One thing Mac gamers are not short of is a steady supply of strategy games. Whilst the likes of Civilization V and StarCraft 2 certainly stand out from the crowd, to date we’ve not had anything that perfectly distills turn-based tactical strategy, also known as positioning a team of virtual people around a map and having them take turns to use weapons and gizmos on each other (a notable exception being Fallout, of course, but Fallout is so much more than its combat portions). As such, the term “overwatch” is probably not in many Mac gamers’ vocabularies, let alone “Sectoid” or “Chryssalid”. With the release of the Mac version of XCOM, that’s about to change.
Originally released in 2012 for Windows and consoles, XCOM was something of a gamble for Firaxis (they behind the aforementioned Civilization series). On one hand, they had to cater to the (perceived) demands of “modern” gamers, they with their (supposed) minuscule attention spans and desire for instant gratification in the form of big explosions and loudness; as well as the long-time, (allegedly) rabid fans of the genre, who (apparently) haven’t done anything since 1993 aside from sleeping, eating and playing the original X-COM series. It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Firaxis were indeed successful on the whole, resurrecting the genre, and paving the way for similar games to be made.
Enough history, what about the game? XCOM: Enemy Unknown sees you take on the role of the commander of the newly-formed Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, tasked with repelling an invasion of an assortment of aliens with enigmatic motivations. It’s all appropriately B-movie, without being camp. To do this, you’ll manage an anthill-styled underground base, delegating research and engineering tasks, and assembling a team of units.
The crux of the game involves sending a squad of team members, equipped with whatever equipment you have available, and whatever abilities they’ve gained through experience in the field, on missions. During a mission you’ll control each of your (initially four, but upgradeable to six through research) squad members each round. Each of them has two action points, which can be used for movement or using an ability or item (though anything other than moving will usually end their turn).
The interface works really well in this regard, as you can always tell where a given unit is able to move, as well as where cover (either full or partial) is available, in addition to flanking (or being flanked by) enemies. If a unit is within range and line of sight of an enemy, the probability of a successful hit with the current weapon (each unit typically carries a main and reserve weapon, which can be switched without using an action) is also shown.
After you’ve played out each of your moves (the interface is so streamlined that there’s no need for an “end turn” button), the aliens get to play out theirs, and it’s during this stage you’ll come to appreciate just how fragile those units of yours are. Right off the bat they have superior weaponry and armour, and are always at least one step ahead of you in that regard. On my first playthrough, I lost an XCOM operative each and every time a new alien was introduced by underestimating its effectiveness, whether by discovering that, oh good that plasma bolt missed my unit, but oh no, it completely destroyed the unit’s cover in the process, leaving him exposed; or that grenades are completely devastating when used against you.
Indeed, the unforgiving nature of the gameplay is foreshadowed in the game’s tutorial prologue, which pulls no punches even as it tells you exactly what to do. The game can be hard (at least on any difficulty above normal*) but it’s usually fair, even though you’ll swear that the random number generator is cheating after missing an almost certain shot for the nth time. It doesn’t cheat though, but there are other quirks which can seem counter-intuitive at first. First of all, units can shoot (and be shot) around corners. It’s a little strange, but you do eventually get used to it, and as with everything else in the game, you’ll learn to use it to your advantage. Perhaps less forgiving is that the aliens get something of a free move when they are first discovered, which interrupts your turn, and can result in aliens getting the drop on your squad, particularly if you “discover” them near the end of your turn (this can be mitigated to some degree by putting members of your team on overwatch early in your turn, but ideally you’ll try to do your exploratory moves early in your turn). It also doesn’t help that you’ve no way of knowing exactly how those to-hit probabilities will change at a new location, until you’ve actually moved there.
Frequently, particularly during the early portions of the game, I found myself experiencing a deep sense of dread at the futility of trying to take down opponents with plasma-based weaponry, using mere bullets. This is no good, I would think, I’m trying to kill this thing with just a pistol. Herein lies the beauty of the game: probability statistics aside, after a few hours of playing, you can usually tell whether a particular tactical gambit will work without waiting for it to play out in its entirety, and realising and experiencing that is just magical.
As an example, I might have two sniper-class units and an assault unit up against a heavily armoured melee unit. One of my snipers has to reposition, which means she’ll have to use her sidearm instead of the trusty rifle, which will do minimal damage. The other one will almost certainly score a hit, but probably not enough to down the foe. My assault unit, who’ll be able to get in close, but do an unpredictable predictable amount of damage with his shotgun is the only real unknown. He goes first, but doesn’t score the critical hit I’d hoped for. I know at this point that there’s nothing I can do to kill the enemy that turn, so the priorities immediately shift from trying to do so to seeing if I can do anything to protect my now exposed assault unit.
For me, that’s what XCOM is about. I think it’s safe to say that I’ll probably never reach the point where I can predict the outcome of a game of chess in my lifetime. I wasn’t even close to that feeling after having played The Banner Saga for ten weeks. But XCOM has given me this ability in a matter of hours, even with all of its greater complexities. And it feels bloody marvellous.
It probably goes without saying that I did what I rarely do when playing games any more: I played until the early hours of the morning on many occasions, at least until reason set in. I’ve done two more-or-less full play-throughs at this point (once with the Windows version of the game), and although I feel I’ve seen everything the game has to offer, it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
Which is actually fortunate in this case, because there isn’t much more to the game beyond the basic shepherding units around various maps (each of which are wonderfully detailed in their own right, but quickly become mere funnels and chokepoints and positions of cover, as opposed to the high streets or woodlands they are supposed to convey) and trying to outdo your opponents. That’s not strictly true of course, there’s an awful lot of base-building and research metagame going on.
While the research and engineering parts of the game are entertaining and well-paced, with you able to to improve your units capabilities through new equipment and other means, the base-building aspect feels a little undercooked, as there’s a tendency to focus on expanding satellite coverage (which reduces panic levels in different regions, and increases your monthly income). There are also several “interception” minigames (where you shoot down UFOs that have been detected), which are just terrible, because they bring a real-time element into what’s otherwise an exclusively turn-based game; and because they pose little challenge beyond having researched appropriate upgrades, while ultimately having a profound effect on your progress. In my first proper playthrough of the game, not knowing that I needed to explicitly outfit and manage interceptors (jets) in the hangar screen caused me to lose the game.
Ah. “Lose the game”. Yes, as with many strategy games, this is a game you can actually lose after many hours of play. As you get further into the game, with nations having left the project, your income decreases whilst your expenditure remains high. The result of this is you can find yourself on a downward spiral despite executing every mission to perfection. This can lead to a feeling of it being pointless to continue playing, since it’s looking less likely you’re going to win. At this point your only option will be to start a new game and try again, with the downside that all of those metagame elements that seemed fresh and exciting the first time around can feel like a grind (as an aside, I think if there had been branching research options, it would have made this process more palatable).
There’s a lot more to write about. I haven’t covered the various mission types available (terror, bomb defusal, and others), the ability to customise units down to their name and hair colour, nor how it feels to have one so easily killed after having survived so many missions previously. That’s because I think you should experience all of this for yourself. In spite of some technical issues (see below), XCOM is a masterpiece of strategy gaming, and certainly one of the best available on Macs today.
Well done Firaxis and Feral Interactive. We, will be playing.
*Purists claim that “iron man” (where you cannot reload from previous saves) is the only way to play. However I’ve found this not to be the case. It’s far more interesting to reload games to see how things might have played out differently, to learn new ways of looking at situations.
Performance & Quality
As you’d expect, Feral have provided a decent options screen to cater for a variety of Macs. The game looks good, although the textures seem strangely bland, given the high level detail of the (completely destructable) scenery.
Although the performance is extremely good, the game does suffer from a number of bugs. Mostly these are minor issues with the camera, such as units clipping scenery to take shots, or the camera just generally being obscured when cutting to a killcam. There are more irritating issues, such as an enemy’s health indicator being off-screen when selecting a target for a shot, as well as occasions when the interface would show a target being available where there were none. We also experienced a couple of crash-to-desktops during our Mac playthrough.
I should perhaps stress though, that all of these same issues exist in the latest Windows version of the game too, so it’s not like the Mac version is by any means any worse than the Windows version. Indeed, the performance of the Mac version was on par with the Windows version, and some bugs we encountered on the Windows (most egregiously, the inability to save more than 100 games) were not present in the Mac version. Also worth noting is that save game files are cross-compatible with the Windows version.
The “Elite Edition” of the game includes all the XCOM DLC released to date, with Steam version requiring them to be bought separately:
- Second Wave – Provides additional options when starting a new game, such as giving weapons a wider damage range.
- Elite Soldier Pack – Adds the ability to customise units.
- Slingshot Pack – Adds more unit customisation options, as well as a new set of missions.
The missions added by the Slingshot Pack seem to be designed for experienced players (as they will introduce tougher aliens much earlier in the game than would be experienced ordinarily), and so I’d recommend opting for the “random council mission” instead when prompted, at least for your first playthrough.
LAN and online (via GameRanger) multiplayer are supported. The multiplayer mode allows you to create a squad from human and alien units (up to a set number of points) and go head-to-head against an opponent.
Note: This review is based on the “Elite Edition” of the game.