I Want To Believe
When it was announced that the next XCOM game would be a first-person shooter, the series faithful flipped out, and the game was delayed. But a second XCOM title is also in the works, and it’s sure to please those fans who hope the franchise never departs from its strategy roots.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake—and a re-imagining—of a 1994 PC classic that has been released under a whole slew of names, including UFO: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: UFO Defense, and even XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In the original game, a plotline that is now familiar to all gamers unfolds: An alien race slowly starts to take over the Earth, and you, our hero, are assigned the task of beating back the threat by controlling a bunch of beefy space marines. Eventually, as the leader of the paramilitary group XCOM, you’re responsible for building and deploying a team to Mars to eradicate the threat once and for all. The original game won a loyal fan base not only thanks to its compelling gameplay, but also because of its fear-inducing X-Files vibe.
Throughout the game, players need to carefully budget their money, keep track of UFO kidnappings, intercept alien ships with jet fighters, keep the civilian population satisfied, and even reverse-engineer alien technology. Research is handled at the “ant farm,” an XCOM facility featuring top-of-the-line scientific equipment that you can improve as you work your way through the game. Further complicating matters are the facts that you need to suck up to the world’s nations if you want them to provide XCOM with funding, and that the aliens are divided into numerous races of their own.
You also have to make sound tactical decisions in battle—and you’d better be careful, because you won’t start with a blank slate after each checkpoint. Dead units stay dead, the technology you research can affect your ability to win, and the original was notorious for its high difficulty. It’s actually possible to lose the game for good, and many players never finished the original at all.
From the beginning, XCOM has been known for blending different types of gameplay; the 1994 version featured two different views, one that allowed you to make overall strategic decisions in real time, and a close-up view that allowed you to make tactical decisions in turn-based squad battles. (Oddly enough, this is the opposite of the system that would prevail in modern strategy games like Total War: turn-based activity on the world map and real-time battles.) There was also an RPG element, in that winning battles allowed you to improve your skills. All of this will return for the remake.
The new game is careful not to stray too far from what worked before—after the announcement of the franchise’s FPS, fans can’t handle much more. But the developers are taking a few liberties. For starters, the game is set in the 1960s instead of the 1990s, making way for a graphical style that’s “retro” (in the sense of “recreates an old world” rather than “looks like it was made with ancient game technology”). Cinematic cutscenes will advance the narrative over the course of some 70 missions, and it’s not yet clear whether the new story will end up on Mars like the old one did.
Judging by the most current set of screenshots, the graphics are modernized and sometimes manage to create a creepy vibe, but they’re hardly top-of-the-line. The game will appear on consoles in addition to PC, so we’re bound to see streamlined menus and perhaps some dumbing-down of the more tedious mechanics (such as “time units,” which have been simplified into a “move-action” system that allows you to move a certain distance and then take an action each turn).
However, the game should sound familiar: Roland Rizzo, who’s been making XCOM’s foreboding music since the series debuted, is handling the tunes. And the early signs are that if you’re expecting XCOM: Enemy Unknown to coddle you like so many other games do today, you’re out of luck. Fog of war means that enemies are invisible until they’re close. Taking cover, slowly advancing on your enemy, flanking when possible, having snipers in place to pick off a few targets, and keeping the aliens in place with covering fire are key tactics for success. The developers have boasted about the steep challenge of the new game in interviews.
And let’s not leave out one of the most compelling reasons to keep an eye out for XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The developer is Firaxis, the same folks who are behind Civilization, and even Sid Meier himself is involved in the game’s creation. Firaxis and Meier are giants in the strategy genre, and their involvement virtually guarantees that Enemy Unknown will be something special.
XCOM captured the imaginations of gamers almost twenty years ago, and to this day it boasts a rabid fan base that gets angry when the franchise changes too much. It seems like a great candidate for a reboot, Firaxis is the perfect developer to undertake such a project, and the early signs are that this remake can recreate the magic of the original with modern features. The abductions begin in the fall.