This year has been one of sequels, for all sorts of reasons – major publishers have achieved a coup with the acquisition of rights for, and the management will to embark on, sequels to all manner of back-of-indie-game-shop classics; among them the rights to XCOM, beloved turn-based tactical strategy of retro gamers everywhere. In fact, it’s so beloved it has spawned not one but two successors: X-COM, the Fifties noir sci-fi FPS; and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, an unashamedly faithful modernisation of a game that, until I sat down to play Firaxis’ take on things, I was convinced would never fly either as a remake or a spiritual successor. Surprisingly, perhaps to everyone, XCOM might be both.
In updating any Nineties classic, there are a few standard pitfalls: vertical learning curves, nonexistent or laughably poor tutorials, a reliance on the player being wise enough to read the manual – which would be an actual printed one – before playing, and a checkpoint system that ranges between capricious and nonexistent are all pains that the modern gamer has been rightly spared, and XCOM is perhaps over-cautious in this regard, with an opening forty minutes of extended, near-universal tutorial gameplay spanning all three of the singleplayer missions on show at Gamescom, but for the new player and especially the console player that 2K are aiming at, an expansive tutorial is welcome: there hasn’t been anything like XCOM on consoles in the last five years, and in keeping one eye on their source matter, Firaxis have retained a wealth of complexity and subtlety, while adding both an interface which holds up in the light of modern games, and their own layers of yet more tactical depth. Throwing the player in at the deep end was fine when the game wasn’t up against a swathe of altogether bigger titles: now, the gradual introduction of depth and complexity is a matter of crucial importance, and to its credit, XCOM’s extended tutorial segment is definitely an enjoyable one, and while the lessons continue, the training wheels come off as soon as the first mission is over – a whole-squad wipe (and accompanying failure) is entirely possible, and in an XCOM game, that usually means a return to the mission screen to head out again on something different, with a rather greener and less-capable team, because this is not a game where failure means reloading (unless you’re like that) – instead, it’s the squad-based-tactics version of an open world game, where mistakes are as important as victories. And in XCOM, a mistake can turn into a debacle can turn into a disastrous clusterfuck as you’re left with one veteran pinning three Sectoids down as the rescued abductee runs for the extraction Skyranger.
Perversely, XCOM’s turn-based play ratchets up tension in a way that a real-time game could never do: every turn is a knife-edge tradeoff of high- and low-risk strategies. Screwing up is never a mistake of reactions or reflexes: every (permanent) death is, absolutely, your fault. And as a result, outwitting the AI – which was perhaps the only low point in the previews that 2K have shown, demonstrating a disappointing lack of flexibility or aggression – is all the sweeter: the four-moves-at-once chess game that is a tactical strategy is as much a puzzle with pieces to move as an action game. In an inspired move, though, Enemy Unknown avoids the pitfall of older turn-based games by using a full 3D engine, and end-of-turn micro-cutscenes rendered in-game, to pull into a hybrid of Gears-style over-the-shoulder camera shots and Fallout 3’s VATS action camera: rather than lacklustre (or not, in the case of rocket launchers) explosions viewed from an isometric perspective, the destruction that a team of XCOM supersoldiers and their alien adversaries visit upon each other and the landscape is something witnessed up-close, without being intrusive.
XCOM is most assuredly not a game for everyone, but it promises rewards to anyone with the patience and temperament to let their battles play out slowly – except in multiplayer, where thinking fast is the order of the day, since turns are played out on the clock. Needless to say, it looks to be a slow burner but a contender for a modern classic.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out on October 12th, on PC, 360 and PS3