X-Complimentary

By Alec Meer on January 16th, 2008 at 11:02 pm.

The latest Australian soap opera

Ask me what my favourite game of all time is, and I’ll probably say Planescape if I want to seem arch, TF2 if I want to seem contemporary, Peggle if I want to seem kooky, maybe Dungeon Keeper or AvP if I want to succumb to nostalgia. If I’m feeling balanced and honest though, there’s a very strong chance I’d say UFO: Enemy Unknown, the first X-COM game.

It’s a game that’s been endlessly… let’s be generous and say ‘homaged’, both commercially and by dedicated fans. Nothing quite seems to recapture it, sadly – either it’s too different, or too similar, or, most often, it pulls off the underlying structure but doesn’t bother with the gentle surface charm and humour of the old DOS dear. UFO: Alien Invasion, though, is one of the more impassioned and direct clones – a community effort that’s entirely free, and built upon the Quake II engine.

Version 2.2 is just out, and it’s a beefy old update. Specifically, it includes these things: “Air interceptions; UFO recovery; UFO crash sites.” Which you may remember as being three of the more important elements of an X-COM game – meaning Alien Invasion has gone far beyond the ground missions other remakes have stalled at. Playing briefly around with it, while the graphical approach can best be described as “adequate”, it’s clear there’s a lot of potential for this to eventually become the game X-COM fans have waited for over the eleven long years since Apocalypse, the last in the series (a couple of ropey spin-offs aside). It’s a better effort than its rivals, both commercial and gratis, in many ways.

Except for the interface, which is absolutely horrible. I did try to think of a polite way to say “horrible” while still clearly meaning “horrible”, because I do hugely respect the incredible efforts of the team behind Alien Invasion, and I’m dead excited about what they’re doing. I failed. It’s quite the brick wall to my giving this serious time. I am a fussy, fussy man however, so I would certainly recommend that any X-COM fan gave this a try – your tolerance for errant button placement and shonky scrolling may well be greater than mine.

One change from the classic formula I’ve certainly enjoyed so far is the new email system – the research team drop you messages with proposals on what to investigate next. This props up the in-game fiction, provides handy pointers on the most sensible way up the tech tree, and resolves one of trad. X-COM’s distracting bugbears – scientists would sit around doing jaff all unless you remembered to go tell ‘em what to do next. Now they actually seem interested in doing something to earn their eyewatering wages.

Alien Invasion has also, perhaps inevitably, gotten me thinking about the new X-COM game the artists formerly known as Irrational are/were rumoured to be working on. I don’t believe it was ever confirmed, so there’s every chance it’ll never happen, of course.

Certainly, post-Bioshock, it seems oddly unsuitable for them. X-COM, traditionally, is a game of mechanics and tactics, not narrative and philosophy and meaningful choice and sparkly-graphicked hi-action. A remake of it seemed to fit the studio pre-Bioshock, when Irrational were most known for the rather more low-key Freedom Force and SWAT 4, but their reputation has changed utterly since. With the world doubtless looking to Ken Levine and co for their next game to also be one of controversy, ruminations upon the nature of freedom and a killer soundtrack, I can all too easily imagine a new take on X-COM’s ace but stoic mash-up of strategy sub-genres being pushed aside in favour of another action-heavy headline-grabber. If they did make an X-COM game, I can’t really see it being much like X-COM.

That’s just me being paranoid though – I’m probably way-off base. I’d defintely love the rumour to be true – as much to see Irrational/2K fly in the face of expectation as because I desperately want to play a shiny new X-COM.

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39 Comments »

  1. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    I’ll tell you what all the commercial homages (Afterlight, Aftermath etc) missed (I haven’t really tried any of these indie attempts before, but if I get the time i’ll give this one a go!) – destructible scenery! The best bit about UFO is realising the front door to the enemy ship is covered by a million aliens and blowing open the roof and going in through there instead.

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    John P: The one thing missing, which is apparently an engine “thing” is destructible scenery. And I agree.

    KG

  3. Grant Gould says:

    John P — dead on! It’s also the one big way that Apocalypse unambiguously beat the original: vastly superior destructible scenery. Every time I play it it reminds me of how far backwards modern x-comesques have managed to come.

  4. Steve says:

    Silent Storm! Sure it wasn’t about aliens but it was a tactical squad based shooter and, importantly, had destructible scenery.

  5. MisterBritish says:

    They get much love for the flame-throwers, though my fully-laden troop transport got blown out of the sky after the first mission :S

  6. malkav11 says:

    Looks promising, but I don’t think I’m going to bother until they’ve completed it (or come close, anyway.).

  7. I_still_love_Okami says:

    *sigh*

    X-Com2: Terror from the Deep

    *verydeepsigh*

    How long has it been?

    12 years?

    What a summer… it was glorious… first true love… warm summer evenings spent in parks, drinking canned beer and coughing on cheap dope..

    And allways X-Com2, playing it with my best friend, my first true friend I met after moving to the city. We spent days locked inside in front of my PC, living on iced-tea and junk food.

    Hell, I wasn’t even the serious smoker I’m now, I didn’t have an ashtray overflowing with ash and cigarette buds next to my keyboard. I was a smoker even back then, but games were more important. I’d rather play another mission befor sneaking outside for another quick drag…

    *veryverydeepsigh*

    These days are long gone now…

    I’ve never played another X-Com game after this summer. Wouldn’t have felt right..

    I just got mugged on memory lane. Thanks, RPS…

  8. Janek says:

    I’ve been playing the beta for 2.2 lately, so now I suppose I’ll have to restart. Boooo.

    But yeah it’s pretty damned accomplished, really. The detail in the backstory is very impressive, and the overall “feel” is solid. Though as people have said, lack of destructable terrain is a downer. And bits of it of course remain a bit wonky.

    But well worth a download, I’d probably rate this higher than any of the commercial “homages”

  9. Acosta says:

    I’ll keep faith, if Irrational (see my rude gest forward you souless corporation) is working on X-Com, I am sure Levine and his team will understand that they can´t get away with something like doing a straight FPS. Otherwise, if they do a “spritual sequel” and they decide they want to make another action game, well I am sure it will be a great game but it would be a dissapointment for me. Bringing back X-Com as it was is impossible because a part of it is in our memories and nostalgia feeling, but the legacy should be richer that a straight FPS.

    I would something new, the richness of X-Com combined with graphics and action, I doen´t need it to be a turn based strategy game, but is important they try to get right the metagame.

    I think Freedom Force as previous work gives a lot of credit to any studio for trying a strategy game, but I am agree with Alec about that is not what most Bioshock players are not waiting. We will see.

  10. Ben Hazell says:

    I can imagine a beautiful game with the XCom name; a sci-fi SWAT game. Not another careless shooter, but a first person game that required planning, ongoing management and moral choice.
    If they do an X-Com game, I can’t see it being in the old style.
    It has to be X-Com post Total War, and that suggests a big FPS part to me.

  11. Andrew Doull says:

    If you’re going to write a sci fi SWAT game, you have to overload your brain on Delta Green, Dark Conspiracy and certain Charles Stross novels – Atrocity Archives, Jennifer Morgue etc. And then not write Jericho…

  12. Nick says:

    “Bringing back X-Com as it was is impossible because a part of it is in our memories and nostalgia feeling”

    Nrrrrgghhaaarr.

    Which part, the part where it’s still one of the best TBS games in existence?

  13. Frosty840 says:

    Gotta cast another vote for Silent Storm, really. Although it did the now-apparently-traditional modern gaming thing of changing the game mechanic about three quarters of the way through and turning to utter, utter shit as a result, it is by far the best TBS squad combat game since the X-Coms.

  14. Txiasaeia says:

    “If you’re going to write a sci fi SWAT game, you have to overload your brain on Delta Green, Dark Conspiracy and certain Charles Stross novels – Atrocity Archives, Jennifer Morgue etc. And then not write Jericho…”

    Dear God, man! A Delta Green video game? What a wonderful idea! My first thoughts were Baldur’s Gate mechanics with Delta Green… or an adventure game, a la Gabriel Knight… but I’m not sure whether a tactical game is appropriate for Delta Green. Remember, the Old Ones *do* win, and they aren’t vulnerable to small arms fire. I would pay serious money, however, for any game that attempts to involve the King in Yellow and his realm.

    Sigh. Why is it that the only kind of serious video games (Peggle aside) I’d actually like to play aren’t ever made?

  15. Funkula says:

    it is by far the best TBS squad combat game since the X-Coms.

    While I’m sure people may differ as far as numerical ranking, I wouldn’t say “by far” given the existence of Jagged Alliance 2. I know it’s my favorite squad-based game of all time. Sadly, I did not have access to the relevant hardware at a time when I could have played X-Com as a modern game and it’s a bit impenetrable to pick up for the first time these days. I will definitely give this new thing a try sometime soon, possibly after they get more content into it.

  16. The Sombrero Kid says:

    lol getting the quake 2 engine to do destructable scenery would be a monumentus task that a fully funded professional studio would shy away from never mind an indie team

  17. Turin Turambar says:

    Xcom did a lots of things, present games struggles to have so many features:

    -A complete tactical combat game, with lots of weapons and tools, multi-story buildings, morale system, destructable scenario (both sections of building and terrain), etc etc

    -A complete strategy game where you have to build bases, to choose the number and type, their installations, staff, overall functions, etc. Research stuff, control the budget, intercept UFO which can make a new tactical mission, buy/sell hardware, hire and traing soldiers, etc.

    The actual Xcom clones have problems to include half of the full experience.

  18. Dinger says:

    X-COM, traditionally, is a game of mechanics and tactics, not narrative and philosophy and meaningful choice and sparkly-graphicked hi-action.

    First, are you sure that’s what X-COM is, and not simply how you remember it?

    X-COM had mechanics and tactics. At the time, the graphics were pretty cool, and the “hi-action” took place in discrete turns, but was still hi-action. So sure, there’s “hi-action”, unless you mean the term as code for “FPS”.

    “Meaningful choice”? What is a meaningful choice? Do you mean moral choice? Bioshock, as I understand it, doesn’t offer much in terms of a meaningful payoff for the “moral choice” it puts out: maybe something along the lines of “if you kill that civilian caught in the crossfire, bad things will happen”. Or do you mean “meaningful” as in “exclusive choices that shape the gameplay”? Like whether to add another research wing and hope the Australian PM keeps funding you, or buying a longer-ranged interceptor to reign in the spiralling Outback cattle mutilation problem?

    Philosophy? How about subtly reinforcing the progressivist, teleological agenda by placing all value in technological advancement? Big Science, and the mythical man-hour can solve any problem, given adequate funding. I’ve got huge problems with this whole set of ethical notions, but I wouldn’t say the game doesn’t have philosophy. Maybe the philosophy’s not explicit, banged over the head in endless repetition, like when New German Cinema tries to be subtle, but it’s there.

    Narrative? Well, if you mean “people talking”, no. But X-COM has a very clear and very taut narrative structure.

    Any “remake” 12 years later is going to be compared to the original, and I can’t see them competing on the same terrain. But there are enough elements that we’d expect to see: building underground bases amid bickering countries that try to cooperate, a core “SWAT” team the player gets emotionally invested in, scientists, engineers, janitors, civilians.
    Just don’t waste time telling us stories when we can be investigating wrecked alien craft.

  19. Andrew says:

    I played this UFO: Alien Invasion thing earlier in the year, a couple of versions back, I think. I was very impressed and got at least a week’s solid play out of it before reaching the limits of the game engine and what they’d coded so far. The lack of destructable scenery was a bit of a downer but it still worked.

    Oh, and the interface did indeed take a lot of getting used to.

  20. Iain says:

    X-COM has a very clear and very taut narrative structure.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with that. It has a very specific set of events you need to do to be able to beat the game (research live alien, research alien leader, research alien commander, assault Cydonia, for example), but in terms of actual exposition of a narrative, there isn’t really any – bar a couple of research entries – whereas the ALTAR UFO games shoved exposition down your throat at every conceivable opportunity; which I thought was one of the biggest flaws with them, actually – I preferred having the freedom to discover what you needed to do at your own pace (even going so far as to setting up “Survival” games, where I tried to last as long as possible before losing government support meant that I had to assault Cydonia or lose the game.)

    When it comes to that kind of multi-layered strategy/tactics game, I don’t want a narrative – I want a compelling world I can just play with. Unfortunately, this seems entirely at odds with modern videogame design philosophy.

  21. Hieremias says:

    X-Com was amazing, but I thought Jagged Alliance 2 improved on its model in almost every conceivable way–except for being able to design and then fight in your own bases, that was really cool.

    Jagged Alliance 2 is the tactical squad turn-based strategy (with hints of RPG elements) game that developers should use as the measuring stick.

  22. Acosta says:

    Nick, I am not saying that X-Com it isn´t one of the best turn based strategy games ever, it is and it keeps being it. I am just saying that even if we had a perfect reproduction or clone of the same game, it wouldn´t have the same impact.

    Probably I didn’t write it in the best way (I know many people think old games were good only for nostalgia, this is not what I was trying to say, but I can see it sounds like it, sorry for that).

    X-Com surprised use because there was nothing like that before and it was brilliant in many levels. For another X-Com able to create the same effect, it would need that “surprised” factor, a really convincing reinvention and new formulas. I don’t envy the task but if they could deliver, it would be glorious.

  23. Anthony Damiani says:

    The difficulty with the engine doing destructible scenery was acknowledged by previous posters– but it’s an area modern games have been lax in pursuing.

  24. Garth says:

    Explain to me why all these games that require monster computers to run have bloom and other useless shit, but still no destructible environments? And you can’t say crysis, because shooting down trees isn’t what I mean, heh.

  25. Benjamin Barker says:

    Acosta:

    I disagree that it would be that underwhelming– I actually first played the original just two years ago, after playing a lot of JA2 (which is my favorite). I think I can say that my enjoyment was pretty much nostalgia-free, and I did think it was fantastic.

    As with JA2, I was amazed that the features it had have been in no games since these– the strategic world-map level, combined with the tactical level. (At least in no games since when it comes to turn-based, which is the purest form of tactical gameplay, like chess). Preceding these in my games history was Silent Storm, which got me started down the path, but it lacks that world-map level and is very nearly just a set of linear missions.

    However, the learning curve with that decade-old interface was indeed pretty darn steep, and some things stayed clunky even after you climbed it (equipping your squads is a total chore). I never made it past the middle game because it just got too frustrating when your squad members started getting possessed and killing each other. But if this challenge was de-coupled from the interface issues, I think I would have persevered longer. So a faithful remake with a well-thought-out modern interface would probably even beat JA2 for me.

  26. Benjamin Barker says:

    Oops I meant to quote Acosta– “I am just saying that even if we had a perfect reproduction or clone of the same game, it wouldn´t have the same impact” — and then reply to that. (First post here and I haven’t beat the learning curve yet.)

  27. Roc says:

    still no destructible environments?

    Dynamic environments are a big design decision for a 3d engine. You have to choose early and make alot of sacrifices to make it work. The core engine tech behind most modern games assume static environments on purpose. Many technical challenges are far easier to deal with if things don’t move around. (Pathing is a big one – which is why you see many more dynamic environments in turn-based games, where the CPU can spin for a while on nothing but getting from A to B.)

    Publishers being big fans of cheap, fast and sparkly – they’re reluctant to put money into technical challenges that may not have workable real-time solutions and almost certainly won’t be keeping up with the Joneses in the effects department. Not when so many gamers are eager to throw scads of money at chrome bumpers and more polys on last-gen engines.

  28. AbyssUK says:

    Firstly, nothing will ever replace xcom simple.. stop trying its gaming perfection.. leave it alone.. anything that tries to be Xcom will just end up like that crap movie of romeo and juliet that was all modern day with gansters and shite in america still talking with ye olde english.. STOP IT! I say.. just stop it, grab dosbox/dosemu and play the god damned original code.

  29. weirwood says:

    Destructible terrain is one thing for sure, but possibly even more important, and even more overlooked, is the sheer lethality of X-Com, especially in the beginning.
    The X-Com homages I played failed because they didn’t have expendable troops as a design concept.

  30. Duoae says:

    I liked UFO and the turn-based nature of it… though i never really played through it properly. I also really liked UFO:Aftermath – there were destructible walls in that game – but i didn’t really like either of it’s sequels for some reason… possibly interface changes and art style differences.

    If Aftermath had been turn-based and had overwatch and other tactical elements that are required in a TBS then i think i would definitely prefer it to UFO.

    BTW, does anyone remember that email-client knock off of UFO that you had to pay a subscription for and couldn’t just buy the game? I thought it looked really interesting but didn’t want to pay for my sending emails to battle someone else. :)

  31. BehroozWolf says:

    Laser Squad Nemesis is probably what you’re looking for, link is in my name. LSN is a truly impressive game done by the original XCOM/UFO authors, although I don’t really have enough time to play to warrant a subscription anymore.

    LSN now has a web interface which mostly-automates the turn sending and receiving, and I played it regularly for a good two years. With four races with varied play dynamics, strategy is very deep.

    Oh, and for those of you who were wondering, yes, there is destructible terrain, and the overall balance of the game is very well-done after being tweaked through the years.

  32. Crispy says:

    Destructible scenery is only as hard as you make it. It is hard to do if you want it to have physics-based debris and if you want it to look graphically top-notch before and after an explosion of mammoth proportions. But if you set the scenery to destruct in grid fashion, swapping the destructed grid sections in at the moment of impact (with the smokescreen of the explosion disguising the swap), it isn’t over-complicated. For smaller, less-complicated scenery like the hedges and fences, you could have a simple 4-10 frame animation to visually bridge the gap between the ‘normal’ and ‘destroyed’ states.

    You’d have to have very low-detailed scenery, but it’s worth it for the massive augmentation it gives atmosphere (immersion, realism) and strategy (make your own backdoor, indiscriminant firebombing). With a game like UFO, the strategy element should always take priority over the graphical element.

  33. Stratocaster says:

    Until this game has SOME (even rudimentary animations) destructible environments, I will not touch it.

  34. Phoenix-D says:

    If destructible environments are your thing, check out UFO: Extraterrestrials. It nails X-Com more than any other game I’ve seen since besides UFO: AI.

    Its set on a colony planet and not Earth, so some of the buildings and such look a bit weird (all alien-style elevators, no stairs), but everything blows up. In X-Com fashion, which is to say you can still blow out the entire first floor and the second floor will be floating in mid air…

    Be sure to check out the mods for it, as they add quite a bit to the stock game. (like the troop lethality a previous poster mentioned- in the stock game troops don’t “die” you just scrape their brains off the floor and clone them).

    UFO: AI is pretty good, and I think when they’re “done” with it it’ll be excellent. Agree on the interface being ass, though.

    And to complete my trip into off-topic land, I REALLY, REALLY want to see a X-Com 2 with the Silent Storm engine for tactical battles. If blowing shit up TBS style is your thing, that game is the best out there. Unfortunately its also limited to a set of stock missions, little strategic activity, and if your main character goes unconscious or dies the game ends.

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