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Why I Don't Think XCOM Will Suck

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I could have gone for “Why I think XCOM won’t disappoint me” or “What I thought about the demo I saw in March”, but when in Rome… That said, it being or not being shit isn’t the issue here, is it? Not being the same genre is why people are heartbroken. Oh, I’m just asking for trouble with this post. I’m also being totally fucking honest with you.

I’ve told you what’s in it, and I’ve told you what the developers say it is. Here’s what I think about what I’ve seen so far.

I think a lot of things.
I honestly don’t know how XCOM will turn out. The developers have said – and not said – both things that sound promising, passionate and reverent, and things that sound like it’s just the IP wagon being rolled out and seeing how much money sticks to it. I don’t know which it is. It’s probably both. Certainly, XCOM didn’t have to be called XCOM, and there’s a very strong case to be made that it shouldn’t have been. It’s not as though the very broad subject matter – defeating an alien invasion – is inextricably linked to the name.

But XCOM is called XCOM. Mostly likely, 2K, the publisher, have asked 2K Marin/Australia, the developer to make them a first person shooter based on the slumbering X-COM franchise. They have done/are doing it. This is a thing that has happened, and a thing that will not be reversed. I would have loved a turn-based XCOM too. I’m holding out hope that there’ll be one, in fact – a Steam or XBLA or iPhone remake of the original game, still so timeless in everything except interface and tutorial. I’m also looking forward to hearing more about fan project Xenonauts, which has a chance of being the real heir apparent to X-COM’s strange and wonderful hybrid genre.

People have repeatedly asked me why I think it so inevitable that XCOM would be an FPS. It’s not just because XCOM has been comatose as an IP for years. It’s also because its entire genre has been effectively dead for almost as long. Yes, there have been a few attempts, some good, some bad, but no major publisher would dream of touching it. Small publishers and passionate indie devs are another matter, and that’s why we must treasure them. As to why call it XCOM when it’s not X-COM: look at the length of these comments threads about the game. Even a lot of the most furious people in them will probably buy XCOM, from curiosity, fondness and/or self-flagellation. A cynical move, then? Yes, certainly. It’s also the only reason we’re getting any game called XCOM.

It may go horribly wrong. It may be nothing at all like X-COM, despite the pretty-but-guarded line the developers gave me. But here’s why I’m hopeful. It’s not “here’s why XCOM will be DA BOMB, MAN, THE FUGGIN’ BOMB.” It’s not “here’s why XCOM is exactly like X-COM.” It’s here’s why I’m hopeful. In the post below this, you’ll also see why I’m very worried, and even upset.

Go list.

  • It’s about planning at least as much as it is about shooting. You research and build new weapons, you choose what to take with you, you make educated guesses about which mission to pursue next, based on what you think is there and whether you’re developed enough to counter it. So they say, anyway. That may not be Strategy, but it is strategy.
  • I do like the setting, even though it’s a jarring change from the future-Earth of X-COM. It makes sense for an alien invasion – the 50s was an era drowning in paranoia about both otherworldly menaces and Red Terror, so often conflated. Yes, 2K does a lot of period shooters, but I’d take pastel mid-century over brown near-future any day.And I don’t really need to see X-COM’s mega-gelled 80s hairstyles at 1920×1080.
  • Progress is based on research and information-gathering, not by finding keycards and pushing door unlock buttons. I won’t grind to a halt because I haven’t walked down the right corridor yet.
  • The backup agents aren’t as simple as they appear. I couldn’t squeeze any details out of the devs other than that there’s a lot more to see there, and there’ll be reasons to care about these square-jawed followers. I’m hoping for squad control, I’m hoping for managing inventories and abilities, I’m hoping for psionic devices that terrifyingly wrest them from my control, and I’m also hoping for optional co-op. I might be let down. I might not. I’m prepared to wait and see.
  • There is a base. I don’t know how much control you have over it, but it’s appealing to think you somewhere to go back to plan your next move – and that that move is not mandated by the game.
  • While I might miss the semi-omnipotence of isometric squad control in the ground missions, one place where I really do relish the first-person perspective is the base. I love the idea of exploring what I own (and hopefully have built/upgraded). It reminds me of Dungeon Keeper, and it reminds me of the fantastic base defence missions in X-COM.
  • This is 2K Australia more than it is 2K Marin. These guys were part of Irrational. These guys worked on games like Freedom Force and SWAT 4. They’re not just the guys who made Bioshock 2.
  • Even if it doesn’t feel at all like X-COM, think about this: gadgets, selecting a load-out and a strategy, small squads, non-linear level navigation and an enemy that hides, waits and ambushes. It could be SWAT 4 with aliens. That’d be awesome in its own right.
  • I dig the concept of the odds being stacked against you so much that you often have to run away. That ammo and health and gadgetry and your squad’s lives are limited. You’re not a super-soldier. You’re a guy fighting something he doesn’t understand and isn’t equipped to deal with. You have to use observation and caution to survive. There’s every chance that, robbed of the dread Hidden Movement screen, this won’t feel anything like the tension and terror of X-COM’s missions in practice, but even so, it’s a really intriguing hook for a shooter. I want to play that game, whether or not it’s like X-COM.
  • C’mon, that obelisk thing! Fighting something that can rip up the world – now that sounds fun.
  • It’s from the makers of Bioshock, a game that, despite a whole lot of compromises and unfilled promises, went to far greater lengths to try and be smart and different than most other mainstream shooters of the past few years. T
  • I haven’t played it, or seen anywhere near enough to know anything like for sure that it will let me down.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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