XCOM Isn’t Dumbed Down For Consoles, It’s Smartened Up

Every time a classic PC game is moved over to consoles, we tend to hear the same worries: It’s been dumbed down; it’s oversimplifed, rendered toothless and worthless. When XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released on both PC and consoles, it would have been easy to jump to the same conclusions.

And in many ways, XCOM has indeed been greatly simplified when compared to its PC predecessor. You’ll only have one base, only a few mission variants, and most crucially, action points have been removed. But the end result isn’t a dumber, casual-friendly version of the X-Com we all know and love. From top to bottom, it’s a smarter, more economical and gripping game. Firaxis somehow managed to keep the essence of XCOM while still making it simple enough to be managed with a controller.

When I first started up the preview code of Enemy Unknown, I just thought of it as a PC game. I didn’t really think through how a controller would work, or think much about the console versions at all. However, I’d moved my PC over to the TV to play that game’s super good PC version on the big screen. I wanted to play XCOM, so I figured I’d try it with a controller. I was amazed.

This game works just fine with a controller, which makes me happy to recommend it to anyone, regardless of platform. (This is good, because I like recommending XCOM to everyone I possibly can.) In fact, some aspects of the game work better with a controller, particularly the finicky grenade-throwing and level-switching.

The key is that the most complicated machinations take place in your brain and aren’t represented by on-screen nomenclature. In what order should I move my team? Can I damage this enemy enough that an un-covered attack will kill it? Shall I heal first, then move, or move, then heal? When should my team reload?

In this smart, spot-on article at Gamespy, Rob Zacny breaks down the way XCOM‘s strategy works, and how, in his words, “Granularity isn’t greatness.” Zacny points out that as much as he likes the moves granular systems let him pull in games like X-Com: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance 2, there’s actually a point of diminishing returns for granularity. In reality, he tends to think in broader strokes like the ones represented in Enemy Unknown.

XCOM:EU may be simpler, but the problems I’m using its tools to solve are as thorny as those I’ve encountered in more hardcore wargames. You can move and take an action, or you can move far and take no action. This is pretty much the same choice I face 95% of the time in a wargame. The difference is that XCOM:EU expresses it simply as a “run, or take a smaller move and shoot.” A more “serious” game expresses the same dilemma as “use 13 points for movement and crouch for 1, or use 6 points for movement and take a shot for 8.” XCOM:EU never wants you to spend your time worrying about those numbers and counting spaces; it just wants you to move from tradeoff to tradeoff. That might give you less freedom and fine control over your troops, but it also means that XCOM:EU moves along as a great pace, as opposed to the occasional tedium that could mire Jagged Alliance and old X-COM.

I’m right there with Zacny — I’m amazed at how complex and smart XCOM is, whether I’ve got a mouse and keyboard in my hand, or a controller.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Alleged “Dumbing Down” of Strategy Games [GameSpy]

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