I suppose it was inevitable: whoever wound up with the X-COM property and the desire to do something with it would ultimately fall under the pendulous blade of the long-time fans, like me. It’s not that I don’t have faith in 2K Marin and Firaxis, the dual studios in charge of the series’ reboot, but it comes off as a cruel joke when the developers explain that they are ‘long-time super huge mega fans’ of the franchise and they proceed to show you something that isn’t like what you were a long-time super huge mega fan of in the first place. With 2K upping the ante on the released media for these two titles – XCOM and XCOM: Enemy Unknown – it’s easy to see how the X-COM fanboy’s ire might be inspired (they even cut the hyphen out of the title in a JJ Abrams-reboots-Star Trek-fashion!), but should we be so quick to judge and trample these games? Is 2K jabbing a wasp’s nest by trying to re-invent X-COM nearly twenty years after it changed the world?
What’s The Big Deal With X-COM?
While X-COM is a franchise, it was the original game, UFO Defense, that really sets the bar for it as a saga and as a game. Its lesser sequels tried different settings (Terror From The Deep) or were infinitely complex with every possible permutation of UFO Defense’s gameplay included at once (Apocalypse), but none felt quite as fresh as the original. X-COM: UFO Defense is an elegant game designed by the Gallop brothers, a very small crew based out of Britain in the early 90s. You’re in charge of a covert international fighting force that’s tasked with subverting an alien onslaught. You managed everything from the bases to the soldiers, the missions to the research, all through a dual-game interface: the Geoscape, where you manage your operations, and the Battlescape, where you manage the battles and turn the tide of the war one conflict at a time.
By giving most of the gameplay away to random elements, the Gallop brothers made the game feel infinitely larger than a design curated by a team of hundreds. Your base’s radar catches UFOs at random of ever-growing size and capacity and you deal with their deadly combatants in randomly-generated landscapes. You fight in forests, deserts, tundra, farms, and cities against a diverse cast of aliens and no two encounters are the same. Framing the whole thing is a charming comic style that both binds the look of the game, serves well in both darkness and broad daylight, and really makes the world feel full and attractive to return to.
UFO Defense isn’t perfect by any means, but for a game that launched eighteen years ago, it still holds up incredibly well. You could probably play the game forever, but you’d probably be overwhelmed by sheer alien traffic at some point, even with a full array of bases on tap and hundreds of soldiers at your command.
My heart went aflutter when it was announced that 2K Marin, fresh off the underwhelming Bioshock 2, was in charge of an X-COM renovation… in first-person. By 1999, I was super-excited about X-COM: Alliance, which was to be an Unreal-powered, tactical, cooperative shooter. In an era before Halo and Ghost Recon brought that genre into its fullest on consoles, those style of games just weren’t available yet. And it was X-COM. Alliance was cancelled and we never got to see what could’ve been. But then we saw XCOM…
…and I think we all collectively wondered ‘what the fuck is this?’ If you took X-COM, removed much of the actual X-COM (including the hyphen!), made it similarly-thematic to Bioshock with 1950s setting and ink-y aliens that form into power cubes, you have XCOM. Julian Gallop, co-creator of the franchise, went so far as to call it ‘a great shame‘ that 2K was marrying many of the popular aspects of games today, from shooting to Mass Effect-style tactical combat, into a single blob and slapping the X-COM (well, XCOM) name right on top of it. Now, I’m all for reinventing the franchise if it’s decent, creative, and looks to be better than its predecessor by all means, but XCOM initially came off as incredibly lazy. Take this beloved franchise, take a lot of the art direction from the last title you produced, and then don’t make it like that franchise at all.
2K showed the game off for E3 2010, after which it went silent for a nearly complete retool. When it emerged a year later, it looked it played like a very different game, but it certainly didn’t look like any X-COM that anyone had ever played. It seems ironic that as clever as Bioshock was as a franchise, being drafted from Ken Levine’s imagination, 2K Marin needed to borrow a mostly-irrelevant franchise to sell this new title.
But 2K had a secret plan…