XCOM, the first and last defence against the unknown enemy!
If there’s a series I’d hate to see butchered, it’s Doom. And then Half Life. But past that, it’d be the XCOM series… or at least XCOM 1 and 2, the other games aren’t worth much of a mention. For those who are asleep at the wheel (or too young/console-loving to know what I’m talking about), XCOM is an “old” (by most standards) turn-based strategy game. The idea was reasonably simple; you were in control of XCOM, a multinational organisation charged with saving the Earth from alien attacks. What makes XCOM unique is that that’s literally the backstory you start with. There’s nothing else explained to you except “Aliens are attacking, god DAMN IT DO SOMETHING!” You start off with a base Somewhere on Earth (your choice where to build) and a few near-future bits of tech to combat the threat.
From there, your job is to detect alien UFOs, launch interceptors to shoot them down, deploy squads of soldiers to fight the aliens (in a turn-based environment), and bring home lots of stuff for research and manufacturing purposes. When the game first starts your guys can pretty much die from a single shot and can’t hit the broad side of a barn, and this is with a minimal alien threat. Your starting weapons are weak and quickly become obselete. Your aircraft are slow and weak. The aliens quickly deploy heavier units and larger UFOs. Then they start attacking cities, which means your small band of barely-adequate soldiers are charged with taking on large alien strike teams. Later, you have to attack alien bases, before finally taking the fight to the aliens themselves. All the while, the nations of the Earth will be watching your performance in their areas, and if you’re not up to scratch, they’ll start pulling funding. What this means is if you’ve got a base in North America, and you’re not responding to something going on in China (not that you could possibly do so), China will get pissed and strip away your funding. Essentially you’re expected to do everything with practically no money, until later when you start selling off alien artefacts.
XCOM’s unforgiving gameplay was incredibly challenging, and its mix of strategic and tactical gameplay makes it incredibly addictive. Even something as simple as your base layout has a major impact on the game; if that base gets attacked, you’ll need to know it like the back of your hand and have your troops prepared to defend it. You have to capture aliens to study them, or grab their corpses and study those instead. All the while you’re in a constant rush to recover bits and pieces from crashed UFOs, or to recover an entire, intact UFO if possible! It’s a never-ending shitstorm with no breaks, and even with the best armour and weapons, a single wrong move can easily end a soldier’s life. XCOM is hardcore, and you’d think it’d be frustrating, but it isn’t. It’s this extreme tension of knowing that even your best efforts typically aren’t enough that keeps the game exciting. It doesn’t matter how many bases you build, or how many troops you train, the aliens are almost always one step ahead of you. If you want to know what it’s like to go from absolutely nothing to barely staying on top of things… well, here’s your game.
The tactical gameplay was also awesome; pretty much everything in the environment could be destroyed, so basting away a building harbouring aliens was as easy as shouldering your rocket launcher and letting fly. That said if your trigger-happy troopers managed to hit something valueable in the game world on a UFO, that meant that you couldn’t recover it at the end of the mission. For example blowing up a UFO’s reactor deprived you of a massively important resource, and made the UFO little more than a worthless metal hulk. The time of day you launched your attack also made a huge difference; night fighting was incredibly difficult as your troopers can’t see for shit in the dark, while the aliens have incredible night vision. Likewise a crashed UFO has damage for you to exploit, while an intact one that has just landed might have crew wandering around the local area.
Now, a few games have tried to emulate XCOM, notably the UFO series. Most of them have failed though because they miss out on a few important aspects. Firstly, some like to be story driven. This is a big NO because XCOM is all about making your own story; how you run things, how badly you screw up, and how quickly you research things is all important in the XCOM series. When you research something, you get a report about it; they’re theories and thin on information, suggesting possible tactics or uses. Some games like to spell it out for you, or use these discoveries as storyline triggers. This is bad, with XCOM we’re writing our own story, not playing out someone else’s. Next, some games dumb down the Geoscape element. The multiple bases mechanic frequently gets hosed. This is a silly idea because part of XCOM is about global management and trying to cover the most land with the fewest resources you can afford. You need to include a large area to cover (a planet, and I mean a fairly detailed planet) so that we’ve got a lot to worry about. We need to be able to intercept and land in a large area, and it’s okay to put enough onto us that we have to leave some ships unmolested; that’s part of the strategic planning and knowing when we’re powerless to do something.
Other games end up putting too much on our plates. UFO: Afterlight had a ridiculous system of personnel management and training, which is needlessly complex. Soldiers get experience from fighting, scientists and engineers just do their jobs without any skill attached. Fairly straightforward. Also it shouldn’t be more complex than “scientists/engineers work on this, soldiers are assigned to this craft with these weapons”. That’s all you need to do! Don’t break what isn’t broken! And yeah I don’t mean “don’t fix what isn’t broken” because there’s no possible way to suggest a “fix”. Also sometimes the penalties for ignoring a mission are far too high. XCOM’s penalties hurt, but you can typically work around them; ignoring a terror mission is pretty much a “I’ll shut you down!” reaction but if you let a UFO go past every once in a while, you typically don’t get yelled at too much. In some of the clones, the penalties are too harsh, or there’s no real penalty at all.
The tactical gameplay is just about all that can be improved (apart from the GUI). Firstly, it should be left as a turn-based game. Secondly, there MUST be a destructable environment. Finally, the difficulty needs to be maintained, as this creates tension. Beyond that, there’s plenty of room to expand with additional stances, cover taking effect, deployable weapons, or other gadgets to further help with detecting and destroying aliens. Soldier stats can come into greater play here. XCOM’s tactical gameplay tends to get a bit frustrating at times due to UI issues, but that’s the product of a dated game moreso than an actual flaw. Still, there’s room to improve here. Unfortunately practically no games ever manage to pick up on this, and some try for an odd RTS/TBS hybrid which makes little sense.
Or maybe they could have an RTS element, kind of like a Total War game. Dunno, but I think it’d probably still have to be a TBS. In any event there needs to be a tight bond between what happens tactically and what happens strategically; if I blow up the UFO so that there’s nothing left, the tactical map should reflect that when I land there. If I shoot a reactor and destroy the interior of the UFO in the tactical gameplay, I should get none of those resources on the strategic map (or Geoscape for those in the know!).
The latest announcement that an XCOM FPS was being released at first had me jumping for joy. Why? It’s XCOM! The franchise has a new chance! Instantly my mind was filled with the idea of playing a Geoscape game and then fighting the battles in first person, kind of like a Rainbox Six version. But alas, this isn’t the case; it’s story driven and you play an FBI agent. I mean what the hell, it’s not a goddamn XCOM game if you’re playing as the FBI! Xenonauts, an indie-game, is talking itself up as a fan-made remake of the old XCOM formula. The team do sound like they know what they’re doing, but it’s easy for these things to go wrong (and XCOM fans are unforgiving).
I think though at the end of the day the IP attached to XCOM is what most of us love; fighting the Chryssalids and those bastard Etherals is what makes XCOM special.