Heroes will rise…sort of
(Reviewed on Xbox 360)
XCOM. Get used to that word if you’re not familiar with it, as it’s going to come up a fair bit in this review. It’s the name of the classic alien-fighting turn-based strategy game series that first made shockwaves on the PC with UFO: Enemy Unknown in 1994, and later inspired the critically acclaimed 2012 remake for PC and consoles, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It features tense and methodical combat, permadeath, careful base management and crushing difficulty, as you struggle to fend off a hostile invading alien force. Struggling at first as their technology far outpaces your own, eventually, you start to turn the tide of war through reverse-engineering their own weapons and tech against them. In short, it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding games in the strategy genre; it’s an absolute classic.
XCOM is basically the game that Falling Skies: The Game is modelled on…or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the game that Falling Skies desperately wants itself to be. Despite functional and enjoyable gameplay, the game tries to ape one of the kings of the genre, albeit not all that well unfortunately. Although it’s an admirable attempt as an XCOM clone, with some concessions made to players entirely new to the turn-based genre, Falling Skies‘ overall lack of originality and questionable design choices will leave you unsatisfied, and you’ll most likely be left with a craving, not to mention a much greater level of respect, for its muse.
In a similar manner to another recent game that features guns, shooting and hostile invading alien forces (Cough, cough *Destiny* cough), Falling Skies kicks off with a rather hefty exposition dump when you start a new game. Eponymously titled after the sci-fi TV series of the same name, the game places you in control of a team of rag-tag human survivors who must fight back against an evil race of aliens known as the ‘Espheni’. These guys have invaded the Earth, defeated our forces and have now effectively got full control of the planet. Not good.
While this ungainly info-dump of narrative at the start of the game is enough to give you an awareness of the TV show’s style and themes, it’s a pretty unsatisfying starting point for someone who’s completely new to the franchise…like me. Thankfully, all you really need to know is this; it’s your job to guide these human survivors through the game’s missions as the base commander, having your troops kill aliens, collect resources and fight back as part of the human resistance.
Check and Mate
The gameplay and combat in Falling Skies takes the form of a turn-based strategy cover shooter. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it’s essentially Chess…only with hostile alien forces as your cunning multi-eyed opponents. You have a set number of moves to make each turn, where you can position your troops, get them into cover, have them fire on enemies, hunker down defensively or move further into the map. Once your turn is over, then the alien Espheni race have a turn where they can attack you. The missions usually require you to recover valuable supplies vital to the human resistance, destroy alien communication devices and systems, and, of course, kill plenty of the spidery alien fiends along the way.
The catch is that you can only see as far as your troops have moved into the level – the rest of the map is dark, so there’s a need to be cautious and progress slowly but surely using the environment as cover. Enemy aliens can be lurking just out of sight in the darkness, waiting to attack. Leave your troops too exposed, or allow them to get flanked, and you can quickly find yourself in a world of pain – too much pain leads to death, or more specifically, ‘permadeath’. Much like in real life, unfortunately, this means that once a soldier is dead, that’s it – they’re gone for good. Caution, patience and a careful awareness of your surroundings, troop placement and equipment are all vital components to success.
The game has a good combat tutorial right from the off; you’re gently guided through the opening level/tutorial mission fairly well. It’s easy to pick up for a beginner, and it teaches more experienced players that “Oh – it’s an XCOM copy, I know what I’m doing”. Having said that, I did notice that the tutorial does skimp a bit on some small but important points that could confuse a new player. Things like damage-over-time combat effects, such as bleeding (bleeding wounds need to be bandaged, otherwise your character slowly but continuously leaks claret and dies) aren’t directly communicated or explained to the player. It wasn’t a major problem – the frequent damage indicators popping up every turn let an experienced strategy gamer clock what’s happening – but it’s the sort of small detail that, if not explained in a timely and appropriate manner early on, could potentially prove confusing and frustrating for a naive player unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions.
Speaking of those conventions, Falling Skies is an XCOM clone in pretty much every way possible. It’s so similar, that the game even uses the same in-game cover indicators, movement boundary colours, combat animations, in-game close-ups etc. as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Having said that, despite the wholesale copying of XCOM‘s design, for a TV-licenced game, this is pretty good stuff. Unlike some of the dire movie to game cash-ins that have been spewed out over the years, Falling Skies is a solid and functional game – hell, it’s even enjoyable to play as well. The decision to go with a turn-based strategy style of game for Fallen Skies, as opposed to the typical third person shooter route that movie/TV tie-in games tend to opt for, is a considered choice, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the series’ depiction of a desperate human struggle against superior extra-terrestrials.
The game was clearly a labour of love for Torus Games, who were particularly smitten by the 2012 XCOM reboot; so much so, that they decided to emulate the winning formula of that game for their own project – I can’t blame them, it’s a fantastic game to draw inspiration from. The problem is, while a lot of things are pretty much identical to Firaxis’ game, there’s nothing particularly original brought to the table either, and the few deviations from XCOM that Falling Skies makes tend to be the source of it’s most significant problems.
For example, a significant number of the enemies you’re fighting are melee based – which seems a bit of an odd design choice for a game that’s supposed to be about tactical turn-based cover shooting. Additionally, when you are fighting the alien-possessed human enemies who can shoot at you, moving into said cover is often a lot more trouble than it needs to be. Floor textures sometimes block grid icons, making it very hard to see where exactly your cursor is on the map, and also incredibly easy to accidentally place troops out in the open far too frequently.
When you actually can see the cursor, it’s a fiddly thing to control. Both the left and right analog sticks control the cursor – the left stick is for general navigation, whilst the right stick offers slightly more fine-tuned grid-to-grid movement, but it feels a bit unnecessary. Greater camera control on the right stick (just like in, you guessed it, XCOM) would have been far more useful an option to have, as just looking around the levels can feel like a particularly clunky task. As it stands, the camera can only be controlled using the left and right bumpers, which snaps your view around in an awkward 90-degree jerk. Placing your troops accurately requires a great deal more guess work and working round the lunging camera controls than it should.
The combat system, and in particular the way that the soldier classes work together can feel a bit problematic at times. With the exception of the snipers, the different classes can feel largely indistinguishable from each other. You’ll tend to identify your troops by their annoying and immersion-breaking dialogue choices, and not by their combat specialisations or previous heroics in past battles.
A particularly boisterous soldier I had early on would regularly yell “ENROU-TAY!” whenever ordered to a new spot, promptly causing me to remove them from active duty just so I didn’t have to hear their annoying yaps anymore. Having not watched the TV series, I thought that this out of place dialogue might be a specific writing choice to make this soldier’s dialogue match that of a particularly boisterous and cock-sure character from the TV series. However, as your troops are just randomly generated character models and drab clones/variations of each other, this seems unlikely, and the effect is just irritating for the player.
More importantly, the balancing of the different classes can feel a bit off. For example, snipers are allowed to carry shotguns as an alternative to a pistol, which essentially makes them overpowered. As the rest of the classes are pretty indistinguishable from each other, you’ll find that you can easily do without certain ones, and you’ll overuse others. My teams were usually populated with at least a few of these shotty-sniper hybrids, allowing me to deal with the majority of encounters from multiple ranges with relative ease.
There’s also some strange moments where your soldiers can exhibit rather glitchy behaviour too. On one memorable occasion, my best sniper (Snipey McGoodshot, to give you her full name) couldn’t see, and therefore couldn’t attack an enemy marksman hidden in a burnt out school bus, who was positioned relatively close her current spot on the map – a target that should have been easily visible to my long-range specialist. However, my Berserker/Heavy solider (I CAN HAZ BIG GUNZ), positioned even further away from the enemy than my sniper, could clearly see the enemy in the bus, and proceeded to deal out some pretty accurate shots with her beefy machine gun. Confusing, huh?
Overall though, despite a few hiccups here and there, the gameplay in the missions is solid; it’s a little rough around the edges and baffling at times, but it’s still enjoyable. However, it’s upon returning to your base post-mission success where I feel that the game really stumbles.
All your base are…well, pretty basic
For a start, there’s no base tutorial. You’re totally left on your own after the first tutorial mission – this is quite a crucial point in the game when you’re still pretty much learning the systems. A beginner could easily be put off with the more fiddly base operations here if they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. However, in a way though, it doesn’t really matter, as you quickly realise that the base sections don’t really offer you much in the way of interesting gameplay…or well, interesting anything really. Unlike XCOM, there’s no alien UFOs to worry about in the sky, no Interceptors you’ve got to desperately repair and outfit in time for the next attack, no base invasions – you’ve got nothing much to worry about. Which is a problem. The base is essentially just a glorified mission select menu.
In my opinion, this is one of the game’s fundamental shortcomings; the lack of any meaningful base resource management system. In the XCOM games, a large part of their winning formula is that alongside calling the moment-to-moment shots in your high-risk clashes with the alien ground forces, you’ve also got to focus on the day-to-day operations and general management of your bases as well. Carefully managing your limited resources in this meta-game was of great importance; ordering in new weapons and equipment, hiring new staff, starting research projects and constructing new workshops and laboratories for your base were tasks crucial to your success. At times, juggling all these could be as delightfully stressful and agonising as your combat operations; you had to be both a quick-thinking tactician in the heat of combat, yet also a calm and collected long-term organiser to succeed.
Falling Skies does away with all but the most basic of these base management functions, which is pretty disappointing. Your choices are mainly limited to buying upgrades to expand the size of your team, or to buy bigger and better guns for your soldiers. However, by stripping out a lot of the higher-level long-term strategy of a turn-based game, I imagine it must make things a bit more palatable for a new player to get to grips with everything. For example, the game glosses over some of the smaller micro-management tasks for the sake of ease; buying a new piece of body armour the once unlocks it for all members of your team forever, as opposed to XCOM, where you have to more realistically buy separate equipment and munitions for each of your troops.
Whilst this does make things easier for a new player, it effectively lobotomises the player’s resource management abilities. Being able to control the minutia of your base’s operations and carefully manage a limited pool of resources is one of the greatest joys of a good strategy game, and it’s a shame that it’s received such a surface-level treatment here.
That’s the central problem with Falling Skies – there’s no real consequence to any of your choices, little responsibility in managing your operations and there’s no sense of urgency, no feeling of imminent failure or impending doom breathing down your neck. This is particularly apparent when you send soldiers on optional solo resource-gathering dispatch missions – you can send fresh-faced recruits, who have absolutely no combat experience, out on a ‘dangerous’ mission with zero risk of them being killed off.
There’s little risk and therefore not much reward either. It absolutely saps the game of the vast majority of its challenge or satisfaction. With no significant threat of failure or randomisation to the missions and gameplay, the experience quickly feels rather lacking and weak. Yes, losing your troops in mission can be disastrous, but your performance in one mission doesn’t massively affect your overall progress, and if things are really going down the drain, you can just abort missions that aren’t going well with no penalty at all. All your choices, actions and progress within Falling Skies feel unimportant and meaningless as a result.
If you’re a big fan of the Falling Skies TV show, and you’re also looking for a ‘lite’ turn-based strategy game to find your feet with the genre, then this is certainly a decent place to start. Fallen Skies combat, though fiddly at times, is pretty solid, and you’ll get to experience tactical turn-based gameplay at a basic, albeit unchallenging pace.
In it’s own right, it’s probably one of the best TV to game tie-ins that I’ve ever played. Ultimately in context though, it’s a poor man’s XCOM – if you’re after a rewarding challenge, with meaningful and tough choices, dynamic events, intense combat and intricate base management, all wrapped up in a friendly and accessible user interface, then I’d recommend picking up a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within instead. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. In the meantime, if you’d kindly take me to your leader…please?
|+ Solid turn-based action.||– Poor XCOM clone.|
|+ Stripped down features make things more accessible to a beginner.||– Awkward camera controls.|
|+ Gameplay suits the TV show’s style.||– Superficial base management.|