Review: Xenonauts (PC/Steam)

I always held a certain appreciation for X-COM: UFO Defense, the cult mid-90s strategy hit that pits humanity (in the form of paramilitary organisation X-COM) against a classic alien invasion. X-COM was a devilishly-deceptive game, and notoriously difficult. When Firaxis recently-ish rebooted the series, I was, once my nostalgia cloud dispersed, fully on-board. With my enjoyment of the 2012 reboot cemented, I was intrigued to try Xenonauts out, for a more classic experience and hopefully some innovation.

Xenonauts, however, does little to excite my sense of nostalgia, despite being essentially a carbon-copy of the game that came 20 years prior.

While Xenonauts does indeed replicate X-COM’s tactical difficulty well, it falls into the trap of merely impersonating the older game – which would be fine, but the strategy genre has changed significantly since X-COM was released in 1994. Where the XCOM: Enemy Unknown game does take a few liberties with “classic” X-COM, the re-imagining of the game is done in a sympathetic and, ultimately, pragmatic manner, to appeal to a modern audience, whilst capturing the essence of X-COM. I can already sense fond memories blasting off to the stars just thinking about it…

… with an abrupt crash back to Earth, Xenonauts does no such thing. I found this game, in the brief time I played it, utterly derivative; there is no evolution on the original 1994 game’s core mechanics, just a bland and sterile replication of them. Xenonauts purports to be inspired by X-COM; indeed, the inspiration manifests itself as nothing more than a photocopy. The core gameplay remains the same – sure, there are a few token gestures such as “tactical air combat”; whatever that is – it remains easier to just let the CPU decide the battle, and the ability to “air-strike” crash sites to avoid ground battles, but these are mere cosmetic buttons on a dated UI than anything significant.

Ground battles have suffered the most from the lack of innovation – they play out and act exactly as they did back in 1994, but without the charm or even technical limitations that Micropose would’ve had to face in the mid Nineties. I ask again – where exactly does Xenonauts go to further the genre? All I see in Xenonauts is a pale re-heating of the classic X-COM formula with bland, 2001-era graphics layered atop of it. Xenonauts clearly trades largely on rosy-tinted nostalgia (a common trait in both professional and indie games lately) while clearly exposing itself as a design anachronism. I fail to see any examples of where Goldhawk Interactive have actually improved, or heaven deviated at all from the classic X-COM games at all.

Xcom-Xeno-HM

The lack of any movement from the original X-COM games in Xenonauts couldn’t be clearer than in the game’s UI. This especially struck me as personifying Xenonauts as a “shot-by-shot remake” of X-COM (as a Kickstarter-funded game, why is this of no surprise); with a few token alien race names changed to no real consequence, Xenonauts serves to merely insult my intelligence. There’s a perfunctory effort to differentiate Xenonauts as taking place in an alternate history of 1979 but this adds little o the actual game besides explaining some of the barren  and generic graphics. The manual is has the appearance of a PDF typed up in an afternoon in Word; this shows me the character of the developer and ultimately is an exemplar of the amount of actual effort they put in.

If I wanted to repeat the classic X-COM gameplay (which is still enjoyable in context); surely I would overlook Xenonauts’ uninspired graphics and horribly dated gameplay and experiment either with a DOS emulator or an Open-Source reimagining of the original game (complete with personality and colourful graphics). Xenonauts closely reminds me of Shovel Knight, another recent game that exists in a curious time-warp where modern production standards, fuelled by blind nostalgia, hark back to an era of games that, as an uncomfortable truth, were left behind a long time ago. Games like this aren’t made anymore, and it’s about time indie developers realised that before hopping on the nostalgia train again.

I won’t be playing it any more when there’s better nods to the original game available.

Buy Xenonauts on Steam

Review: Tomb Raider (PC/Steam)

I picked up Tomb Raider recently, intrigued to see the modern take on the venerable puzzle-platform game from years ago. However, I very quickly found out that this game was, indeed, cursed.

My first impressions were almost encouraging – a glossy opening cinematic that transitioned into a peculiar scene of the “new” Lara Croft hanging from mid-air. I’d have done better to leave her hanging and found a good game to play. One thing I can’t fault Tomb Raider on is the visual quality – indeed, the setting and underlying backstory are what kept me going for twelve hours. The setting of the mysterious island of Yamatai, and the particulars of the “curse” that keeps survivors of the various shipwrecks marooned intrigued me, and I felt it was well-realised, though it’s easily said that the visuals are the most important part of any (interactive) movie.

That’s the positive stuff out of the way.

While the backstory to the island and setting were quite nicely built up throughout the course of the game, transitioning from coastal forests to ruined native villages to the epic, sweeping structures built by more modern inhabitants of Yamatai, the writing elsewhere was sorely lacking. Tomb Raider positions itself as a fresh reboot of the franchise, and the “origin story” for Lara Croft. The Lara presented here is utterly insufferable, she suffers a total victim complex and spends almost the entire game talking aloud to herself about her surroundings (the game’s lazy means of reminding the player of the current objective). Her voice actor is also pretty awful, completing the impression that this Lara is the archetypal woe-is-me, naïve, rich girl with the requisite amount of daddy issues. There’s a clear dichotomy between “cutscene Lara” and “game Lara”; in a cutscene, Lara has major moral concerns about having to kill a man, but happily spends the rest of the game gunning down dozens of insane island folk. How does she suddenly acquire this bad-assery? Because the plot demands it. Why do the various injuries not cause Lara any impediment on her journey until the plot demands it in a very contrived manner? You guessed it! Quite astutely, later on, one of the underdeveloped companion characters Lara is inevitably tasked with rescuing states that “it’s all about Lara”. There’s plenty of instances where the game’s writing tries very hard (and very crudely) to force the player to empathise with characters because the plot demands it. For these reasons, narratively I found Lara utterly unrelatable as a character. At its root, Tomb Raider seemed to me to play out like a poor imitation of classic exploration and adventure films – a “budget Indiana Jones” for sure.

In terms of the franchise, the poor writing goes against the game in that it would be extremely simple to swap Lara Croft for any generic adventurer; indeed, one of my biggest wishes with this game is that the developer had embraced the setting, and the mediocre story, and just put their own character in; the use of the Tomb Raider intellectual property in such a mediocre and generic outing seemed to do the franchise a disservice. I feel personally, the story was underdeveloped; too often it felt like a checklist of adventure movie tropes, some of which (the surging river and rickety crossing for one) were poorly disguised.

In preparation, I watched Yahtzee Croshaw’s excellent review, and in terms of gameplay I’d wholeheartedly agree with his main points: the developer throws in mechanics that are transient at best. A great example would be the “hunger” mechanic, which drives the game through the first level, and leads the player to acquiring the bow and shooting a deer for food, as Lara incessantly complains about being hungry. Once out of this area, the hunger mechanic never troubles Lara again – there’s nary a “stamina” meter nor a health benefit to encourage the player to keep that in mind. The only reference I found to “hunger” later on, for instance, was great big orange cool boxes full of food that serve to merely top up experience points for the obligatory levelling-up system. The levelling system itself seemed amoeboid at best, there was certainly no subtlety, just three broad (and linear) skill “sets” to steadily unlock; same core, extremely simplified mechanic applies to weapon upgrades through “salvage”. Neither of these systems seem completely cohesive with the main game at all.

This game is “cinematic” gaming at its worst: there’s pretty much one linear path the game forces you down, from one set piece shootout or dodging sequence to the next, playing out like a movie the player has a distant level of control over, and several immersion-breaking allusions to the attempts at adding interactivity to this cinematic experience. All “climbable” surfaces are mysteriously painted white, for instance, and craggy rocks are a standout sign in an otherwise-well-realised world that you’ll eventually be expected to climb up there. The game seemingly wants the best of both worlds, and ends up with neither. Each area has a set amount of collectibles, but there is no real incentive to waste time looking for these; they’re neither required to advance the story nor provide any real fleshing-out of that story. Like most of the mechanics, they feel thrown in to give the player “something to do”, and little else. Even the titular tombs themselves are tertiary to the plot; they present infrequent puzzles that offer rewards that add nothing to the story. To even call this game Tomb Raider is almost a falsehood with so little amount of actual tomb raiding.

The overarching feeling while playing was that Tomb Raider was an immense missed opportunity. So much more could’ve been done with both the setting and the franchise; instead, a pretty average, standard, cookie-cutter game at best is presented. This could’ve been a definitive remake of the original game, exploring it from a new angle; however, the developer instead chose to make a pretty run-of-the-mill, generic adventure game with the Tomb Raider name slapped upon it for a quick buck. It’s like there was a half-hearted attempt to make a truly thrilling and enjoyable adventure here, but the developer got lazy. I get the parallels to Uncharted, but lacking a PlayStation or experience with those, I can’t comment further. Overall though, while Tomb Raider wasn’t a broken game, it’s competency and mediocrity at its best do doom it when considered as a continuation of a revered franchise. It’s just a shame this game wasn’t left dead and buried, though I luckily only paid £5 for it. Don’t pay more.

Buy Tomb Raider on Steam

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC/Steam)

After taking about nine months to finish my first proper XCOM run-through, I finally feel ready to express how I felt about Firaxis’ re-interpretation of a storied PC gaming classic.

But why did XCOM take me 9 months to complete, firstly? Fair to say, the original XCOM games hold a lot of nostalgia points, and Enemy Unknown certainly scores highly in terms of capturing the mood and atmosphere that made the original games so enjoyably stressful endeavours. I enjoyed every minute I played Enemy Unknown for, but I had my heart in my mouth the entire ride, wondering just when a Sectopod would annihilate my lovingly-reared squad of colonels, or a mind-controlled sniper would blow up the Skyranger. But having now put a play through under my belt, I feel ready to face the oncoming storm once more!

I had a few teething issues that marred my initial experience of Enemy Unknown and left me questioning what Firaxis had done to the franchise. Why was autosave not protecting my progress with an initially-buggy game? Why was my squad just four strong to begin with? I’d heard that Firaxis had given the classic game’s mechanics an overhaul and streamlined them – but the danger word, that of a “simplified” game started to ring in my mind.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game. There’s a great look and feel; the graphics are fresh, if a little cartoonish but vibrant and inviting. Even as a three-year-old game, in 2015 the graphics still look fresh and punchy – the environments for missions convey a depth that the map size might not be able to carry on but there’s a certain environmental atmosphere. The small squad size (the original XCOM game let you take dozens of hapless rookies to their deaths from the get-go) certainly promotes a more tactical, thought-out strategy then leading lemmings over a cliff. And having small squads fosters that feeling of every member being valuable that made the original game such a bastard to play.

Constant comparisons to the 1994 original do Enemy Unknown a disservice, but it is hard to avoid. I felt there were some worthy additions and refinements of the original format that showed that while Firaxis “got” why the original worked, there was plenty of room to modernise the format. Working on having satellite coverage (and the strategy of which nations to launch satellites over and when) is a rewarding additional layer of gameplay – satellites work to detect UFOs but also act to reduce “panic” in relevant nation states, and providing continental coverage can give important meta-bonuses to the XCOM project. Side missions from The Council are, too, a good means for both farming experience for one’s soldiers but also fostering good relations (and goodies) from the Council itself. Soldier specialisation as they level up add to that soldier’s value, and adds tactical variety. What abilities do soldiers get? And how does that integrate with the squad on a mission-by-mission basis?

What worked for me with Enemy Unknown was the sense of value your soldiers got as they ranked up and became more powerful. I felt like I almost “knew” some of these guys, having led them through some pretty deadly missions. Seeing a soldier critically injured, especially a high-ranking one or even one that had survived a long time, led me to rush to their aid, even if that jeopardised the mission. The atmosphere of the game is fantastic, and it really does feel like XCOM is the last bastion of a planet under attack. There’s decisions to be made about what targets are important, what to research, and the time is always ticking until the next mission. The tactical game was great; I found it easy to grasp the core concepts of cover and I felt that as my campaign progressed, my rank as a commander grew with the abilities of my troops. And yes, like the original game, the random number generator was an absolute sod at times!

I recently approached the final mission of the game with great trepidation. Some missions – the Alien Base Assault, the Battleship assault – had been absolute bloodbaths that were great to finally complete, and it’s a credit to the level design. I thought the level design for that final mission was perfect, slowly taking the squad through a proxy of the campaign so far, through some mean challenges to the epic final battle. I’d be happy just to play that mission again and again, just to try out my new strategies!

Enemy Unknown, despite being quite linear in mission scope, is very replayable. I definitely felt my confidence to play more grow. There’s loads of interesting gameplay modes to try once the game has been beaten once, and in conjunction with the strategies and tactics the player themselves learns, leaves the game with ample room to be played again and again, for a better score, a shorter time to beat the aliens, and more fun ultimately.

I do however feel the tiny squad size was unsettling at first, though I understood why that was the case. It promotes the use of tactics and the preservation aspect is cemented into the player’s mind. The initial setup, where a lot of stuff goes on at once, can overwhelm the player a bit as they find their feet. And yes, the legacy of the 1994 game lingers overhead – the game took me 9 months as I kept working myself up about playing an “XCOM game”, but it’s a good, enjoyable kind of stress that promotes the best a player can give, and adds to that atmosphere.

Having beaten this game once, I feel I’ve learned a lot and can’t wait to face the aliens again! XCOM is a fantastic strategy game and with the upcoming sequel, I look forward to seeing where Firaxis chooses to evolve the franchise further!

Buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Steam

Review: Cities: Skylines

It’s hard to start a review of this game without a look to the past. Cities: Skylines wouldn’t exist, or be as great as if is unless it paid homage to the venerable franchise that made the city-building genre itself: SimCity. And I’m melancholy that, with its last iteration, the SimCity franchise didn’t just falter; it totally crashed and burned (rightly so, as that game was awful) but also pleased that with Cities: Skylines the mantle has been passed to a fitting successor.

Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines is my first dip into city-building in a 3D environment. I was initially sceptical, mainly through a lot of what I’d seen of the 2013 release of SimCity; trade-offs had to be made? I was pleased to find that my concerns that the city-building genre would have to make compromises in the transition to 3D were unfounded.

The game takes an initially-worrying amount of cues from SimCity. A small square tract of land to start with with one highway connection that everyone uses? Tilt-shift effects? Heck, even the clinically-white overlay layer borrow a lot of influence from the most recent and disastrous SimCity. But it would be unfair to judge Cities: Skylines solely with comparison to SimCity, as Cities: Skylines works as a game in its own right. This game succeeds not just because SimCity failed, but instead almost despite SimCity‘s failure. There’s plenty of detail and depth that’s introduced gradually, and seeing a city mature from a township into a bustling, sprawling metropolis, with each area or district adopting a distinct personality, with highways and transit interweaved intricately between is intensely rewarding.

Cities: SkylinesI’d say the first faults I had with Cities: Skylines came from my own play style; I came to the game a veteran of the excellent but aging SimCity 4; where play styles and layout ideas from the old title don’t really work in the newcomer. But part of the fun of my first few cities was to try out all the new options and learn something new from e ach iterative town I played.

There are a few weaknesses and curious choices in Cities: Skylines – quite a lot of building homogeny, which I can only guess comes from the development team’s small size. But what they have made is full of character and charm – the “Banhammer Bank” being a firm favourite building of mine. There’s some nice complexity in there, slowly unwrapped as one progresses, though the addition of crematoriums and graveyards as functional buildings is an interesting addition. I don’t want to say it’s positive or negative… but a brave choice.

A rewarding break from my SimCity 4 days definitely comes from the transport/road building system – I felt spoilt for choice when it came to freeform roads and highways! The traffic model isn’t perfect, but trying to work around kinks in a system of your own design, as it outgrows it’s original purpose adds a sense of constant refinement and history to a game. I really appreciate the mass-transit granularity; in SimCity, one would place stations and join the dots, where then commuters would magically join trains or buses to where they wanted to go. Cities: Skylines makes a logical step forward where the player defines the routes mass transit takes, allowing for finer-grained control and customisation. It’s nice.

Cities: SkylinesWhere the game lacks content or refinement, it’s an astounding achievement to see the modding community come together to enhance the base game in Cities: Skylines, proving the ingenuity and imagination this game has inspired.  There’s a great, disparate collection of items that go from enhancing the tools available to the player, giving a new perspective on the game (the FPS camera mod is amazing) and enhancing the game’s appearance in a lot of different ways. The Cities: Skylines modding community is definitely an exemplary example of why I love PC gaming. The additions other, creative players have made to the game go a long way to shoring up any shortcomings.

Cities: SkylinesBut above all this, there is a sense that Cities: Skylines has a developer and publisher that seem engaged and ready to enhance their players experience with this lovely game. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a game I look forward to sinking more and more time into. I’m still hurt over what happened to SimCity, but with Cities: Skylines it hurts a lot less knowing that game’s legacy spawned this impressive and charming game.

Buy Cities: Skylines on Steam right now!