It’s… XCOM: Enemy Unknown!
Jim: While XCOM has eaten countless hours of my dwindling remaining time on this Earth, I feel like I’ve had a different experience to others, not least because of my lack of attachment to the original XCOM games. My main feeling about it, I suppose was that I was simply glad of a turn-based game that I really got along with. It’s a format I find hit and miss, and occasionally it really works. There have been two turn-based games that have really affirmed 2012 for me. This was one, and Unity Of Command was another. (UoC came out last year, of course.) I feel quite strongly that this should herald a new era of fresh turn-based explorations and experiments. But it probably won’t. Which would be a mistake.
Anyway, I also really like the cross-section base. Not because it’s functional (clearly it’s not, and it’s not even all that interesting as a series of choices, with no tech tree specialisation, just a list to pick from), but just because I like cut-away cross-sections of things. Something resonates there, for me, a memory of children’s How Do Things Work books and architectural fantasies. That sort of thing.
I’ve never felt as much trepidation when loading up a game for the first time. There were so many questions to answer – smaller squad sizes, scripted story missions, preconstructed maps – but all of it came down to one thing: ‘do I really need another X-COM game?’
The desire was there and it wasn’t difficult to imagine the polished peril that Firaxis might achieve, but as the sort of beard-stroking film-git who has to stifle his gag reflex whenever he hears the terms ‘reboot’, ‘reimagining’ or ‘remake’, why should I cut XCOM any slack when I’d be tightening the noose if Brad Pitt was gearing up his Chanel-soaked chops to star in a remake of Casablanca? I still play the original game so the undashing remake would not only be dislodging X-COM from my memory but from my free time and I have a very limited number of action points.
Every time Jake Solomon spoke to Alec, I clung reassurance tightly around me like a winter blanket. Changes were afoot but, at the very least, somebody was thinking about those changes in relation to what had come before and what was possible, and that somebody was also willing to talk. That public enthusiasm gave me hope that the game wasn’t ‘remake by committee’. This wasn’t a man in a suit chewing a comically oversized cigar and walking into the office, hooting like a banker: ‘Men, we have this franchise name lying about and it’s not earning its keep. Take X-COM to the money mines and provide it with the hardiest pick we have. The one made entirely out of graphics and cutscenes’.
Enthusiasm breeds doubt though. An ill-intentioned cash-grab warrants disdain but a well-intentioned, passionate disaster could be a tiny bit heart-breaking. And whatever the case, wasn’t it all entirely pointless whatever the intentions?
It didn’t work out that way. X-COM expands on the B-movie sensibilities of Julian Gollops’ masterpiece but it doesn’t seek to imitate the experience of playing it. The aliens are recognisable, the basic flow is familiar, but once there are boots on the ground, Firaxis’ game isn’t a mere technological update, it’s quite clearly a game made by a team who have been playing and thinking about a lot of games since 1995. While it’s not a ‘best of turn-based’ cocktail, I do think the intelligence of the design is at least in part due to the wide variety of influences.
Those over-the-shoulder cams, love them or loathe them (I love them), and the way squaddies slam into the embrace of cover conjure up an alternate reality where the remake was a third-person shooter. Bullet dodged (despite 100% hit probability), let’s move on. The division of a turn into two distinct phases, which become malleable as skills are gained, is a separation from the action points of the original, and reminds me of recent boardgaming and Valkyria Chronicles more than the nineties.
The X-COM license was a sign saying ‘kick me’ stapled to the game’s arse and the solution, as I see it, was to make a game with a hundred influences and reference points rather than channelling everything from one source. It’s so obvious really, but the best way to make XCOM wasn’t to spend every hour playing X-COM and figuring out how to improve its systems, it was to make something new.
Instead of being a tribute that couldn’t hope to outflank the hidden movements of memory, X-COM learned from other games as well and although it has created flaws of its own along with the triumphs, it’s a tactical victory and even if it doesn’t herald a wider turn-based revolution, there’s at least one team out there that I’m eager to see more from. Your move, Firaxis.
Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Firaxis’ most consciously blockbuster game ever is that describing it as “the X-COM remake” no longer feels right. There is X-COM and there is XCOM, and they really do co-exist, doing very different things with the same essential concept, rather than one replacing the other and one doing feature x, y and z that the other not. That’s such a happy outcome for me, all the Christmas present I needed. Rather than having X-COM repeated or replaced, or worse still just X-COM and some lousy explodey thing I don’t care about, I have more X-COM. A choice, the range of options that Interceptor and Enforcer promised but pathetically fluffed.
There was much for the X-COM faithful to be disappointed about, of course. The base and interception elements felt strangely compromised, too many bugs are left unmended, the DLC so far has been insulting, the end-game was a wash-out and the Mutons don’t wear sexy catsuits any more. I don’t ultimately care. Well, maybe I miss lime-green mutons more than is healthy for me. This has been my go-to 2012 time-sink and, so long as either DLC or mods come good, I’m expecting similar to happen in 2013. Whatever it might get wrong, the base provided essential tension-breaking between missions which were reliably dramatic, spectacular and even a little emotional – something I honestly didn’t expect from a turn-based strategy game, let alone one from the often austere Firaxis.
It needs to be played on Classic difficulty, of course, and ideally in Iron Man. It’s not so much that it’s too easy below that, but that the single most critical element of the game – loss – isn’t quite there. While there’s something to be said for the RPG-lite climb up the tech and skill trees in and of itself, the dark heart of XCOM is threat, and from that acute, agonising importance attached to every action.
XCOM is a game where failure plays a more crucial role than does victory, because victory tastes that much sweeter when it feels like justice and valediction for the fallen, not to mention a testament to the player’s ability as a commander. “You, sir or madam, came back from the terrible loss of your best soldiers. You did not falter, but instead took the greenest of the green rookies you were left with and turned them into the fighting force the Earth so sorely needed. We salute you.” Er… I don’t know who I imagined saying that. Morgan Freeman, maybe?
I’ve pinged regularly between this and yesterday’s game as my preferred electronic entertainment of 2012, with FTL not at all far behind. So, whatever comes tomorrow is nothing to do with me – but while I’m sad to not see one of my toys take this site’s ultimate prize, it’s okay. I have feasted so damn well this year already.
The other thing: despite battling purist complaints from my own cynical brain whenever I saw or read about the game ahead of release, come the day I didn’t turn off shoulder-cams, death sequences or soldier barks after all. These apparent saps to blockbuster crowd-pleasing turned to be additive rather than pandering after all. Because, while XCOM may have dispensed with the terror of X-COM as a result of its move to rolling skirmishes rather than search and destroy, what it was instead was genuinely thrilling. All that came from unscripted, ground-level drama, micro-stories I invisibly played the most important role in and consistently returned from either shaken or triumphant.
I don’t know what XCOM’s apparent success means for the future of strategy. Probably nothing, as only truly astronomical sales tend to alter the thundering trajectory of the great warships that are games publishers, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Just as, thanks to its own successes and its easy blend of the tactical and the bombastic, XCOM no longer need be seen entirely through the prism of its hyphenated past, let’s not get bogged down in worry about what it might spell for the future. Perhaps it’ll prove to be the only man on the Skyranger on a new age for strategy, or perhaps a new squad is even now being busily assembled at publishers across the world. That’s tomorrow’s conundrum. XCOM is here now. The Earth needs saving now. They really did it.