I’ve been getting a lot of email recently about my review of Black and White – most quite supportive, some disagreeing with my assessment, but all civil and obscenity-free for a change. I was thinking of starting off this review with a rebuttal, maybe firm up my position a little, but you know what? Screw it. I think I’ve expended quite enough e-ink on that most mediocre title. You got more to say, you want to read more of what others and I have to say? There are no less than three threads ongoing in the forums on this very topic. Maybe it will make it into the next Making the Game, but until then, I plan to get on with my life and my next review. And away we go.
Media companies do funny things sometime, and by funny I mean strange and unpredictable. Take Josie and the Pussycats, for example, the motion picture that came out a few months back. What would possess someone to make a live-action movie based on a cartoon over 30 years old? I can only imagine how desperate Hollywood must be for a movie idea. How about Avarice, guys, huh? And they’re making a Scooby Doo live-action movie too. We’ll see how that does when that hits the big screen. Warner Brothers happily cranked out Batman movies for years, each one worse than the last, driving what is among the most enduring and popular comic book franchises into the ground. Couldn’t they buy a script worth shooting? On the videogame side, soon there will be a sequel to the Dukes of Hazzard: Racing for Home, when by every conceivable measure the first one was a dog (I’m talking as a game. It almost certainly made money or there wouldn’t be a sequel).
And now there’s another game in the XCOM series, and it’s an arcade shooter! I don’t know about most of you kids, but you mention XCOM to someone who’s been playing games for awhile (XCOM came out in 1994) and you’ll get all kinds of misty-eyed reminiscences about how great games used to be, and how we would play XCOM for hours on end. XCOM, for the youths in the audience, was a turned-based strategy game in which you outfitted a group of marines to battle hostile alien invaders and save the world, researched new technologies to try and get an edge in combat over those alien bastards, and balanced the books financially for the whole shebang. I could easily write an entire review, or maybe a retrospective, about XCOM for those of you out of the loop, but this is the new millenium and we’re all webicized and you can go out there and find a review of it on your own if you’re curious. It’s not really pertinent to this review, except to say that I have always seen XCOM as the best turn-based squad combat game ever. I’ve spent literally an hour thinking about whether a single marine should use his last action segment to snap off a quick, untargeted plasma rifle shot at the enemy or duck behind a building and try not to get shot himself. The sequel, XCOM2: Terror from the Deep was more of the same, some said too much the same, but it was good enough to keep XCOM addicts off the streets and out of trouble. The next in line was XCOM: Apocalypse. Instead of a global scale, it was war on a citywide scale, and there was a whole real-time combat engine added. Not the sequel I had been hoping for, but some people liked it. The sequel to that was the inexplicable and awful XCOM: Interceptor, a Wing Commander clone with poor graphics and a sucky combat engine. Going up against the likes of Wing Commander: Prophecy and Descent: FreeSpace it did not fare well.
The point I’m trying to get across here is that there are still fans of the first XCOM out there, over 7 years later! People who still talk about it, who run web pages devoted to it, who run DOS booting machines specifically to play it. Why does every sequel get farther and farther from the concept that spawned it? I would be willing to pay for a version of XCOM that was simply rewritten so I could play it on my Win98 machine. Why isn’t someone making that game? The same question could well be asked of the Fallout franchise. Why break the mold and make a Fallout squad-based combat sequel when the RPG series was going so well? There’s a marketing decision behind all these things, I’m sure. Marketing people are the scourge of the 21st century. Killing the good ideas, green lighting the awful ones. I’d like to scythe them all down in a HAIL of RIGHTEOUS gunfire, SQUASH them beneath my FEET like the inSIGnificant, unSEGMENTED inSECTS that they are. Well, eh, I don’t feel like going into that now.
Anyway, the XCOM part of the title XCOM: Enforcer is a gimmick. The only facet of this game that bears even the slightest resemblance to XCOM is the alien critters you’re busy blasting. Nearly every creature I saw rang a distant bell from the first XCOM, and alien craft that you run across are of XCOM-style design. Beyond that all similarity to previous XCOM incarnations ends. This game is totally, 100% a 3rd person arcade shooter, complete with “boss” monsters every couple of levels. You’re the Enforcer, a robot specifically designed and built to mow down aliens invading earth. And mow them down you will - hundreds of them in every level - leading to the inevitable ultimate combat with the numero uno alien himself on board the alien mothership. It’s a pretty overused plot in the videogame realm.
There’s no finesse to this game. The aliens don’t duck or hide, but rely rather on swarming attacks, and there’s no reason on earth to ever take your finger off the trigger even for a second. Killing aliens gets you power-ups and data points. The data points can be used at the end of each level to buy weapon and system upgrades. Power ups are temporary and get you speed, a damage multiplier, stealth mode, that kind of thing. There are a dozen different weapons which appear continuously at random as you travel around each level – machine gun (your default weapon), shotgun, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, blade shooter, mass driver, fusion rifle, hyperblade, lightening gun, etc. If you’re getting the feeling that you’ve seen all this before, you’re right. There really isn’t a thing in this game that’s new or different, and yet the shear number of aliens you encounter keeps the game playable on a certain mindless adrenaline level. If it moves, shoot it. How hard is that? Even on levels where you have to rescue humans, catching the humans in the crossfire causes them to just scream and drop to the ground. I don’t think it is even possible to kill them with friendly fire.
Graphically, the game reminds me strongly of Redneck Rampage. I think that is due in part to the scenery – cornfields, trailer parks, bowling alleys, barnyards – which is often very similar to RR (I guess rednecks and aliens hang out in the same kinds of places), but also because the general quality seems about the same. There are loads of other landscapes - football field, shopping mall, parking garage, art museum, skyscraper, graveyard, airport, etc. I would have to call the graphics better than average, but we’re not dealing with the Quake 3 engine here. Aliens chop up nicely leaving hamburger bits all over the place. Weapons effects are perhaps overly colorful and cartoonish, but that’s clearly what the game is going for so it works. You can leave bullet holes in just about everything, and many objects can be destroyed. The aliens grunt, groan, snarl, and shriek. Humans scream for help. The scientist who built you offers helpful comments (“Good luck, Enforcer. You’ll need it”). Sometimes the scientist has an Elmer Fudd thing going, “Ewaticate the awiens, Enforwcer.” It’s not so strong a speech impediment as to be obvious, so I’m not sure if they meant it to be a joke or if that’s just the way the voice actor was. To laugh or not to laugh, that is the question. Lots of weapons sound effects to go with the different weapons. I would have liked to hear more punch to the blasts of some of the heavy weaponry, though.
Complaints? Oh, I have a couple of little ones. You can only hold one weapon at a time (when that one runs out of ammo, you revert to your default weapon which has infinite ammo). So you’re in combat, and you see your favorite weapon appear, and you pick it up, but then bump into some other weapon that has appeared and end up with that instead. There’s no way to control whether or not you pick up a weapon other than to avoid running into it, but in the kaleidoscope of mass destruction, it can be hard to tell what you’re running over. And there’s no way to prioritize the weapons so that you only pick up a weapon off the ground if you have it ranked higher than the one you’re currently carrying. The problem is especially acute when you have spent all your data points upgrading a certain weapon, only to have that weapon replaced in your hands with one you haven’t upgraded at all. Also, I’ve had trouble judging jumps and ledges because I’ve both fallen through solid ground to my death, and hung way out over a cliff standing on thin air Wile E. Coyote style – that’s a glitch. Finally, on any level you can collect letters to spell out ‘BONUS’ and unlock a bonus level. These levels are very peculiar twists of old arcade games with an Enforcer theme, like a Pacman where you’re the pacman and aliens are the ghosts and you’re picking up data points. Another one is a Frogger where you’re trying to pick up data points on a highway while avoiding speeding cars. Weird. After the rush and action of the game itself, these bonus levels seem dull, and I never looked forward to unlocking one except for the data points I could collect. On the plus side, they’re timed to last only 60 seconds, so they’re not dull for long.
Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. There’s no denying that this game gets repetitive after awhile, but can you think of an arcade game that doesn’t? The levels are short and there are lots of them (about 40 total, not counting bonus levels), the weapons are varied as are the aliens, the locales are well-drawn and fun, and the screen is almost continually packed with stuff dying. What more could you want in escapist arcade entertainment?