I visited Firaxis in 2014 to see Civilization: Beyond Earth and it was impossible not to wonder which closed doors were hiding the XCOM 2 [official site] team. The game hadn't been announced but surely somebody was working on a sequel. Would it follow the path of the original games and take to the Lovecraftian depths? Would it reach toward the stars and a battle on various alien homeworlds? Would it take risks or rest comfortably on well-earned laurels?
The answer, as we now know, didn't quite fit any of the above. These are happy times for the XCOM devotee but I'm hoping for an apocalyptic future. Here are a few ideas and hopes for what the game's first expansion might be.
I met Jake Solomon while I was visiting Firaxis - a half-jesting query about XCOM met with a variation of "if it ain't broke" and a laugh. XCOM 2 does fix the linearity of the satellite-building strategic game. Beyond that, it doesn't reinvent the wheel but it does expand on the original magnificently. The X-/XCOM organisation has never felt more suited to the small-scale tactical scraps they're involved in than during this post-invasion resistance. These are desperate times and you are controlling the last remnants of humanity's heroic streak, a fully customisable army of your family and friends.
As I said in my XCOM 2 review, the game is an instant classic. It might not shake up the formula quite enough to win over those who didn't get along with its predecessor but for those who did enjoy Enemy Unknown, it's a weighty and thoughtful follow-up. It's also a far more meaningful and consequential sequel than Terror From The Deep ever was. With that in mind, I've considered three possible futures for XCOM, with no spoilers whatsoever for XCOM 2.
Turns out the Deep is Pretty Terrifying
Enemy Within was a fine expansion, providing the first signs of the narrative bridge that indirectly leads to XCOM 2's occupied Earth. More importantly, it added creepy-awesome gene-mangling and bionic troops. I didn't write about it at the time but the short cutscene that shows the actual conversion process for MEC Troopers gave me nightmares. One nightmare specifically, which was like a combination of Johnny Got His Gun and that one good scene in the Robocop reboot.
The conversion process requires total limb loss. All four of them. Gone. I suspect we're supposed to believe the soldiers have volunteered for the process but I felt like I'd duped them because I hadn't expected the alterations to be quite so permanent.
That detour into body horror hammered home the cost of the fight but it's not the kind of horror I want from XCOM. The sequel cranks up the fear factor with some of its alien redesigns but an expansion could really bring the terror by doing what so many of us expected in the first place. Look to the waters, those untouched dark waters that take up so much of the map and yet contribute so little. Terror From the Deep always felt like an expansion and I wouldn't be altogether surprised if it became one.
New tech, new environments, new classes, new threats. The original Terror From the Deep was always intended to be something of a stopgap while Gollop and company worked on a more intricate sequel. As an expansion, that stopgap nature would be fitting - one last gulp of breath and a trip into the abyss before the real journey continues. The brilliance of the switch from deep space to deep sea shouldn't be underestimated either; what if our most frightening foes were much closer than we realised? And let's not underestimate how effective a change of colour palette can be - the chunky bright b-movie style of XCOM would make the eerie bloated sea-corpses of an underwater horror story stand out all the more.
But if not Terror From the Deep (or perhaps after Terror From the Deep), I'd love to see that other game - the 'more intricate sequel' mentioned above. It was about the end of all things.
Bring on the Apocalypse
When people remake things that worked perfectly well the first time around, it's natural to be a little bit confused. That's why the idea of an X-COM remake was so disconcerting. Of course I wanted it and I wanted it to be good, but did it really need to happen when the original was right there? That's a discussion for a different time - a time when I'm somewhere far away actually playing either X-COM or XCOM because, hell yeah, there are two of these things now - but what I'd like to propose is a remake of a game that didn't quite work out the first time around.
In some ways, X-COM: Apocalypse, the third game in the series, is my favourite of the whole bunch. It was (and is) a wildly experimental future-city simulator with a business management and conflict-based strategy game planted somewhere in the middle and tactical combat that could be played in either real-time or turn-based modes sprinkled throughout. There were corporations to befriend, raid or destroy. The aliens, who entered the city through transdimensional portals, would seek to spread their influence through the various organisations that provided X-COM with the stuff they needed to fight back and survive.
When people talk about 'emergent gameplay', I always want to rave about some of the brilliant things that happen in X-COM: Apocalypse. Small things, like a fire eating through the floor and causing a walkway to collapse, killing some parasitic worms. Or big things like fostering a healthy relationship (and a good supply line of hybrid operatives) with the Mutant Alliance and then watching in horror as they turned on me due to unintended collateral damage.
X-COM: UFO Defense didn't need a remake to bring out its best features and that it got a reboot that took another rewarding approach to the same basic setup was a wonderful surprise. A treat. A remake/reboot of X-COM: Apocalypse would be a chance to realise the potential of the original design, which was left unrealised thanks to...well, you can read Julian Gollop's take on the development process over at Eurogamer.
A new Apocalypse, if it were to tackle the full scope planned for the original, would still feel like a game ahead of its time. And it would still feel like a risk. XCOM 2 elaborates on the basic Geoscape strategy layer established in Firaxis' Enemy Unknown and it'd be possible to do much more with that boardgame-like setup. But part of me would love to see the whole thing thrown out when the time comes to move the story forward - let XCOM 2 stand as the final statement of this current iteration of the Geoscape and focus on a single city and its carefully simulated inhabitants instead.
Plot-wise it could work - and that's saying nothing about the events of XCOM 2 beyond the initial setting. Aliens live among humans. Cities are recognisable but future-tinged. Revisiting that world of emergent possibilities would be bold but then so was the entire idea of an XCOM reboot in the first place.
MAYBE IT'S TIME FOR A SPIN-OFF
XCOM Enforcer! But, y'know', like Earth Defence Force instead of whatever the fuck X-COM Enforcer was supposed to be like. I'm not serious, of course, but I have managed to take the names of both XCOM and Earth Defence Force in vain. That's probably going to come back and haunt me somewhere down the line.
Or, hey, maybe it's finally time for that first-person shooter. Except it's also a survival horror game. And Gillian Anderson does some mo-cap and voice acting.
Considering the fact that I bought X-COM: Interceptor day of release, I really shouldn't tempt fate. The beauty of the current situation is that XCOM 2 is here - almost - and it's the work of a team comfortable in their skin and gathering momentum.
For more on XCOM 2, visit our XCOM 2 guide hub.