I’m not sure how it happened, but this E3 was more than happy to pull at my heart strings with reboots of my favorite franchises. My most anticipated title going into the show was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a reimagining of my favorite game of all time by Firaxis, known for their landmark Civilization games. After a presentation of the game and a (very) brief interview, I thankfully walked away with more answers than questions. I’m now confident that XCOM: Enemy Unknown, nearly twenty years removed from its forebear, can win a place in my heart.
For those unaware, XCOM casts you as the supreme commander of a secretive group of elite anti-alien forces that are in charge of saving the planet in the face of an ever-growing alien invasion. What started with cow abductions and anal probing ends up as a full-scale urban invasion and you quickly discover that you’re on the losing end. In the game’s top side, you manage your base, reverse-engineer alien technology through research, and handle personnel – from names to weaponry. On the ground, you manage individual battles against the alien menace.
The mission they showed us involved an urban corridor with several abandoned vehicles, which provided ample cover. Firaxis then showed us their reimagining of the dreadful Chrysalids from the original game, known for turning your beloved agents into zombies, then becoming new Chrysalids as you dispatch your former agents. As the on-screen squad began to lose its footing, a call was made for reinforcements, in this case decked out in end-game armor and weaponry, along with a telepath modeled after studio head Sid Meier. Sid proceeded to mind control a heavy floater, forcing it to eat its own grenade. The squad mopped up the remaining alien scum until a massive Sectopod rumbled in.
PC gamers with an extreme bent love to scream when a beloved, formerly computer-exclusive franchise gets moved over to the consoles as the game usually loses some features or gameplay components to ‘simplify’ it for the ‘cretins’. But XCOM’s choices in streamlining various aspects of UFO Defense seem fair. Whereas in the older title, one could establish a large presence around the world with multiple facilities and unit rosters, you’re now in charge of a single base. Instead of sending in upwards of nearly thirty agents into a mission, the game forces you to pick between two and six agents. Why? Because battles now require more tactical thinking, forcing you to weigh your soldiers’ pros and cons instead of stuffing your Skyrangers with fresh meat for each round and regularly winning through overwhelming odds.
Missions also no longer take place on randomly-built battlescapes based on the venue of your mission, whether rural, urban, taiga, etc. Instead, Firaxis have built “a bunch” of curated environments to better serve the action, making it more akin to the Gallop brothers’ own Laser Squad Nemesis or Nintendo’s Advance Wars. Producer Pete Murray assured me that these pre-fab environments would be randomly selected, leaving any two players with two totally different play experiences. Sprinkled in with the standard alien threat missions are plot-specific missions (perhaps into alien bases?). So now XCOM has a narrative? Yep. Firaxis felt that the original game – and I agree – could feel very aimless if you weren’t regularly working at revealing that game’s narrative through research, leaving you to shoot down UFOs and respond to terror sites ad infinitum as the panic level rose. Murray also said that it’d be nearly impossible to cycle through the pre-fab environments as by then, the alien threat would be so dire that you couldn’t reach them, anyway.
I still have my qualms with the game’s art direction (the original’s “Saturday morning cartoon” look was endearing and iconic) and I still don’t quite have my head wrapped around how the game will really improve on the original, but having seen it now and talked to Firaxis, I’m willing to cut it slack. X-COM: UFO Defense is a tough act to follow. But it’s the little things, like the piano jingle that plays when an alien is spotted, or the flying armor that keeps troops safe in the air, that gives me hope that Firaxis wants only the best game possibles.