As we waited for the start of our behind-closed-doors presentation of X-COM: Enemy Unknown, visions of Geoscapes and Interceptors danced through our heads.
Fifteen years later, I will admit my childhood crime of copying the original X-COM on two floppy disks (split, of course, between the 1.44 MB barrier) so that I could play it during lunch at school (oh, the innocence of my youth). Along with Scorched Earth and Jetpack, it was probably most responsible for sapping my productivity as a pimple-faced youngster. There was something heavily appealing about its fusion of real-time base-building, RPG-like character progression, and turn-based strategy within randomly-generated maps. It was such a well-designed game that it could be played repeatedly, over and over, and there was literally never anything close to an identical experience.
Now this is more like it.
So you can imagine my glee (actually I need to stop using that word now that the show has existed) elation when it was announced that Firaxis was working on development of a second, true-to-its-roots, genre-appropriate version of X-COM to go alongside the previously-revealed FPS of questionable franchise relevance. Not only do I have great respect for Firaxis as a developer—I’m a huge fan of Civilization—but it’s been widely publicized that the entire development team was tasked with completing the original X-COM: Enemy Unknown (a.k.a. UFO Defense) prior to beginning work on the remake.
The new Enemy Unknown is, at its core, certainly X-COM-oriented. The conceptual foundations of the series are reborn in its design, with base-building apparently playing a major part of the strategic interstitial segments separating battles, and RPG-like growth and development of both technologies and your troops adding weight and depth to the experience.
But it’s also been heavily modernized, of course, that means detailed character renders, horrific aliens, and a considerably slicker interface. The land-based maps no longer sport that hallmark grid that we all know and love (I know, it bothers me too), and such modern amenities as infantry perks and environmental cover have been infused into the battle system. There are destructible elements and considerably more interactive locales. Most of the changes seem like they’re being made for the better, so that’s a definite plus.
The demo we saw showcased a land-based (and thus turn-based) strategy section only, so we can’t speak for the real-time base building “Geoscape” interface. But I was immediately struck by the changes that were made to even just the appearance of the game—the battles are dressed up with gory attention to death animations (aliens chewing through the remains of troop corpses and mind-controlling humans to have them eat their own grenades) and a stylized interface which looks less X-COM and more everything else. If you’re familiar with the evolution of the series, think Heroes of Might and Magic III versus VI.
That’s not to say that the overall success and quality of this X-COM reboot will fare as poorly against the backdrop of its lineage as the recent HoMM titles have, but this is genre not well-populated today. Suffice it to say that there is probably no better developer in existence to handle this reboot than Firaxis, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it rubbed me the wrong way a bit to witness the sort of changes that were being made to even just the attitude of the game.
Getting up close and personal with the action.
There is one other major concern that I stumbled across as well: the maps are no longer random. I confronted the staff members about this at the end of the presentation to obtain some clarification on just how this aspect of the experience would be handled. Predictably, I was assured that the change was for the better, and that it was eventually mutually decided that random maps simply didn’t provide for the sort of quality experience the team sought to produce. Instead, each map is based on a foundational preset map and then augmented with randomized variables such as different spawn points, enemy types and classes, and some environmental elements. He guaranteed me that this approach translated to a comparably unique experience with each playthrough. When I pried for more information about just how many of these base maps would exist in the final game, however, I received just a nondescript “a lot”. He told me that, as a former member of the maps testing (I think it was?) team, he as well as anyone should know.
Some other random items worth mentioning which we witnessed in our demo include a Chrysalid enemy type (they kill your dudes and they subsequently find their corpses exploding gorily into Chrysalids as well), Archangel (flying) Armor, Ghost Armor (which cloaks you and allows you to move farther—and also includes a grappling hook), a plasma rifle, and a Sectoid Commander (you know, the psychic guys). The Sectoid Commander took control of the mind of one of the troops and forced him to eat his grenade, which was humorous I guess. I did particularly enjoy the implementation of perks, however, which seems like it should work well within the strategy framework. One of the troops in the demo was blessed with an “In the Zone” perk which allows him to take a second shot when fired upon.
To its credit, the team has also decided to stick with a more lighthearted, comic-book appearance to contrast with the, well, irrationality (apologies for the pun) of the other franchise offering in the pipeline. It’s clear that these people are passionate about the work they’re doing on the series, and that gives me hope that this gargantuan task in front of them will ultimately translate to a great triumph.
We saw plenty of this, but nothing of the Geoscape interface.
Stay tuned to DigitalChumps for lots more honest, unbiased, and insightful coverage of X-COM: Enemy Unknown in the coming months leading up to its October 9th (12th internationally) release.