I’m an X-Com fanatic. I rate X-Com amongst the top 5 games that formed the core of my gaming taste (one of the others, Sim City, is also getting a remake this-next year, so I’m a happy camper). I’ve been quiet these few days, digesting each and every nugget I could find online about the new Firaxis remake. And amazingly enough, rather than being overhyped, I’m diving right in, naming my X-Com agents after the X-men, and loving every minute of it.
X-Com is an amazing oddity. In a world of first-person shooters and ultra-gritty realisism, Firaxis has been able to find the rarest of gems, a turn based strategy game, and give it the professional polish that few would have been willing to invest in. And instead of alienating the mainstream gamers, it seems as if this strange, beautiful thing might instead found a whole new fanbase.
The original X-Com grew out of 90s science fiction. As a quasi-governmental organization tasked to rid the world of invading aliens (Think SHIELD without the AVENGERS), your job was to send out away teams, ensure that funding governments were not up to their eyeballs in terror and aliens, and shoot down and breach as many UFOs as possible. What made it special though were two things: firstly the wildly differing styles in management, ranging from real time global strategy and base building to a turn and squad based tactical combat system, but more importantly the tension. Your people were not action heroes, but your every day grunt. They weren’t in Independance Day, but were the front line soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, against aliens with plasma rifles. They would panic, and they would die. Most of the time, Private Ryan would too.
It’s still the same way for the new XCOM. XCOM still has the real-time strategy layer, and the turn based tactical layer. More importantly though, it is a hard and unforgiving game. Most gamers nowadays look ‘normal’ and read it as ‘easy’. It is not the case for XCOM. Normal is challenging for newcomers to the genre and can even pose a problem (in some cases) to the veterans. Classic is a tension-filled toil of blood, sweat and tears. And impossible is just that: Impossible (apparently 2 people have beaten it so far). There’s something magical about a game who’s willing to beat you senseless. I’m not saying a game who will cheat you on a higher difficulty (some of the older games did that), just a game who is willing to treat you as an opponent, and not someone to coddle and to back away from and give you some breathing space if it seems you are about to drown. XCOM will gleefully force you under the water.
Firaxis likes to market the game as a ‘reimagining’ of the classic, and I’d like to think that they pulled it off pretty well. It tries to tread the fine line between ‘slavish adherence to the old game’ and ‘totally new game playing lip service to the old’, and generally succeeds. Things that were lost from the old game (that some classic fans are up in arms over) seems like they were removed or sanded down were done so in service to the greater whole of the game, and I think it grants XCOM a certain tactical elegance.
XCOM trades in the old game’s granularity and absolute freedom for balance, simplicity, and measured choices. For example equipment has changed from carry everything you want as long as you back doesn’t break, just realised you’ll slow to a crawl, to an almost mass-effecty eq system: Main gun, Sidearm, armor and (generally) one additional item; be it grenade, medkit or the like. People ask why wouldn’t one be able to carry BOTH a medkit and a grenade (or hey multiple grenades!) but I do feel that this forces me to make difficult choices. Do I pack more grenades to clear cover, or medkits as a form of health insurance for my people? Similarly, we have lost the wave of faceless mooks (12-26 troops iirc) to a tiny crack team of 4 to 6 people that all have well defined classes and roles. And one of them dies, your tactical choices have been narrowed that much more significantly.
I feel that’s one thing that’s better about the new game. With such a small group in your missions, the loss of one warm body means it’s going to be that much more difficult to pull off a successful mission. Which means these soldiers, with customizeable faces, names and even nicknames will definitely be missed (and even mourned) when they die.
I still wonder how I could have saved my ace sniper sometimes. It’s ok. Cyclops has taken her place.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t come with its flaws. For a game that prides itself on balance and makign tough decisions, I would have liked to see a less linear tech tree (laser weaponry is clearly tier 2 compared to plasma). In addition, I am really quite annoyed with the PC UI. There are buttons I can’t click in combat (I have to press a hotkey instead), and I can’t free rotate the camera. Similarly, the strategic layer has a few too many drop down menus which cause me to zoom in and out of a room. It gets a little bit disorientating. I know it was said that the PC UI was built independant of the console system, but I find it hard to believe.
Lastly, I also really miss random maps. 80 maps is a lot, but when you play and replay (and you will replay) the game, there will be repeats, and familiarity isn’t a good thing, even if random patrols and alien spawns may mitigate it somewhat. And there is something said about hand crafted maps. Touching down onto an abduction mission in the American Countryside, having Wolverine stalk through gutted bovine corpses… it SANG.
In spite of its flaws, I want to play it through the night. I run missions instead of doing my work; I obsess about it instead of going to bed (like I am now). It’s probably the only game where I need MORE DLC NOW.
XCOM kind of reminds me of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who. What used to be the domain of old, with fans who were stuck in their ways, has instead been given a much needed injection of originality. Sure, the fans can whinge about how the old was better because they did this instead of that, but most people would agree that the new version is in every way comparable, and still remaining true to the spirit of the classic version.
XCOM has regenerated, and I really like how it’s turned out.