XCOM: Enemy Unknown

by northernbeholder

Missing the Monday post was mostly due to my ISP exploding in a fiery conflagration of incompetence and poor infrastructure.  Mostly.  Thing is, even if my internet had been working, I’m not sure I would have remembered to post anyway.  Because I’ve been playing XCOM.  The new one, not the old one.  Remaking (or “re-imagining”) old, beloved titles has been something of a fad in the games industry lately.  Deux Ex and Syndicate both got a similar makeover, one successfully, the other … less so.  The Baldur’s Gate series has a shiny new HD re-release coming out soon.  And then there’s X-COM, a title nearly twenty years old.

You thought this was a gaming post, didn’t you? This totally counts as history!

The first game in the series, released in 1993-1994 was known by a variety of names depending on the region it was sold in: UFO: Enemy Unknown, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, and X-COM: UFO Defense.  The actual gameplay was the same regardless.  You managed and expanded a base of operations for a black-ops military force, from which you researched and produced weapons and armour with which you armed your men in order to launch attacks against alien invasion forces across the globe.  Funding came in secretly from an ever-shadowy “Council of Nations” and varied depending on your performance.  Failure to prevent alien assaults would cause panic to rise and could lead to nations withdrawing their support, making it harder for you to fight on.

The core of the game came when you left your base for combat missions, which could have a variety of scenarios – a UFO you have shot down or detected on the ground, abductions you must stop, or the dreaded “terror mission”, where you faced not only significant enemy forces but the challenge of rescuing fragile civilians before they were brutally killed.  The combat always played out in a turn-based, tactical manner; you controlled a number of soldiers (anywhere from one to over a dozen depending on how many you could afford to cram into your transport) with a complex interface that allowed for movement, crouching, different fire modes and a variety of other interactions such as picking up dead or stunned aliens for later research, with every action costing a different amount of each soldiers’ finite number of “time units”. Once those were gone, the soldier could do nothing else that turn.  Your troops were capable of improving their skills with each successful engagement, and a major draw of the game was the tension and horror when your best heavy weapons guy got shot in the back and went down – dead for good, and from an enemy that you can’t even see.

As a game, it was often brutally difficult, and its expansions and sequels (of which there are six, not counting the new one by Firaxis) even more so.  It was also a highly unique game experience, with nothing else ever managing to be quite like it – even its own successors were often considered to be of lesser quality than the original release.  With so much nostalgia and such a strong community behind it, it was inevitable for the X-COM brand to be picked up for a modern remake.  All the new publisher would have to do is not make it into a shooter or something equally ridiculous.

When the first new XCOM was announced in 2010, the internet boiled over with rage, because it was a shooter.  The most unique aspect of X-COM, the base building and the deadly tactical combat, was gone, and the furor only increased when the head of 2K Games (the publisher for the new release) publicly stated that “strategy games are just not contemporary.”  After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, 2K’s XCOM was quietly shuffled out of the limelight so Firaxis could announce their shiny new faithful turn-based tactical remake.

Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown (note the lack of a hyphen) has since released to critical acclaim and spectacular sales numbers, much to the embarassment of 2K Games.  It’s fairly faithful to the original, at least in spirit; mechanically, the UI has been simplified, soldier movements and actions use a more straightforward system (eliminating mental juggling of time units, but also somewhat reducing how flexible their tactics can be), and enemies will no longer shoot at you from beyond your line-of-sight (though that doesn’t prevent them from circling around behind you, unseen, for a surprise flank assault, or other such nasty tactics).  It’s still a deadly (especially if you play on the harder difficulties; even on normal, my list of KIA soldiers is getting worryingly long) and intensely engaging tactical dance.  After twenty years, I’d call it both a long overdue and worthy successor to the venerable franchise.

It’s not the only one, either: there are fan-made independent projects that, while not using any of the original material for licensing and copyright reasons, recreate the actual mechanics of the first X-COM game almost exactly with modern graphical fidelity and an improved UI.  For the die-hard devotees of the original, they might be more palatable; for others, and myself, Firaxis’ take on the classic gameplay is superb just the way it is.

Although that’s not to say it isn’t without its flaws.  Next time: I whinge about bugs!