The year 2012 will quite appropriately (at least when asking your fellow Mayan) be all about the end of the world. One fashionable and rather exciting way to go would be an alien invasion. Ever since the alien scares of the 1950s, humanity has been obsessed with little grey men with large eyes and problems to find hats in the right size, pushing over cows, having anal sex with people and causing all sorts of other general mayhem (as well as showing an interest in backwater towns in America).
The XCOM games are probably still the best way to play out the alien invasion scenario on a home computer to this day.
The first game, XCOM - Enemy unknown, enjoys a devoted cult following due to its slick game design, interesting story and creepy atmosphere. Unfortunately, the follow-up games in the series never quite reached the same level of quality, despite an unusual and brave decision to set the sequel in the underwater realm. The second game (Terror from the Deep) is widely considered the ugly step-brother of the first game or something that you keep in the bottom drawer of your room (now who can guess what I have in my bedroom drawer, eh ?).
Steam recently put the whole XCOM-series on sale (including the spin-off games) and I highly recommend picking it up to gear up for the year of XCOM revivals.
As it is the way in the world of business, the very successful XCOM game(s) spawned many imitators, all of which more or less stuck to the formula and there are even some similar games in development scheduled for a 2012 release. Some of these titles include UFO:Aftermath, UFO:Extraterrestrials or Xenonauts (a promising game still in development). There have also been attempts to recreate the isometric squad-based formula in other settings in order to be sufficiently original and different from the UFO games.
Let's take Abomination for example, quite the abomination of a game indeed about a bunch of heroic mutants trying to save a city from a crazy cult. While not the worst game in the history of gaming, it is certainly no joyride and the controls make it quite hard to endure. However, it does have some interesting ideas, such as special powers for the individual characters and a non-linear storyline with random missions thrown in for good measure.
Or how about the virtually unknown little gem of a game called Shadow Watch ? A game that is actually based in the Tom Clancy universe (oddly enough, this circumstance has not been used in its marketing), comes along with gorgeous (!) visuals and solid gameplay, yet went more or less unnoticed and is pretty hard and nigh impossible to track down unless you pirate it from one of the usual suspect sites.
To cut a short story even shorter, I think we can all agree that there are many games that have been inspired by the XCOM series and that no game has managed to live up to the expectations or even surpass the quality of the first game. That being said, let's not be too unrealistic and delusional about the fact that XCOM itself did not invent the concept of squad-based / turn-based strategy in the first place, but it certainly mixed things up by adding a layer of macromanagement and base building to the genre as well as coating the whole shebang with an interesting and engaging theme.
Last year, 2K announced that they would release a new game in the XCOM franchise or a 'reboot' (to use one of the prevalent terms in pop culture). One of the first things to come to mind had been the unusual frequency with which terms like re-imagination and modernisation popped up all over the articles concerned with the new game in the alien-hunting franchise. Nostalgians all over the Internet shook their virtual fists in outrage over the fact that XCOM would be a FPS-game, even though it would still retain some of the original ideas (being squad-based, featuring a base etc.). Furthermore, the game is set in the 1950s and chronicles the origin of the XCOM organisation. This would not remain the only beloved squad-based franchise to be announced as a FPS remake, some time later, a new Syndicate-game was announced . . . also and FPS-remake.
Now hold your horses everyone, we cannot expect the industry and fancy developers like 2K not to go along with the dominant industry paradigm and it should not be a surprise to many (maybe older) gamers that it is common for the paradigm to shift from one generation to the other. Remember the transition from text-adventure to parser adventures (text-based commands) to the icon-based controls and ultimately the transition to 3D with Grim Fandango or even earlier with games such as Alone in the Dark or Ecstatica ?
The same goes for RPG games, I have fond memories of the well-sorted RPG-game screen with the first-person dungeon view taking over the most part of the screen, the convenienct and quite evocative party manager located in the bottom,top or right-hand side of the screen and all sorts of buttons and scrolls and bells and whistles spread across the rest of the screen. Then we had the console-dominated top-down view, followed by the good ole' isometric perspective used in many Hack & Slash games and immortalised by the Diablo series and now its mostly 3rd person or mixture of first and 3rd person (The Witcher, Skyrim, Mass Effect, WOW etc.) In fact, you can trace this whole development when looking at one of the most legendary and best RPG series ever, the Ultima series. The first few games were rogue-like adventure games, followed by games in top-down perspective and better graphics, isometric perspectives in Ultima VII and Ultima Online (RIP Lord British) and the newer games following the more modern formulas of visual depiction.
Now all I am trying to say is that the old games were great for what they were but we have to try and accept the new games for what they are trying to do as well and it is a commercial venture after all. And not all is bad for the new XCOM franchise, the visuals look stunning and like an interesting stylized version of Norman Rockwell paintings and old American interior catalogues, a blend of TF2 quirkiness and LA Noire's love for vintage detail. I think alien invasion themes work best in the 1950s, infused with the general scare of the nuclear threat and the explosion of popular sci-fiction.
The game will also take a non-linear and non-railgun approach to the game, missions will pop up on the map or in the HQ and you will send squads into the field to gather data and defeat the aliens. The designers made a bold decision to make away with the stereotypes and create an unique visual approach to the 'alien' race by making them some sort of gooey black soup flying around in cubicles. While that might disappoint some genre-enthusiasts, it is a good decision in terms of IP-value, making the game more unique and stand out from the common alien fare. I think one thing the new game will borrow from the old XCOM games is the pacing and the structure in which the story will unfold, beginning with reconnaissance missions, the game will become more and more about stealing alien technologies and ultimately defeating the slimy bastards with their own set of cutlery. Take that, bowl of black ink ! The squad-based concept also promises interesting multilayer skirmishes and I wonder whether the developers have the foresight to make the whole campaign playable as a team (Imagine playing through a whole strategic/FPS campaign with your friends!), to me, that sounds like Left 4 Dead meets XCOM ! Make it happen. In fact, I wonder why not more L4D-clones are coming out ? What gives gaming industry ? Aliens: Colonial Marines seems to be the most promising heir to the throne. The studio behind the new XCOM game is 2K Marlin, the muscle behind the first two BioShock games and I think they will get the job done, they already showed their knack for creating haunting atmospheres by evoking a fearsome blend of vintage-Americana mixed with dystopia fantasies (now that is a mouthful right there).
But that is not all news coming from the earth-defending camp that is 2K. It has just been announced that there is another XCOM game in development, by none other than Firaxis, Sid Meier's new stomping grounds (although he seems to take a back seat as far as the actual game design is concerned).
Better known for recycling Sid Meier's old games, Pirates, Colonisation and Civilisation with varying results, XCOM is an unusual detour from their formula and I wonder whether the decision derived from being bored with making the same game over and over again or the publisher's pressure to find a studio to take on the squad-based legacy of the franchise. Be that as it may, it remains to be seen what Firaxis will be able to do with the franchise. While their games are usually polished and fun, I have to say that they are far from being visionaries and the unusual and out-of-the-blue announcement of a new XCOM-Squad game sounds like bringing the red-haired stepchild to the birthday party, a necessity rather than a convenience.
It is quite an unusual decision for a publisher to release two games in the same franchise in the same year (Firaxis' XCOM is scheduled to be released in Fall, while XCOM has no release date, although many strores list it as early 2012, which is probably outdated information).
Some other game companies did similar things in order to promote their games, such happened with Bioware and the Dragon Age franchise, for which a Facebook game has been released (DA: Legends). Yet, all the efforts to cross-market the Dragon Age franchise through games on other platforms, tabletob games or involving the enchanting Felicia Day cannot shake off the whiff of viral marketing, rather than being full-fledged games in their own right. Yet, 2K seems serious about releasing two games that, apart from the legacy, don't go hand-in-hand at all. I wonder whether this decision was made in the very beginning or only after the outrage by the fans about how the new XCOM game would be a FPS games. Maybe 2K wanted to kill two birds with one stone, both reinvent the franchise but also 'cash-in' on the nostalgia surrounding the first title. The fact that the development time for the Firaxis XCOM game seems so short suggests that it will not be a triple AAA production at all, but rather a polished update but ultimately conservative game, paying its respects to the old XCOM game(s).
The question is, how hard can it be to make a new game based on a fantastic and working design in the first place - should not be too hard eh ? No one is asking you to re-invent the wheel, yet the fact that no other game ever managed to capture the spirit of the original game speaks volumes. Hold on to the squad-based formula, research, technologies, geoscape and base-building and you will have yourself a winner. Whatever you do Firaxis (and I am looking sharply at all the visuals from your other games), don't make the art style slightly cartoonish and family friendly. The original XCOM game(s) scared the living daylight out of me as a young lad and I look forward to being scared again, be it by liquid liquorice or isometric little fuckers, I cannot wait for the two games to come out, whosawitme !?