XCOM: Enemy Unknown should have been a disaster. It’s a turn-based strategy title, a style of game its publisher said only last year was “just not contemporary“. It’s also a remake of a cult classic 1990s PC game, beloved by an audience so fickle that a modern version should be the most offensive entertainment product of the year.
Yet it is not. XCOM is, against the odds, a little bit special.
XCOM is about as perfect a remake of an old game as I could have hoped for, in that while changes have inevitably been made, they’re mostly for the better, and anything genuinely new introduced is only there to improve things.
At its heart, XCOM is still the same game that won hearts when the original was released in 1994, a near-perfect blend of strategic management and ground combat that puts you in command of Earth’s last line of defence against an alien invasion.
For half the game, you’re running a base, funding research, building new weapons, managing a fleet of fighter craft and generally trying to keep a small number of rich and powerful funding nations happy enough to keep on funding you. For the other half, you’re taking a small squad of soldiers out into the field for some turn-based combat.
The game’s changes, then, don’t affect XCOM‘s overall structure. They’re apparent when you notice a nip here, a tuck there, places where things now run smoother than they used to, in some cases, run a little too smoothly.
Two of the most important are the ways XCOM handles player feedback, and the way the game’s combat has been quietly revolutionised.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as this game was made by the same studio responsible for the mainstream-friendly civilisation series, this is as far from a “dry” strategy game as you’ll get. There are characters, dialogue and, best of all, a continued and palpable sense of progress, displayed by the frequent cutscenes seen around important breakthroughs. Your 19th scientific discovery may just be another ticked box on a menu screen, but when you see that it triggers a cutscene in which a room full of grown men cheer and high-five, you can’t help but feel a little pride.
Combat, meanwhile, may look the same, but it’s not. It’s now far more tactical and engaging, helped by a series of perks and abilities your soldiers possess, but mostly because of the way you interact with your surroundings. In the new XCOM, cover — previously important — is now everything. Those who have played Relic’s strategy games will be right at home, as your soldiers must make full use of cover for their own defence, and try and flank the enemy’s when in attack. If you don’t, you will die quickly, and horribly.
Which leads me to the game’s biggest achievement: its handling of your soldier’s lives (and deaths). The sense of attachment and mourning over lost soldiers was a big part of people’s love for the original, and those feelings will only be stronger for veterans of this 2012 campaign. You can customise almost every aspect of your soldier’s lives, from their names to their faces, armour colour schemes, weapons loadouts, even the abilities they gain as they level up.
This makes you love them while they’re alive, but in this game, death is around every corner. It doesn’t matter if a soldier has survived one mission or one hundred, they can all die in a single moment of inattentiveness. The feeling of loss once a veteran, beloved soldier goes down is crushing. In a good way. Not many games will take your best toys away from you so swiftly and permanently, and so not many games really force you to look after them and appreciate them as well as XCOM does.
I suppose as we near the end of this review I should tell you it’s not all high-fives and tears of remembrance. Combat can, despite its joys, start to feel like a chore 15 hours into a game, with no real way to take a break from it without suffering penalties. It can also feel a little too streamlined at times, which will be disappointing if you were hoping for a more open-ended experience like the original (build multiple bases, have full control over their floorplans, etc).
XCOM is one of the most important strategy games in years. It’s a great remake, sure, and that’s enough for most long-time fans, but for everyone else, know that this is a truly accessible strategy game. To the point where, if you own a Xbox 360 or PS3, you can play this with a controller and not miss a thing.
In the end, long after veteran XCOM players have appreciated the effort and moved on, that will hopefully be this game’s lasting achievement. That it took a project that only noisy, hardcore PC gamers should have cared about and, through window dressing, interface tweaks and some combat changes, turned it into a game that everyone can enjoy.