Review: “X-COM: Enforcer” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, although I had planned to review one of the “The Incredible Machine” games, I ended up being distracted by various other things.

But, before I could resume playing that game, I noticed that a vaguely interesting-looking game called “X-COM: Enforcer” was on special offer on GOG. And, since it had been reduced to £1.19 at the time (and the download was just a little under 300Mb), I thought that I’d check it out.

However, I should point out that I haven’t played any of the other “X-COM” games – so, I can’t compare this one to them. Still, from what I’ve read, the other “X-COM” games are very different to this one. So, if you’re an “X-COM” fan, your experience of this game may differ from mine.

I should also point out that at least one part of the game contains FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know if they’re intense and/or fast enough to cause problems.

So, let’s take a look at “X-COM: Enforcer”:

“X-COM: Enforcer” is a sci-fi third-person shooter game from 2001 (wow, that’s… 17 years.. ago!). The game begins with a scientist building a combat robot, called “Enforcer”, to defend Earth. However, before he can finish testing the robot, an alien invasion begins…..

It literally happens just after the robot has been brought online. What perfect timing!

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that, although it is nothing groundbreaking, it is fun! I talked about this yesterday, but the entire game is designed to keep you playing it.

Everything from the short levels (which encourage you to play “just one more level”) to the way that the game handles combat, difficulty and mission objectives are designed to make you want to play more. So, yes, this is the kind of game which you plan to play for ten minutes, but end up playing for three hours.

This game is a time bandit, but in the best possible way 🙂

Plus, despite being released in 2001, this game is very 1990s in terms of style and atmosphere. It isn’t a gritty, serious, realistic shooter or anything like that. It is a knowingly silly sci-fi action game about robots and aliens. It is bright, colourful, gameplay-focused and fun.

It also contains some vaguely imaginative weapons and some “Duke Nukem 3D“-style witty dialogue from the Enforcer too – mostly consisting of lines like “Don’t mess with Earth!” etc.. delivered in a Robocop-like voice. Which is hilarious!

It’s down to you and me, you one… oops! Wrong game!

As you would expect, the vast majority of the gameplay revolves around combat. In many ways, this game is slightly similar to games like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam“. It is an intense and gloriously mindless “shoot-em-up” game with an emphasis on frantic, fast-paced combat against hordes of monsters.

The game’s combat is, in a word, streamlined. The aiming system has been simplified to a “Doom“-style horizontal-only aiming system, which reduces the need for accuracy. Your character can only hold one weapon at a time, which encourages you to search for better weapons and means that you don’t have to worry about choosing weapons in the middle of a fight. The monsters drop time-limited bonuses when defeated, which encourages you to play quickly and aggressively.

Yes, THIS is an action game!

This simplified and streamlined combat works surprisingly well, and it helps to make the experience of playing the game a lot more intense and thrilling. Like in several other third-person shooters, you can also upgrade your character and the game’s weapons between levels (using “data points” you find in-game).

Yes, you actually have to collect the points in-game. Since this game is from 2001, there are absolutely no annoying micro-transactions here 🙂

The only slight flaw with the game’s combat is that one of the weapons – the freeze gun – slows down the pace of the combat considerably, and trying to avoid picking it up can be a bit of an annoyance. Likewise, the camera angles in the game can sometimes be angled very slightly too steeply – most of the time, this isn’t an issue, but it can be annoying at times.

The game’s upgrade system is fairly good, and provides a great incentive for getting high scores in each level. However, new weapons and abilities are often only unlocked if you find “unresearched objects” scattered around certain levels. Whilst this (and another system that allows you to unlock bonus levels) provides an incentive for the player to look around and explore a bit, it also means that the player can finish the game without even seeing all of the weapons.

In terms of saving, this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving. However, I can sort of understand this. Since it is mitigated somewhat by the short level length, the lack of a proper saving system lends each level an “all or nothing” quality which encourages you to play more and play in a more assertive fashion. However, this system annoyingly doesn’t let you revisit previous levels though.

Which is a shame since this is one of the few games where I’d actually want to revisit previous levels to grind for more points.

Thankfully, “X-COM: Enforcer” contains a proper health system – which helps to add suspense to each battle. However, a very slow and limited form of regenerating health can be unlocked as a special ability. Given the limits of this system and the fact that you actually have to earn it, it feels reasonably fair and can actually come in handy during some of the later levels.

The game’s difficulty is deliberately designed to make the player feel like an expert. Whilst I wouldn’t call this an “easy” game, I only died a few times when playing it (and at least half of those times involved accidentally falling off of ledges).

Although a couple of the boss battles are slightly challenging, the game’s difficulty curve is fairly gentle – and it is intense enough to make you feel like an expert player, whilst also being considerably more forgiving than a game like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam”. Basically, this game contains the illusion of challenging difficulty – but this is done really well (eg: I really wouldn’t be surprised if the game spawned in extra health power-ups when your health is running low etc..)

Even so, the final boss battle is at least somewhat challenging 🙂

Generally, most of the game’s mission objectives revolve around destroying a certain number of alien teleporters and/or rescuing a certain number of civilians. Occasionally, the game shakes things up by including a wave shooter-style level, a boss battle or a level where you have to protect a group of trapped civilians for a certain amount of time. Surprisingly though, these simplistic objectives work really well, since they keep the emphasis firmly on the thrilling fast-paced action.

Although the game contains a few non-linear levels, many of the levels are fairly linear. This actually works quite well in this context since, again, it keeps the action fairly streamlined. Plus, there’s even an optional hint function that helps to ensure that you don’t get stuck. If this was an FPS game, I’d consider the linear levels and hint function to be a major flaw. But, since it’s an arcade-like third-person shooter, then it actually fits in with the game surprisingly well.

Yes, this feature is actually useful rather than patronising.

In terms of visual design, this game has some reasonably good moments. Although a fair number of the levels consist of very slightly generic outdoor and urban areas, there are some visually-interesting and creative levels on offer here too. And, even the more visually-boring levels aren’t that much of a problem – since they just serve as a blank canvas for the much more exciting action within each level.

I absolutely love the architecture in this level 🙂

Plus, there’s a very vaguely “Blade Runner”-style cyberpunk level too 🙂

Then there’s this shopping centre that reminds me of “Silent Hill 3”.

In terms of length, this game took me about 6-8 hours to complete. But, thanks to the fact that it consists of lots of shorter levels, the game feels a lot more substantial when you are actually playing it. Still, given how compelling this game becomes, it’s the sort of game that would still feel “too short” even if it was twice as long.

Plus, thanks to being very gameplay-focused (rather than story or puzzle-based), this game has a lot of replay value. However, your only reward for completing the game seems to be a few extra unlockable skins for the Enforcer. Still, things like finding bonus levels etc.. help to increase the replay value too.

Early in the game, the bonus levels are very generic. But, later, you can find bonus levels like this “Pac Man”-style one…

The game’s sound design is reasonably good, with the best sound effects being the satisfying drilling sound when you pick up some health or the crunchy ice sound that accompanies the freeze gun. Likewise, the music is fast repetitive electronic music, which goes reasonably well with the style of the game. One stand-out musical moment is that one piece of background music features a sample of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” recording.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is “so bad that it’s good”. Throughout the game, there are voice-overs from the scientist who built the Enforcer. He sounds endearingly annoying – that’s the best way I can think to describe his dialogue. The Enforcer’s dialogue is.. well… robotic. Still, this adds a lot of comedy value to the game – since he delivers “badass” witticisms in a Robocop-style way.

Seriously, I miss the days when action games had sarcastic protagonists…

The voice acting for the final boss is hilariously terrible though. Seriously, the voice acting in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”.

All in all, although this game isn’t perfect, it’s an overlooked gem. Yes, it’s a gleefully mindless shoot-em-up game that is relatively short and not too difficult – but it is fun. It is designed to be thrilling and to make you want to play more. If you’ve played “Alien Shooter”, “Alien Shooter 2”, “Zombie Shooter”, “Painkiller” and both classic “Serious Sam” games, and you want something vaguely similar (but a bit easier), then this game is worth playing.

Most of the game’s design decisions work really well and, although it doesn’t sound like much on paper, the actual experience of playing this game is highly enjoyable. It is a thrilling, streamlined action game that will entertain you with robotic efficiency.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a four.

Here’s Another Thing Computer And Video Games Can Teach Writers And Artists

Although I hadn’t planned to write another article about how playing computer and video games can be useful for writers and artists, I played a game that made me think about this topic again.

Although I’ll post a full review of it tomorrow, I ended up buying an old computer game from 2001 called “X-COM: Enforcer” the day before I wrote this article. Since I’d planned to do other stuff, I thought that I’d just quickly test it out for ten minutes after it had finished downloading. I ended up playing it for three hours.

This is a screenshot from “X-COM: Enforcer” (2001).

The interesting thing is that it isn’t really a very imaginative game, but it’s still incredibly compellingly fun because of the clever way that it has been designed. Although it is the literal dictionary definition of a mindless shoot-em-up game, the game’s design ensures that the player keeps playing it.

The game’s levels are short, which encourages you to play “just one more level”. When one of the game’s monsters is defeated, they drop a bonus item that must be picked up within about ten seconds – which encourages a thrillingly fast-paced playing style. The player also often fights large numbers of relatively weak monsters, which adds suspense whilst also making the player feel more powerful at the same time.

The game’s aiming and weapon selection system is heavily simplified- which encourages the player to play quickly, spontaneously and impulsively. The game’s slightly cartoonish and unrealistic visual style prevents the constant combat from being grim or disturbing. The game frequently includes encouraging voice-overs that are designed to make the player feel like they are an expert. The game’s soundtrack is fast-paced and repetitive, which encourages fast-paced play.

I could go on for a while, but the cumulative effect of all of these “small” design decisions is to make the game a thrillingly fun experience that makes the player want to play more, even though it’s a silly shoot-em-up game that could otherwise be described as “generic” or “mindless”.

But, what does this have to do with art or writing?

Well, a lot actually. The subtle ways you “design” your story or artwork will determine how your audience experiences it.

Remember how I mentioned that a game’s short levels can encourage the player to play “one more level”?

Well, a similar principle is often used in modern thriller novels. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is the most famous example of this, but there’s a reason why many thriller novels often include very short chapters. This principle is also why traditional webcomics can be binge-read easily, but a proper graphic novel might be read more slowly.

Remember how I mentioned that simplifying elements of a game can make it more quick and impulsive?

Well, the style of writing that you use in a story can affect how quickly the audience reads it. Likewise, the level of detail in a piece of art can determine where the audience’s attention is focused (eg: if one part of a painting is more detailed than another, then the audience’s attention will be drawn to that area).

Remember how I mentioned that a more cartoonish style can change the emotional tone of a game?

Well, things like colour choices (eg: different colour schemes can evoke different moods) and different drawing styles can also have a similar effect on how your audience feels when they look at one of your paintings or drawings.

I could probably go on for quite a while, but “small” and subtle decisions like these have a huge impact on how your audience feels, experiences and responds to the things you create. So, yes, the small things matter – and games often contain lots of great examples of this type of thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂