X-COM: Enemy Unknown, JJ Abrams Style

Many moons before Eve came out of beta and rapidly grew into the game we know and love today, there was another game that attracted spreadsheet nerds.  In 1994 X-Com was released.  To this day, it can be seen topping lists of the top video games ever.

It had a lot in common with Eve.  It started out riddled with bugs.  It was a massive, expansive game where you could enter combat anywhere on the globe.  It was very sandbox-like.  At the beginning, you died a lot.  The tutorial was non-existent and threw you into a game where you could basically do anything with a “good luck” kick in the pants.  The end-game play saw you equipped with fantastic weapons which allowed you to practically walk through levels, manhandling anyone who got in your way.  Despite your feeling of omnipotence, you would still rack up losses in unexpected twists.  And let’s not forget, the game had spaceships and big guns.  

The game came out of the same development company that made the Civilization and Master of Orion games.  Fast forward twelve years and Sid Meier’s new development house, Firaxis, picked up the IP for X-Com once more.  Six additional years have passed, but X-Com is now back in all of its massive, sprawling glory.  Coming up on the release of the new X-Com game, I took some time away from my more modern gaming to install the original X-Com, as well as the third game in the series, X-Com: Apocalypse, and run through them to the end.  I purposefully did not try Terror from the Deep as, even today, the nightmare-like crawls through cruise liners scared me off (for those who didn’t play the game, some levels would take multiple hours to complete simply because of the size of maps).  As each game, in turn, came to their unsatisfying conclusion, I began to worry.  These games had, by virtue of nostalgic memory and how much they stood out from other games of their era, been put on a pedestal.  A hard act to follow.  How can a new game meet those expectations?

I had put off downloading the demo, knowing that it was going to be a teaser that would only serve to test my patience further.  It was, but it was also pretty good.  It gave me a taste of some parts of the game while hinting at all the other stuff that I could look forward to.  It is not the same game as the original, at all, but it definitely is true to the spirit of X-Com.  The original X-Com is to this new release as Star Trek: The Motion Picture is to Star Trek: The JJ Abrams version.  Bigger budget, more action, more explosions, significantly better effects, a wider audience, and lots of shaky cams.  It is significantly more glammed up than the original and even comes with a tutorial, of sorts, where pretty much everyone dies.  One of the things that set X-COM apart was that the difficulty level could be jacked to the point of physical discomfort.  That is an experience that is once again promised.

Would you like it?  

Other than the simple answer of ‘it is a sci-fi game with spaceships and future weapons’, the game requires critical thinking on both strategic and tactical levels.  There are plenty of customizations and RPG-like elements that should leave even the best of the spreadsheet junkies giddy.  It is full of mechanics just begging to be understood and then exploited.  It is an expansive game that can be played however you want to play it.  Last, but not least, it is an unforgiving game where characters will die and allies will turn against you.  If you like dark sci-fi game settings, like Eve, this game just might interest you.

Now that it is out, let's dig into some more specifics.  The graphics have the same comic book feel of the old games, except they are significantly (obviously) upgraded.  The game is running on the aging Unreal 3 engine, but seems to have been modified enough to provide a modern game look.  The graphics can be cranked on any modern graphics card that didn't come out of an economy bin.  There are a few times early on in the game where you will notice this isn't exactly Crysis 2, but this detractor is minor and quickly swept away and forgotten as you get sucked into the gameplay.  

The graphics themselves were not meant to be a selling point for either the original nor this new version of X-Com.  Level design, however, is fantastic.  This 3rd person point of view, tactical game gives a nod to the cover-and-fire game play that has become the norm in FPS games.  Like much of the game, it comes with a twist.  Cover can be fired through with a high enough powered gun, if not completely obliterated, leaving the about-to-die person who had been hiding behind that wall completely out in the open.  That’s right - destroyable landscape, just like the original.  With enough firepower and willpower, you can flatten a map completely.  Lob a rocket at a building and watch all the aliens come scurrying out.  

When you aren't out blowing up aliens, your default view is your base (unlike the original game where you watch time pass as the sunset/sunrise terminous marches across the globe).  The base is best described as an ant farm.  It is a cross section map, rather than a more traditional top down map.  Structures in the base get bonuses depending on what structures they are next to, so there is an element of good planning that goes into the design of your base.  Rather than go into loads of detail, here's a picture:

The Gameplay

The original game had you running around shooting up aliens, doing research, and hoping the world governments were happy with you.  This game provides a situation room which gives you an idea of just how much China hates you for ignoring their most recent request.  The game features a slew of events, some of which require you to make a choice.  For instance, Germany, Mexico, and China may be under attack at the same time.  You only have the time to handle one attack.  Each offer different rewards for saving them.  The countries you do not save gain "panic" and the continent as a whole gains a small increase in "panic" as well.  Ignore a country too much and their panic goes through the roof, causing them to eventually side with the aliens.  As a result, you spend a fair amount of the game trying to balance the demands of all the major countries so none of them hate you too much.  Of course, X-Com being X-Com, the entire world swiftly ends up irritated with you.

I found South America, Asia, and Australia to be particularly unpleasant.  Their incentives are lackluster and their overall contributions were an insult.  But, keeping them from getting angry sure beats having to deal with an alien base being plopped down in their country.

I was running the game at classic difficulty, so everything was tight (there is one further level of difficulty above that).  I was constantly juggling research, finances, and panic.  Other than the losses forced on you by the tutorial, I had not lost any soldiers in the couple hours of play I have put in.  That is increasingly coming down to a case of luck, as the enemies are rapidly getting harder and my finances are so constrained that keeping my soldiers in top of the line gear is impossible.

X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a challenging game.  You will be constantly clawing your way through challenges while trying to juggle public opinion and, of course, killing aliens.  If you are looking for a challenge, give X-Com: Enemy Unknown a try.  Good luck.


Bagehi began playing Eve in 2003 briefly, then returned in 2006. He has been part of IAC, NC, SoCo, and HBC during that time. He has a thing for history, but mostly spends his time IRL in a corner office, staring at financial reports, like a MMD.