for the last million years, alone. He's driven himself to the edge of sanity designing the ultimate killing machine to Save the Human Race!. Why shouldn't his robot say 'BACK OFF SPACE CREEPS' every time it takes down an alien boss?

The phrase "Hot knife through butter" comes to mind while I'm playing this. But the aliens aren't going to give up without a fight, they're giving it all the butter they can muster. Look at them all! One Sectoid by himself doesn't even take my health down enough to trigger my auto-repair system, but this many? They stick to you. You roll around, gathering aliens like fluff and eventually the poor Enforcer gets jammed on the spot and you're dead.

And now for some reason I have to defend an empty raft from aliens for 5 minutes. In silence. How exciting!

Why do we even need to do this?

There was an X-Com teleporter at the end of the last level which teleported me onto the boat, and at the end of the level, another teleporter appears on the boat to whisk me away once more. The boat never reached its destination, and there was nobody on it except me. It's a headscratcher.

Hey there! Weren't you guys in UFO: Enemy Unknown? You're a Muton, right? And he's a Cyberdisc? Nice to meet y-

And he smacks me so hard I fly clean across the level and into a nearby building. Meanie.

On this level, I have to take out twenty alien generators in order to... yeah. I've found a pattern here.

"Thave the humanth!" pleads the Professor!

Action stations, Enforcer! The aliens have captured some civilians!

The level was fair and fun, right up until the game locked me in a tiny box, having to defend the laser cage against waves of aliens. Without the ability to choose my weapons freely and no space to move around, I'm giving this level 'sucks' out of ten.

And why do the aliens need to attack their own cage anyway? If they want to get at the humans, why not just turn it off...?

Everyone loves a good album cover. One of the texture artists who worked on the game was a 'Bob', I think. A self portrait, perhaps? He must have taken some time out from his valued work on X-Com: Enforcer to express how the game made him feel: standing atop a pile of smoking debris, surrounded by screaming humans as they slowly burn to death.

Man, if you want to kill aliens, you have come to the right place.

Ignore the inexplicable fixed camera on this level, you don't need to see into the distance. Just keep striding backwards and spewing Mass Driver rounds into the crowd, letting the fruit salad roll all over the level. It's a relaxing change from defending those screaming guys stuck in the laser box. I'll take 'blow things up' over 'stay here and lose the level' every time.

Oh, I got the music to work by the way! I had to track down a retail disc and poke around in the Unreal INI files to wire it all up. A world of bland dance/techno music is mine to command! It's lame, but the game is much, much improved with its music restored. The game felt eerie, sterile and incomplete without it. You could just put in your own music I guess, but you'd never fit your MP3 player in the CD drive without breaking the tray.

I think they missed a wide open opportunity for bonus points by not including a rearrangement of the interception music that I'm used to. Command & Conquer Renegade would knock it out the park a year later with its ugly-yet-appropriate remix of the original game's fan favourite 'Act on Instinct' (YouTube link).

These city levels are my favourite. Which is lucky, because there are a lot of them and they're all rather similar.

Outside, you've got wide open spaces with tons of varied enemies to fight. At this point in the game, I've upgraded my (already pretty generous) running speed and jump height to super-hyper-powered levels, so all I need fear is getting jammed against scenery or having teleporting aliens land on my head, preventing me from jumping.

To take down the concealed transporters, you can hurl yourself through the windows using your jet-pack and take the fight into the stupidly out-of-scale building interiors. All that's missing is a bunch of special melee moves, throwing aliens into one another, stomping the ground, that sort of thing. Being stuck with a single gun seems a little half-arsed.

Those awful first few levels almost put me off the game entirely, especially that damned canyon.

It's hard to tell whether the enemies are dropping guns. I think they're just being beamed in around me. I'm imagining the Professor running around in the X-Com base gathering up all the weapons he can find into a big cart and chucking them into the teleporter like he's shovelling coal into a furnace. If only he'd remembered to program into the Enforcer the ability to reload!

Well well! Do you know what that is? It's a fun, chunky, old-school UFO UFO! All I need to do is defeat this deadly duo of spiked bastards and all the Elerium will be mine!

Or not, because the game doesn't let me in. Why... why would you put the UFO into your UFO game and not let me inside it? Why do you do these things, Enforcer?

We're in a mall! It's not up to State of Emergency's level of slap-dash havoc and violence though.

It's just one great big empty space that exists in the game purely for its own sake. I miss context. Even arcade games with numbered stages usually have some clear sense of escalation or progress. All Enforcer can offer is random urban locations with no reason or purpose.

Freeze Gun! It freezes enemies. It takes way too many shots to kill an enemy with it, but you can just switch back to the... oh. Right. Doesn't work like that. Just keep shooting, Enforcer!

A while back I was wondering if my weapons stunned the enemies at all. Then I realised that in order to check you'd have to stop firing for a moment to have a look. That's not how the Enforcer operates. He's made of radicalanium and eats explosions for breakfast. I haven't let go of the fire button since I started the level. Since I started the game, perhaps. Mercifully, there's auto-fire.

"That is simply grotesque! I don't know where it came from, but wipe it from the planet!"

Duke Nukem 3D had a rooftop stadium boss fight at night, so we're going to have one too!

X-Com: Enforcer is going to be big and stupid all over your face, and there's not one thing you can do about it.

And now we're in a cemetery. We've exhausted the game's supply of identical city levels, and we're moving on to video game clich├ęs because... I threw my brain out hours ago.

I've got a full Hot Streak gauge! Booya!

Getting Hot Streak is all about not getting hit. Good, because that means that running out of enemies to shoot is not a penalty. (Yeah, I know. I don't think I'm going to be running out of enemies any time soon.) But with these crappy, stilted enemy animations, a dinosaurus can begin to slowly bite you and it'll still count as a hit when he closes his mouth even if you've jet-packed up into the air and rained hell upon him.

And what does a Hot Streak get you anyway? Every time you kill an enemy, you get bonus data points based on how full the Streak meter is, and when it's full, the game chucks powerups at you. Additional damage, invisibility, floating option turrets, glowy guns: all the things a growing robot needs.

Still no 'super music' though, unfortunately.

And this is the Grenade Launcher. I'm screaming around the alien UFO like a bolt of lightning, belching hundreds upon hundreds of grenades in my wake. I can't see what I'm doing, where I'm going or who I'm shooting.

Every time I take down a major enemy, the Professor compliments me. With the enemies grouped together this closely, the game has become a solid block of explosions, crunching alien bits and over-excited lisping.

It is truly ridiculous.

The next levels are the liberation of the main X-Com base! I think! I've played through over two dozen stages of this nonsense and I'm still not any the wiser as to what's going on or how much progress I'm making.

And here is the final boss! A rusty mechanical quadruped barely bigger than the Enforcer himself. That's exactly the kind of super end boss you want in a game about fighting aliens.

How does the Enforcer celebrate the liberation of the occupied X-Com base? Do all the X-Com personnel carry him on their shoulders with a hearty chorus of 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow'? Perhaps the Professor builds him a Mrs. Enforcer to carry off into the sunset?

Or maybe there's a more sinister ending, where the Professor decides that the Enforcer has become too dangerous and destroys him...?

No, the Enforcer slinks off into the corner like a great big wuss-bag because I won the game on Easy and don't deserve any kind of resolution to this complete non-story.

Yes, I played Enforcer so long it started to grow on me. Like mould. In my brain. But now I'm free once again. Bollocks if I'm going play through all of that over again on Normal to see the real ending. Even the game got bored of itself at the end; the last quarter was the same map repeated four times with the BONUS letters in the exact same places.

I hadn't heard hide nor hair of the rest of X-Com since the game started. In fact, I don't think the Professor even mentioned X-Com at all during his spluttering. Microprose managed to make a game that's set in the X-Com universe but barely features the agency or anything remotely like what you'd expect from the games. It's a fascinating anomaly. Heaven knows why they made the game, except perhaps to serve as an example to others.

This is a game for people who want to blast aliens. But by the time you've finished, you might never want to ever play another video game again. Leave it alone.

Have a great New Year, everyone!

2 comments:

  1. The original Unreal games did indeed have double-tap dodge movements, and they could be bloody useful if you got used to them. I don't recall seeing them in any other games, though (with the possible exception of Nerf Arena Blast, a low-violence, re-skinned Unreal Tournament with virtually identical gameplay).

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  2. Nice to see you around here again, mecha-neko. Can we maybe look forward to see you post more often in 2015? (Damned Daikatana, I hope it didnt take all your enthusiasm from writing gaming arcticles.)

    Oh, and happy New Year to you too!

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