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X-Com UFO Defense: Good Game Despite Itself

X-Com: Girlfriend UnknownX-Com: Girlfriend UnknownA lot of people have been asking me about my thoughts on the new X-Com: UFO Defense game. Usually these are folks who loved the original game, which I reviewed two years ago on Matt Chat #60. Admittedly, that video was the first time I had played any of the original games, and I didn't play it much after that, so I'm not the person to speak to about how faithfully the new one captures the minutiae of the old series. At any rate, I wouldn't care about that anyway. After all, the old ones are still quite easy to get up and running on a modern system, so if you really want the authentic experience, it's not going anywhere. So, that leaves me with a more important question--is the new one any good? I have to say yes, even if it seems the designers seemed hell-bent on sabotaging their own game.

I have only managed to play through the single-player campaign once, and that was on normal difficulty. The fact that it has a difficulty selector (which it encourages you to change during the game if it gets too hard) was alone to get my hackles up. I really hate it when a game makes me answer that sort of question right off the bat.

I've said it once, but I'll say it again: Difficulty selectors are a cop-out and a sign of lazy game design. If you set up your game correctly, players will be able to decide for themselves how hard they want to push their skills at any given moment: "I got balls of steel! I'm sending my rookies armed with assault rifles up against those sectoid commanders!" Or, "No, I think I'm going to make this easier on myself by saving that battle for later." The fact that it would have been so easy to design the game this way makes it worse; everything is in place here to just let players decide what missions they feel competent enough to do. The only difficulty level I find acceptable is the one I never have to think about--neither because it's too easy and I'm getting bored, or it's too hard and I'm getting pissed off. I want to be in *MY* "zone of proximal development," not the zone a designer thinks I ought to be at because he's handed me a pair of difficulty-level shaped scissors with which to remove my balls before I even start the @$@ game.

As I expected, the learning curve on this one is substantially lower than the original. Like most modern games, this one assumes we're morons for the better part of an hour. Assuming you're not an idiot, you won't need to spend hours engrossed in manuals, wikis, or YouTube videos to get up and running on this one. Is that disappointing? Of course. It's like showing up the first day of college and realizing that you're the only one who can actually write a sentence. Don't just give me a shotgun and tell me to go point it at something and pull the trigger. And where the hell are the electro flares? That thing over there <-- is an electro flare. Now why the $@ is it doing over there instead of being in the game? Self-sabotage.

The part that really galled me *SPOILER ALERT* was when I realized there was no way I could save my guys on the first damn mission. It was around this point my respect for the designers started to pick up; okay, I thought, they're showing some balls here. It was also sinking in that I wasn't supposed to get attached to these guys. Nice touch. But, meh, like I'm not going to be reloading my save every time one of my dudes gets killed? @$@ that. Show me a commander in the field who'd be okay with letting a couple of his guys die if he could just reload the mission and try it again. I don't care if there's supposed to be a moral here or not, if I have the option to re-load and do a mission 50 times until I get through it with ALL my guys intact, that's what I'm going to do.

X-Com Combat: Keep head down to avoid facial.X-Com Combat: Keep head down to avoid facial.Where the game really started to get its hooks into me was when I got invested in building up the X-Com HQ. You have a LOT of stuff to do, and it all takes time, money, and resources. I didn't look at any hint sites or anything, so I was having to make some very risky investments left and right--and spent most of the game without an extra euro to my name. It was to the point that when I managed to get some UFO scrap to sell on the gray market (haha), I was giddier than a constipated man who'd just voided a heavy floater.

This game did a great job of capitalizing on my natural greed. Sure, I *could* just shoot a rocket and blow up the whole pack. OR I could sneak in and use my stun rods and take home a whole bag of alien weaponry--plus some live aliens for research. I gotta say, though, MAN did they @$@ up by not letting me sell live aliens on the gray market. I got live specimens and they want to buy corpses? What, are there no zoos in this awful future? Hey, kids, come see the lions, tigers, and, I don't know, a MUTON? Big opportunity missed there, fellas.

And no, there are no rats in X-Com, so it's not technically a CRPG. I don't know if anyone out there is trying to say that it is, but just in case, I'm glad I settled that.

The game also does a good job of making you feel totally inadequate. Oh, you think your'e bad on the field? Well, now the UFOs are thumping your miserable little ravens out of the sky cause they've way outpaced you. Good thing you have a Firestorm being built...Oh, wait, I can't afford to even begin the research for three months! Oh, yes...You keep losing battles, and the LUST FOR REVENGE begins to build. By the time I finally got my Firestorm built I'd dug out Top Gun SID and was jamming out to some Harold Faltermeyer. And what could possibly make you shatter your core faster than watching your own super soldier get mind controlled and start blasting your own guys? Oh, possibly that sergeant that just wet himself. Panic my ASS! Grrr!!!! Now, come on, if you can play a game like this without smashing a keyboard or two, I pity you.

I guess I realized I was having fun with this game when I looked up at the clock and realized I had been in the same combat for forty five minutes, clicking a dude, clicking overwatch, waiting, lather, rinse, overwatch, move a little bit...And I didn't even mind!? What the hell did they do to me to make this shite fun? Damned if I know. It's almost--and I mean almost as if--nah, couldn't be. But--perhaps? Perhaps a designer is treating me as though I had an attention span larger than a goldfish?

It's been a long damn time since I've played anything I've liked as much as this new X-Com game. It's got enough depth to keep a guy like me reaching for the three-ring, and while it's got warts, they're not hairy ones. By the time I got to the final confrontation, I was actually disappointed. Usually by the time I get to the end of the game, it's more relief than satisfaction. Not the case with this game. I'm already thinking about replaying it, perhaps even (gasp) trying out one of the harder modes. On second thought, nah, I'm just going to play on normal again so I can apply everything I've learned to really mind control the hell out of some alien sex babes. I guess we know these creatures aren't from Phobos.

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