Review: X-COM: Apocalypse

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I have a unique perspective on the XCOM series, and that’s mainly because this was my first XCOM. I was too young to appreciate UFO Defense or Terror from the Deep when they came out, but the bright colors and detailed environments of Apocalypse were enough to draw my adolescent attentions. It certainly helped that I could skip the traditional turn-based action for real-time chaos, blasting aliens and burning down buildings on an unprecedented scale for the time. After more than two decades, I’ve finally notched a win in the war against trans-dimensional aliens, and I can say for sure now that as much as I love this hidden gem in the series, it can be a tough sell for newcomers.

It’s 2084, and humanity has predictably fucked the Earth into a state of uninhabitability, save for a walled city called Mega Primus. The scrappy survivors have turned the city into a high-tech paradise, just in time for interdimensional invaders to drop out of the sky and ruin the party. In response, the government reinstates the XCOM organization, and tasks you with addressing the alien threat. This means hiring and training staff, sending out squads to sweep the city and respond to invader sightings, defend the city’s airspace against UFOs, and eventually learn enough about the aliens to strike back at the source. It’s a winding and bloody road to victory, but with a little luck and perseverance, you can ensure a future for those fortunate few who remain on this blighted Earth.

Apocalypse is the true successor to UFO Defense, with Terror from the Deep being made by a different team as a stopgap sequel. The ideas here were big, from the detailed and complex cityscape to the wealth of tactical options. The aliens are unlike anything seen elsewhere in the XCOM series, past or present, and the reveal of their true nature remains one of the best twists in the entire franchise. The art style is a bright, bombastic, and frankly insane art deco mess capped off with fleshy, horrific aliens. Most notable, however, is the presence of real-time combat. Of the main strategic XCOM games, Apocalypse is the only one with the option to play every mission in real-time as opposed to the traditional turn-based mode. It’s a dramatic design shift, and one that contributed mightily to Apocalypse’s troubled development, but it’s also a huge reason why I enjoy this one so much more than the others.

Real-time tactical missions on the scale that they are presented here, are harrowing, chaotic affairs. You can bring up to 36 heavily-armed agents, and the aliens have no compunctions about throwing dozens of dangerous beings at you. The maps themselves can be nine stories tall, with complex floors, overlooks, hallways, and structures like fuel tanks and entire spaceships. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is destructible, so don’t be surprised if you set off a chain reaction that destroys an entire building with a single grenade. You have some helpful functions to manage your squads, such as behaviors and shot types and stances, but honestly everything is going to come down to positioning your agents and praying their reactions will be good enough to handle the horror that comes through the next door.

You can, of course, play missions in traditional turn-based mode. However, the sprawling maps and huge firefights of Apocalypse make this a time-consuming and tedious prospect. More importantly, real-time battles with XCOM’s signature brutality are just fun. They’re fun in a way that no other XCOM is, especially as the dynamic difficulty of the game shifts the tide against you in the midgame and has you facing seemingly impossible odds, only to come out bloody and battered on the other side. The tug-of-war between you and the aliens in this game is real, and it doesn’t come from missing 95% shot chances. Apocalypse gives you just enough time in the first week or two to find your feet, learn how to outfit agents and run missions, before slamming you with advanced alien tech and tactics in the midgame. Only by capturing live aliens and equipment can you turn the tide, and become a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut by the endgame.

This is both a blessing and a curse to this game, and probably my biggest complaint about it. Apocalypse has a very real pacing issue that doesn’t really become apparent until you’ve essentially beaten the aliens in the last quarter of the game. At that point, without spoiling anything, you still have a lot of missions to get through, despite being absolutely dominant with your tech. Additionally, these special endgame missions are absolute slogs, on painfully open maps where long sight lines are going to cost you agents, no matter how prepared you are. As much as I love this game and its quirks, the tedious finale kept me from ever completing a full playthrough for literal decades. Since we’re complaining, I might as well mention that this game definitely feels its age, and managing a large and sprawling organization like XCOM through an early 90s interface can be a real pain, especially with the complex logistics modeled into the game.

So, that leaves us with a very conditional recommendation. I love XCOM Apocalypse, and I fully believe any fan of any XCOM owes it to themselves to give it a try. Real-time strategy fans should also give it a look, or really anyone who enjoys tactical chaos. But it’s a dated game, and can be very, very painful to complete once you reach the endgame. Honestly, for the price there’s no reason not to pick it up, with the understanding that it might drag too much to finish. You’ll still get the exquisite experience of naming and outfitting agents, sending them into a cluttered arms factory, and accidentally leveling the entire building with a misplaced rocket. That’s the real magic of XCOM Apocalypse, the magic that got me into this series all those years ago, and the magic that deserves to be remembered by fans both new and old.

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