Archive for the tag “Alex Reviews”

Alex Reviews: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I was relatively late to the game with picking up XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I had heard the name a few times and seen friends and family playing it on Steam, but the only impressions I got were the grainy shades-of-blue squaddie imagery and the erroneous idea that it was some kind of third-person shooter. However, when the lovely green “-75%” appeared next to the price suddenly all the positive comments I’d heard and read about became that much more persuasive.

Image courtesy of NewGameNetwork.

Upon first opening XCOM, I wasn’t really aware of what I was playing. You get thrown head-first into an introductory tutorial mission upon starting a new game and this was the first time I discovered that XCOM isn’t the game I thought it was, its actually a turn-based squad strategy game, akin to the retro classic Commandos.

At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t impressed. The over-sized and blocky weaponry of the squad members, paired with the tank-like build of the men and the skinny femininity of the women made the whole thing border on ridiculous. The environment around your headquarters also feels very surreal and unrealistic, like everything is made from painted polystyrene. On top of the aesthetics, I also thought there wasn’t a great deal of drive or direction given to the player and I frequently found myself looking at my underground base full of various facilities thinking “Ok, now what?”

It only took me a few hours of game play however for all of these complaints to pale into insignificance. Once the tutorial missions are over and you get to decide your own course of direction in your battle against the alien menace, that’s when XCOM comes into it’s own.

So you’re sitting in your underground super-secret base when suddenly one of a wide variety of emergencies happen (alien abductions, alien terror attack, UFO landing, council request, etc.) that you need to handle. Then begins a series of choices that can have long-term affects on how the rest of your game plays out. Firstly, you have to choose which squad members you want to send on the mission and what you’re going to equip them with. This is relatively simple at first because they’ll all be rookies without any special skills and you won’t yet have any decent equipment. However, after a few missions your troops will start getting promotions and specialising in their own type of combat and suddenly each mission becomes a painstaking choice between more grenades or another medikit, and do we really need two snipers? Throw into that mix the fact that one wrong choice on the battlefield can lead to a trooper being out of action for several days (at the very minimum) and who you choose to take with you suddenly becomes a far more significant issue.

Image courtesy of stormsweeper.

The battles themselves are very well designed. The landscapes are nicely detailed without being too cluttered and they all force you to make the heart-quickening choice of safety versus fire superiority. You will end up fighting in a wide variety of locations and situations, where each of your squad members will either excel or become useless, sometimes in the same mission. There are also a good amount of enemy variants that each prove to have their strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to change tactics at a moment’s notice to be able to effectively combat them.

Once the battle is over, assuming you were successful, you will receive alien artefacts such as alloys and a new element known as Elerium. If you killed any enemies you will also collect their corpses and your science team back at base can be instructed to autopsy them in order to learn more about your foe. This adds a great dynamic to the game in that depending on what missions you undertake and how you perform, different research will become available to you. The research you perform will then allow your engineering team to construct new technology and this will have a direct effect on the outcome of later missions, and so the whole process repeats.

Image courtesy of faseextra.

Image courtesy of faseextra.

Politics also plays a role in the game as the alien invasion sparks panic around the globe. A cross section of nations from all continents form “The Council” which ultimately funds the XCOM operation and expects to be protected by it. Consequently, when several emergencies happen at once, panic will erupt in the places that you don’t have time to defend. If this panic is left unchecked the member nation will leave the Council, taking it’s funding with it. If too many countries abandon XCOM, the aliens win. Consequently you may have to take on more difficult missions to please countries, sell arms and resources to them, and pay to manufacture satellites to provide UFO surveillance. Just when you thought it was hard enough keeping your guys alive, now there are also political implications to your actions on the battlefield.

Despite all these different aspects and game mechanics, XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t feel confusing or overly stressful. Everything is fluid and there is a freedom of choice rarely found in games of this kind. Even while juggling all the different elements outside of battle, the game still delivers the thrilling feeling of successfully blowing the face off of a giant roaring monster from point blank range with a shotgun or expertly picking off a psychic grey from across the map with a well placed sniper shot. In fact, all of your careful planning and research leads up to these glorious moments of alien destruction, when you realise that you made the right choices and who knows, maybe you can actually win this thing?




Alex Reviews: “Night Train to Lisbon”

Welcome to the first instalment of “Alex Reviews” which is basically going to take on the format of me reviewing stuff I experience. Expect to see anything from music and films to restaurants and days out. Basically, anything and everything that is entertaining, I will write about.

Night Train to Lisbon (2013)

Night Train to Lisbon poster

The film centres around an ageing and solitary philosophy professor (Jeremy Irons) living in Bern, Switzerland, who, while on the way to work on morning, saves the life of a woman about to jump from a bridge. He takes the woman with him to his work but she abruptly leaves, forgetting to take her coat and a copy of a collection of memoirs by a mysterious Portuguese writer, Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston). Upon finding the book and trying to return it to the woman, our protagonist enters himself into the complex and emotional life of the author and his friends, and the dark, dangerous lives they lead during the Portuguese revolution.

Although a slow and thoughtful piece that takes it’s time to get going, the film is full of gripping drama that prevents it, even at it’s slowest moments, from becoming laborious. The characters are starkly real and fleshed out and special recognition must go to the talents of the actors playing the older versions of the characters as they recount the stories of their past lives and the traumatic experiences they’ve been through. Charlotte Rampling especially does a spectacular job of conveying the role of Amadeu’s troubled sister trying to distance herself from her past.

Over all the film does a great job of telling a story within a story, all overlaid with Amadeu’s bitter but honest philosophies. The film captures this feeling of introverted speculation well and the whole thing feels like a visual representation of Amadeu’s musings.

Unfortunately the drama can sometimes overdo itself, especially when the troubled love sub-plot becomes the focus of the narrative despite the great danger of the revolution going on all around them. Nonetheless, even this deviance can be forgiven given that the tale is being retold by the people who experienced it and thus their emotions are likely to carry a lot of weight in their memory of the events. Similarly, pure coincidence plays a large role in the film, at several points conveniently occurring to point the protagonist in a new (and correct) direction in his search to uncover the story. This detracts only slightly from the plot, fortunately, as coincidence in itself has become a recognisable and acceptable plot device in the majority of modern film and television.

In the end, director Bille August does a sterling job in smoothly moving between complex and multi-layered story lines while keeping the plot easily accessible and the roles of the characters memorable. ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ is ultimately an enjoyable and thought-provoking insight into the lives of a few great people living in a dark and terrible part of Portuguese history.


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