There are good games. There are bad games and then there are games that 16 years after release still spawn intense discussions within the community. X-COM is one of the latter.
A premiere today. I’ll try to do more content for international readers. Today i’d like to write a piece about the little acronym that changed gaming in 1994: X-COM. A couple of days ago and after five years of rumors about a possible reboot of the franchise, rumors died and an official press release informed us that X-COM now is XCOM and something that no original fan wanted to play. I read tons of articles, listened to hours of podcasts about this topic and one thing is for sure. Never was a reboot of a gaming franchise so right and so wrong at the same time.
X-COM was created by very few guys back in the early nineties1. They tried to sell a sequel of a game called Laser Squad to a publisher. Laser Squad is a tactical turn- and squad-based strategy game. Legendary publisher MicroProse picked up the project while at the same time demanded changes to the concept. Instead of a simple sequel they wanted to stage the game in an Alien invasion setting, where the player’s task should be to defend the earth from Alien invaders. Instead of pure combat-based strategy, ressource management, base building and RPG elements should add even more depth to the game.
The game was released in 1994 as X-COM – UFO Defense in the US and as UFO – Enemy Unknown in the EU market for the PC. It sold well, was ported to other platforms and immediately spawned a series of sequels and spin-offs. None of them reached the quality of the original first release. The franchise died by a loss of quality and gaming zeitgeist. The concept of turn-based strategy wasn’t so hot anymore with first person shooters and real time strategy taking over. Still sixteen years later, everyone who played the original back then, will only praise the game for what a really was: at least ten years ahead of its time. A perfect genre hybrid that could never be improved or even matched. X-COM symbolizes everything that’s badmouthed in todays gaming market. What today is considered a flaw, makes the game so unforgettable. When i played X-COM i was a console player. PC games were considered boring and too complex. I stick to X-COM cause the setting was so unique and well delivered.
The entry barrier of the game was and is pretty ruthless, especially for players unexperienced with the genre. For me the first two hours of the game were a constant stream of kicks and punches. There’s so much try & error here but it will reach a point were the brilliance of the game just clicks. After that X-COM delivers maybe the best single player experience i’ve ever played. Two elements are key for the unique impression of the game. There’s a perfect illusion of non-linearity combined with constant fear of mistakes. X-COM is so oldschool in that mistakes are permanent and game changing. I put dozens of hours into the game and not a single second made me feel really superior within the game. The RPG elements are flawless and maybe the single most advanced element way ahead of its time. Ordering new squad members and slowly building them up from useless rookies to one-man armies creates a personal connection to those tiny pixel creatures that is still unmatched. Losing a veteran member of the squad is a serious penalty but at the same time an effect caused by an error that always is player made.
While most elements of the game are random based, i never experienced an unfair situation. My squad fucked up cause i fucked up as a player. The random generated combat scenarios are the meat of the concept. Every fight is exploration of an unknown environment. Death really could be everywhere and mistakes will be punished. This concept today seems flawed with games getting easier and positive reinforcement is just one button press away. Congratulations for pressing the power-on button. Here’s your achievement! X-COM will kick your butt until you learned it the hard way…but then…oh then X-COM delivers something totally unique, something unmatched, something personal, something that really needs to be earned, something perfect. Its only play worthy sequel Terror from the Deep is even harder. I’ve yet to play against an AI that is so unforgivable. Terror reached points of frustration for me, that the first part always avoided.
The new XCOM lost its hyphen and its roots. After the horrible X-COM Enforcer this new game will be ♫drums♫ ….. a first person shooter because we just need another one. I don’t want to judge prior release but this new XCOM isn’t what i want. The first game is still perfect, it just needs a new surface and some design polish. Why damaging the franchise? Why using the term XCOM when delivering something fans don’t want? I know that todays generation of gamers can’t not embrace a game like the original X-COM anymore. They need bells and whistles and audio-visual orgasms for every single button press. What made X-COM great is considered to not having enough mass appeal today. I understand that. Leaving the franchise alone would be the right decision than, cause your audience for the XCOM FPS doesn’t even know the franchise. Everyone who does isn’t looking for a FPS reboot.
Let’s speculate some best case scenarios. I’m sure the reboot will scrap the ressource and management elements of the original. Combat will be the only focus. Two decent concepts come to mind especially considering a canned prototype of Bioshock developer and former 2K Boston studio Irrational Games. In one of their podcasts they talked about the hybrid of Rainbow Six and Left 4 Dead. To me this sounds like a fitting base for this XCOM. One thing will be key. A pure single-player XCOM will be different than a multi-player one. I’m convinced that turn-based combat is out but this was the most important tool to make the original X-COM work. Turn-based games have one serious advantage. The player alone becomes the conductor of the flow of the game. Tension only builds up by the players action, not by a scripted event. This tention can not be reproduced with real-time combat. It just can’t. When you press that “Finish turn” button in X-COM your emotions will go on a roller coaster ride. Hell and heaven never been closer together and i wonder if this is something they consider for the reboot.
In the end i like the reboot idea in general because it brings the name X-COM back to the market. It makes people talk about a sixteen year old game again that still holds up so damn well. There’s at least a dozens X-COM clones, commercial and non-commercial ones trying to capture the magic of the original. Every single one fails. This huge game made by a few people many years ago is a pure stroke of lucky genius. It made an impression to hundreds of thousands of players that sixteen years later share experiences online about what made X-COM so special. For me this maybe is more valuable than the reboot of the franchise i want.
X-COM also illustrates how much the industry really changed and it pretty much boils down to financials. The X-COM reboot i want can not be made by three guys during their holidays and your main target audience isn’t a teenager anymore, who can only afford a few games a year. When i played X-COM i was thirteen years old had lots of time to spare and a new game needed to last many weeks. In 2010 the average game consumer is over thirty and buys many more games. A pure visual X-COM reboot would be a financial risk. This concept no longer prints money. MMOs and shooter do. But in 1994 we did not have so many new and different, cheaper to develope for platforms like in 2010. A true X-COM reboot for a browser or an handheld doesn’t seem so far off to me. When this topic came up, i bought the original X-COM on Steam again and i play one hour an evening since then. It’s just as much fun as when i was thirteen. Maybe i wish for a X-COM reboot that’s unnecessary.