I’ve dreamt of this game for years, nay, decades. The original X-COM: UFO Defense, which holds a cherished place in my heart, was often mimicked, even by its own sequels, but never exceeded. Dreams of battling aliens as an under-supported and demoralized soldier in the X-COM filled my head as a kid. In the sixth grade I’d zone out and draw maps when I had to stop a mission half-way through. In high school, I envisioned deploying a squad to a sunny farm where heavy explosives could send a barn exploding into splinters with incredible detail. The franchise has been in limbo for so long that it was doubtful that anyone would grant my dreams the light of day, much less by the prestigious creators of Civilization. The full game is far more impressive than the ultra-tutorialized demo lent on and while this isn’t what I envisioned a new X-COM game to be after so long, I can’t hold that against Firaxis.
Well, not entirely anyway.
Keeping Things The Same
Just like its progenitor, you’re in charge of an elite underground army tasked with dispatching the encroaching alien menace. You meet with a coalition of countries that provide you funding, scaling up or down depending on your performance, and asking for specific alien-derived technology as you proceed. From your base, you’ll manage and rename your troops – even giving them funky-colored hair – manage your budget, reverse-engineer alien tech as it arrives from the field, then charge your corps of engineers to build weaponry and tools based on those technologies. Even at my most resourceful, I always found myself scrounging for resources and dollars to keep my enterprise going, which seems odd considering the amount of money the US/the world dumps into defense spending.
Compared to the original game, missions come across sparsely, usually two a month, and will consist of UFO crashes, terror sites, and special escort missions. I’m thankful that Firaxis decided to diversify the tactical offerings. You’ll spend far less time shooting down UFOs now and far more time simply shipping your Skyranger to the far corners of the Earth. Often, you’ll be required to select between several missions and pick what you feel will end up with the best reward. Leave nations unattended for too long and their panic level rises; let it rise too far and they’ll abandon their part in the XCOM charter. You can counter this by deploying satellites to keep your eyes on distant continents and by transferring out fighters to intercept found threats.
Where Things Get Different
On the ground, the game feels delightfully revised from the original model. Deploying with a maximum of six troops can feel a little binding when an Avenger-class carrier of yore could carry twenty-seven troops, but the missions are also no longer randomly built and also, thankfully, nowhere near as large. The number mentioned to me at E3 was thirty crafted scenarios that were randomly pulled from the ether when you make your landing, with the chance that you’ll run into one or two a few times, but the number scenarios actually closer to eighty. The only time I ever saw a scenario more than once was when I attempted the same UFO crash a half-dozen times (yes, I’m a reloader) and at no point did any mission ever feel like it was a grind. I love that.
As your soldiers advance, you assign them specific talents based on their class, which is assigned after they’ve ranked up for the first time. Your men (or women) will specialize in heavy weapons, sniping, or assault, and you’ll be responsible for making sure they’re equipped properly and for using their special skills properly. You can’t treat your soldiers the same or you’ll fail to match your foe as the difficulty begins to ramp. And it will ramp. And then you’ll research stuff and it seems to level out, which is bizarre. One huge advantage that Enemy Unknown features over the original is the fact that when your soldiers fall, you’ll retain their armor and weaponry for others to use, rather than lose it entirely and be forced to build new components. On the flip side, you’ll rarely scavenge alien weaponry intact, so every armament usually has to be built at your expense back at the base.
As a result of that customization, you’ll really grow attached to your soldiers in a way the series has never permitted. When one of your higher-ranking officials gets clipped, not only will you understand why the rookies begin to panic, but you’ll feel that pain as well. You’ll scorn your squad of rookies when they fail to eliminate foes at point-blank range, but praise them as their skills exceed your expectations as they work up the ladder. Enemy Unknown’s smaller, curated maps allow for tighter tactics and more one-on-one control with your men and some very memorable fights. In UFO Defense, cover was implied simply by positioning. If your soldier was crouched or behind a wall, they were going to be harder to hit. Enemy Unknown supplements this by allowing you to keep your people in obviously-labelled cover at all times, crouched in their armor like Gears of War cogs.
But I still hate the look of the game. Completed research is barely readable against such transparent surfaces. Alien autopsies don’t bring the wonderful thrill of drawn gore that the original games had. I hate how virtually every mission is a night mission, even when you land at an exotic locale in broad daylight (also, vice-versa in rare instances). The menus never work against you, but the game’s jagged polygonal platters remind me of bad art I did in school. The game works well as far as moving around between characters and changing loadouts, except when you’re actually deploying on a mission, requiring you to drill out of the mission launch window and drill into the general barracks menu to free up a piece of armor that an injured soldier is still holding onto, but stuff like base management seems like a step back. The “ant farm” profile base view is pretty, but of little utility, and you’ll need to drill into the Engineering menu to excavate caverns or build structures. These issues alone aren’t enough to bring down the horse, my issue with Enemy Unknown comes with the narrative.
Someone Else’s Story
Most of UFO Defense’s atmosphere came from books that came with its packaging, or with its sequels. It had no elaborate cutscenes to guide you along, no animated helpers to keep track of what you were doing: X-COM was raw and unapologetic. Missions were long and difficult and between your fights, I thought of how these soldiers worked, how their time back at base must have been a welcome reprieve from the battlefield. My imagination filled the gaps and it’s a huge reason why the game has stuck with me now nearly twenty years after its debut.
Enemy Unknown wants as many people playing as possible and that’s understandable. They’ve made the micromanagement-heavy Battlescape/combat a better game but they’ve, for lack of a better word, gimped the macromanaged Geoscape/base game. You never feel like you’re really in charge of the success, even as all its mistakes fall on you. Plot-critical research or components are highlighted in huge asterisks that say PRIORITY rather than being an organic extension of the research you should already be doing. I played Enemy Unknown for a relatively short twenty hours before I came upon the endgame sequence that sent me down through a linear gauntlet of aliens the game calls ‘the final level’ and left me underwhelmed with an ending I didn’t think I’d fought for. It’s ambitious that they wanted to craft a narrative to build such a big game like X-COM around, but Firaxis’ story isn’t better than what I could think of as the Commander of X-COM in the old days. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but making Enemy Unknown a smaller game that UFO Defense lessens the impact of the story, despite its many cutscenes, and makes me empathize less about my characters’ plights or ultimate goals.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic experience in its own right as well as a wonderful send-up of the originals. It’s a game I’ll remember fondly in the near-term and while I think that, as a remake, it won’t reach the classic status of its progenitor, it’s a game that had to be made. It’s easy enough to get into, difficult to master, and the best strategy game released in years. I just hope that someone will make the X-COM of my dreams some day…