Monday, 15 October 2012

XCOM: Revenge of the Hyphen

I bought XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I'm going to be writing a diary of at least my first playthrough as I go. So let me try and summarise why I think it's a cool game, and why I think it'll be fun to read about.

XCOM is a game about defending Earth from aliens. Ok, wait...let me try again.

XCOM is a turn-based strategy game, with both a global and a battlefield level, which emphasizes careful planning and development over both long and short periods of time. ...Better, but a bit dry.

XCOM is a game about being outgunned and outnumbered. It is a game where the ultimate game over is an ever-present threat, but smaller losses are an inevitable part of progress rather than a reload screen. It is a game whose overarching plot takes second place to the personal stories that most players mentally write about their soldiers, and the unscripted global drama as you desperately hold together an alliance of governments that still doesn't entirely trust you with the final defence of the planet. It is a game where winning and losing does not matter nearly so much as how you get there... and how you choose to try again on your next go around.

X-COM (the hyphen is important) was a series of strategy games released in the mid-late 90s. The first game was actually variously called UFO: Enemy Unknown, X-COM: UFO Defense, or X-COM: Enemy Unknown, depending on exactly which version you picked up. The entire series revolved around the player commanding the eXtraterrestrial COMbat unit, a special united forces group dedicated to...well, you get it.

Although the various games had different themes, engines and twists, the ultimate shape of the games (minus the spinoff) was similar: turn-based strategy against a vastly superior force of aliens, or alien-like creatures. They were fairly niche games (but let's face facts: almost all games from 1994 are niche games), but nonetheless had a vocal and enthusiastic fanbase. So much so, that I even got my hands on a copy of the original about 7 years ago and gave it a try myself.

It was...curious. I've certainly played games since that clearly drew on some X-COM tricks for the turn-based battles, but I don't think I've ever seen a game that so beautifully married the intimate tactical action of shooting-based combat, with the broader challenges of trying to frantically play catch-up in technology and keep the population of Earth relatively calm. On the other hand, it was really, really hard, and not just in the fun, challenging sense. The interface was archaic and clumsy, and combined with occasional technical issues of getting an old game running well on a modern computer, I just didn't have the patience or the time to really invest in it. Satisfied that I had at least glimpsed the brilliance hiding away there, I mentally filed it away and moved on.

A few years ago, there was a sudden and surprising announcement that XCOM was coming back, now terribly hyphen-less. For a couple of brief days, fan speculation ran rampant on the many forums of the internet...before their hope was horribly ripped to shreds by the reveal of the game as a First-Person-Shooter. This was no modern dressing up of the old, elegant beauty, but rather a pig dressed up in an approximately similar frock. Personally, I've got to admit that the game actually looked pretty interesting to me, but I certainly understood the fans' disappointment.

And so it was wary trepidation that greeted another surprising announcement a year or so later, that there would in fact be a second XCOM remake, this one from the Civilization team, and this one a full, faithful modern adaptation of the classic. Since that announcement, the FPS remake has quietly faded away, and the fans' anticipation for this game has grown and grown.

Did it meet their expectations? The answer seems to be...sometimes. They certainly streamlined and tweaked a lot of mechanics, so being good at one game does not necessarily confer ability in the other. There's changes like how you can only ever deploy a single squad at a time, so you have to make arbitrary choices about where you defend, whereas in the original you had to make the tough choice to consolidate your resources in a single danger zone, or try to split them up and save both. There's a host of little changes like how alien weapons self-destruct when their owner dies (so you have to capture them alive to study their tech), or how you get exact breakdowns on the consequences or rewards of refusing/accepting a particular mission all of which add up to make XCOM feel a little less immersive and more like a boardgame.

BUT. They nailed the feeling and the atmosphere. The slow creeping forward into the unknown and wondering when something is going to jump out at you. The hesitation as you hover the mouse cursor over the 'Fire' order, wondering whether you really want to risk this shot on a 65% chance, or try to move to a better position. The bizarre exhilaration as a bundle of pixels representing a soldier makes the shot you don't expect them to, single-handedly saving the mission...and the crushing feeling of defeat when that same soldier doesn't make it home a couple of missions later.

It's a story I can't wait to write. Hopefully starting tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment