Five Ways That Firaxis Built a Better XCOM
Remakes are always tricky, but Firaxis beat the odds to deliver a phenomenal game with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Even those who have never touched an XCOM game before should give it a chance.
Remakes and reboots are a dicey business. Whether you're painstakingly modernizing a beloved classic for the next generation (see: Black Mesa) or engaging in slash-and-burn nostalgia farming to score a quick buck (see: TMNT Turtles in Time: Re-Shelled for XBLA), it's always a delicate balancing act. On one hand, if you stick too close to the original, you risk people realizing how poorly the gameplay of their favorite childhood title has aged. On the other hand, if you take too many liberties updating a cherished franchise, the Internet will spontaneously combust into a ceaseless bitch-fest regarding how much better the original was, and there's a good chance you'll burn for your sacrilege.
Consequently, I was a little hesitant when I heard that one of my favorite games of all time—Microprose's 1994 title XCOM: UFO Defense—was getting a reboot. Then, the other shoe dropped: the new 2K Games-published XCOM wasn't going to be an updated version of the classic tactical strategy game that devoured so many of my adolescent weekends. Instead, it was going to be a first-person shooter. It was official: XCOM had sold out.
Now in some imaginary, fairy-tale alternate universe, a representative from 2K would give me a call to respond to my obvious despair. In a soothing, kindly voice like that of Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, he'd say: "Don't worry, son... we're also going to publish another XCOM game. It'll be a carefully crafted turn-based strategy game that builds on the original while capturing the spirit of everything you loved as a kid."
However, against all odds, the alternate universe turned out to be this one, because this is what actually happened. I even heard ol' Red's voice in my mind as I read the press release. Even better, development of the game would be placed in the capable hands of Firaxis Games (home of Sid Meier and the renowned Civilization series).
By now, the perceptive reader will have gotten the impression that I'm very happy with the game that Firaxis produced. My satisfaction is with good reason, as XCOM: Enemy Unknown is thoughtfully designed and skillfully executed, making several bold changes to the formula while still feeling like the game I've loved for all these years. However, rather than continue to wax rhapsodic, I figured I would instead discuss five specific changes that make Enemy Unknown seem fresh and innovative, yet spiritually faithful to the original.
#1: Streamlined movement and combat systems
Like the original XCOM, all the gameplay in Enemy Unknown takes place in one of two settings. The first is the "world view", where you can manage your personnel and resources, and decide how to respond to threats like UFO detections, alien abductions, and terror attacks. The second is the "mission view", where your forces engage in turn-based tactical combat against a field of alien opponents.
In original game, each soldier began his or her turn in combat with a fixed budget of "action points", which could be carefully doled out for everything from walking to shooting to rearranging the grenades in your fanny pack. In Enemy Unknown, everyone gets to perform at most two movements, and/or one other action such as attacking or reloading.
One thing that compensates for this change is the new cover mechanic, wherein objects in the environment offer either full or half cover, allowing for combatants to be flanked depending on the direction of their protection. The result allows for combat that is just as tactically rich as the "action point" system, while being much faster paced and simpler to control. It also results in combat that looks and feels much more realistic and natural.
#2: Soldier classes and abilities
One of the concerns many fans had about Enemy Unknown was the reduced squad size. Instead of being able to roll in to a UFO crash site with enough grunts to fill out an active baseball roster, Enemy Unknown starts you with only four soldiers per mission, with the possibility of eventually upgrading to six.
Fortunately, the future soldier of 2015 is much more capable and versatile than the future soldier of 1999. For example, your troops in Enemy Unknown are assigned classes that allow them to perform specific roles, namely "Assault" (first strike run-and-gun critical hitters), "Heavy" (machine-gun wielding, rocket-launching human tanks), "Support" (tactical experts and field medics), and "Sniper" (headshotting angels of death). Moreover, as each soldier gains ranks, they can unlock special abilities such as improved defense and extra attacks. Late in the game, having a medic that can carry three medkits instead of one or a sniper that gets to take two shots in a turn can mean difference between your squad heading home victorious and your squad ending up a pile of melted plasma on the ground.
#3: Refined inventory management
Being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, in the original XCOM I used to fully enjoy the 20 minutes before each mission I spent manually placing every weapon, ammo clip, and grenade in every utility belt and backpack my soldiers were carrying. However, I'll concede it did hamper the pacing of the game somewhat. In Enemy Unknown, most of the minutia of inventory management are taken care of for you. For instance, each soldier is limited to two weapons determined by their class, as well as armor and one additional item (e.g. a grenade or medkit). While this may sound restrictive, I found it actually improved gameplay by forcing me to learn the nuances of each weapon type and to be a more careful how I used one-shot items like grenades.
The streamlined resource management extends to the meta-game as well. Gone are the days when you had to order individual missiles for your interceptors, or worry that your soldiers might storm into their next battle with plenty of guns but no ammunition. Such issues apparently are handled automatically by your underlings, leaving you to worry about more important matters like which technologies your labs should research, which vehicles and facilities you should spend your shoestring budget on, and most importantly, how to keep political pressures from tearing apart the uneasy international alliance whose funding keeps the lights on at XCOM central command.
#4: Overarching narrative
One of the things I loved most about the original game were the storylines that emerged directly from the gameplay, like surviving a challenging mission because one of your rookies nails a lucky shot, or botching a routine UFO recovery when one of your senior officers turns out to be a coward. Enemy Unknown has managed to re-create this part of the classic XCOM experience, and even enhanced it a bit with subtle touches like squad member nicknames and a memorial for fallen soldiers. (In fact, you can check out my squad's story in this blog post.)
However, Firaxis also has worked to give a sense of narrative to the campaign as a whole. Rather than trying to lead the human race to victory by randomly researching technologies and attacking every UFO in sight, you can listen to your advisors to get an idea of how all these pieces fit together and what primary objectives will move the plot along. As with the extended in-game tutorial (which spans many hours and multiple missions), Enemy Unknown manages to add this extra level of guidance with a light enough touch to keep it from becoming too much hand-holding.
#5: Updated visual design
Improving the look of a game is one of the most obvious things a remake can do. In fact, Enemy Unknown is somewhat modest in this respect, with graphics that are solid but certainly not state-of-the-art.
Where this remake really excels, though, is in its environments and atmosphere. Each mission is a vignette, conveying its own sense of a world under siege through each abandoned gas station, crumbling cemetery, and burned-out bookstore. Even when you finally start to cycle around to maps you've seen before, variables like weather will make them seem fresh.
What didn't work so well?
As a critic, I would be remiss if I didn't point out some of the places where the design of XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn't quite deliver. One of the things I found bothersome was that you can only shoot at hostile targets within your visual range. This limitation undermines some of my favorite classic XCOM plays, like shooting out a wall to get a better line-of-sight, or taking a Hail Mary shot from across the field.
Another issue is that when you first spot a group of aliens they're allowed an extra, instant move to take cover positions. Aside from being annoying, in close quarters you can end up with your squad standing idly by while a hulking Muton Berserker trots past your carefully organized defenses without encountering so much as a disapproving glance.
Oh... and I almost forgot to mention that the final level is pretty much total bullshit.
To wrap up this already way-too-long review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn't a perfect game, but it may be the best remake I've ever seen. Firaxis took on a huge challenge in updating one of the most beloved PC games in history, and they pretty much nailed it. It's so good that I could see myself never playing the original XCOM again... and when it comes to high praise for a remake, it doesn't get any higher than that.