To me, it’s pretty obvious why the Earth has never been visited by extra-terrestrials. Imagine you were an alien, and were looking for a new planet to visit. You have a quick scan of the Earth, and flick through the entertainment channels you find on the airwaves. Click: the movie Aliens. Click: Predator. Click: V on television. Click: H.G. Wells on the radio. Well, massage my pseudopods (you would probably think), these people are obsessed with killing aliens!
That’s all before you even get to the world of videogames. An entertainment industry bigger than the movies that involves players in interactive 3D worlds that are limited only by the imaginations of the designers and what do we do? Kill aliens in every imaginable way. Over and over, for decades. This isn’t entertainment (you would probably further think), it’s a training program for Xenocide!
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of an old classic from back in the nineties – that blissful period between the fall of Communism and the rise of terrorism when we all had nothing better to do than worry about impending alien invasions, probably brought about through the medium of crop circles. It was a turn-based squad shooter, which featured a fascinating ‘parallel game’ where your organisation had to monitor UFO activity, reverse-engineer captured alien tech and protect the world (or at least, that bit of it that funded your operations) from the threat of extra-terrestrial invasion.
It was such a huge hit that it’s not surprising that sooner or later a remake appeared. This new XCOM (not to be confused with X-COM, an altogether different ‘re-imagining’ of the original) takes all of what made the first game memorable and strips off anything that gets in the way of having fun.
But first, I’d not be doing justice to those fans of the original if I didn’t have a bloody good moan about the things I didn’t alike about it. See, here’s the thing. XCOM shows the hallmarks of a game that was rushed to market. Even if we set aside the “Second Wave” features, abandoned during development and reclaimed by plucky modders, there are some tell-tale signs of a development cycle that was perhaps a little shorter than it deserved to be. Graphically, Firaxis have really not made a great effort. Particularly when your Skyranger is coming in to land, the textures look cheap and dated. It’s not a game that demands eye-spankingly wonderful graphics, mind, but another pass wouldn’t have gone amiss – even with everything turned up to maximum, it looks like most games do with everything set down to minimum.
For a game that focuses on an international team travelling the world, there’s really no regional diversity. New York taxis can be seen in Birmingham and Bangalore, it would seem. And despite your soldiers proudly displaying the flags of their home nations on their body armour, they all sound American. Such a small thing, just to record a few lines of dialogue with an Indian, or Irish, or Argentinian accent. But no.
Maps are 3-D insofar as there is up-down travel as well as just dashing around the place on the ground. But selecting the exact square to which you want your soldier to run can be a headache if it’s above ground level. Mis-click and your plucky goon will hurl himself clean over a balcony into the midst of a squad of Muton soldiers when you wanted him to take up a commanding position above. Occasionally the only way to select the correct square is to rotate the map a couple of times and play ‘hunt the pixel’.
In the original game your base could be placed anywhere on the map. Now, you only have one base and can only choose between a couple of set locations. Then that’s it for the whole game. While this is part of the ‘simplification’ that gives the game overall much more fluidity, I would have liked to have been able to place my base anywhere on the world map. Also, money is now awarded in units with a squiggly symbol. Selling the corpse of an alien might net you five cash, for instance. Why they didn’t just make the units MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, I’ll never know. Wouldn’t it be more fun to know that developing a certain suit of super-armour will cost you 65 MILLION DOLLARS instead of 65 cash units? Such a tiny thing, but I’m a picky sort.
So there are a couple of dodgy design decisions and a few corners that have really obviously been cut. Let’s look past all that stuff now, though, because at its core, XCOM is a really bleeding addictive little game.
There’s always more development to do, and there’s always something else you’re on the lookout for. When you send out a team to investigate a UFO crash site, for instance, you might set yourself the secondary goal of trying to capture one of a particular species of alien alive to further your research. Or you may have run out of a particular alien material that’s required for you to build a new base facility, so you need to weigh up the benefit of using high explosives and area-damaging weapons if they’re going to destroy the UFO’s superstructure (and thus more of the valuable salvage goodies). Not to mention that, with research, you’ll usually have a new toy or two to play with most of the time. Soldiers’ experience nets some cool and interesting abilities with real tactical use, nothing is ever just a plus one to shooting or whatever.
There is a real variety in terms of approach, both to the management phases and the tactical battles. Do you focus your attention on researching new weapons for your squad to keep them alive in the field, or on increased satellite coverage to make the nations that fund your operation feel safer? Are you going for a heavy weapons, heavy armour approach or a stealthy long-range assault force backed up by competent medics? Resources are usually pretty short, so you’ll really have to make some tough decisions as the game progresses.
While the original game had you micromanaging your men on the battlefield, a much more straightforward approach has been taken here. You don't need to tell each soldier individually to crouch behind cover, or when to run and when to walk - these decisions are all incorporated into a couple of intuitive commands that allow you to keep the game moving all the time. Similarly, you don't have to worry about manufacturing and stocking up on ammo - everyone is assumed to have plenty, however reloading takes an action and can add a level of dramatic tension without becoming too much of a chore. Simplifying an old classic can be a risky move, of course, but in this case it works. You only have so much free time - how much of it do you really want to spend shopping for ammo?
The XCOM system requirements are pretty gentle, although you’d hardly really call it optimised considering what you actually get graphically. It’s the sort of game that would make a long bus journey fly by if you had it on a laptop, though.
It’s true, UFO could have used a lick of polish. I hope we’re not sold that polish as DLC, as it really should have been in the original game. That said, DLC that adds new missions, aliens, tech and facilities could be lots of fun. Of course, there were a good few sequels to the original, so maybe I’ll just hang on for “Terror From The Deep”…