“19 years ago an alien invasion of Earth was thwarted by the gallant heroes of X-COM, today the battle resumes.”
In 1993 a young Corporal Jonlan stepped off the back of a Skyranger and followed his squad into combat, the battlefield was a countryside smallholding in the Midwest of the US. Unarmoured and undergunned the squad was not prepared for the next moments, green plasma flashed across the space between outbuildings and farmhouse, two troopers went down in the first volley while a third panicked and left his cover albeit briefly.
The three troopers left alive took two hours to creep around that farmhouse, Jonlan had the best route and reached the building relatively unscathed. Devlin however had been wounded by the sniper and despite a valiant effort he was picked off at the foot of the building. Jonlan threw a grenade at the upper floor where the enemy was holed up, the explosion did not kill the enemy, but did remove enough of the wall to give him a clear view of a Gray, before the final soldier riddled it with autofire.
Three weeks later newly promoted Captain Jonlan was killed in action along with four X-COM troopers when a Muton rocket landed on their Skyranger exit ramp.
Just like it did in 1993, X-COM teaches you something about loss. You nurture green troopers through missions, leading them and developing them as they blossom and grow, then they inevitably die at the hands of some alien creature. When Firaxis announced their X-COM reboot a pretty sizeable corner of the internet celebrated, this is a game that sits pretty in many memories, war stories are still recounted to this day and people will go to various lengths to get the old games running on modern hardware. The series, since Julian Gollop first made turn based strategy sexy with 8-bit Laser Squad (and Rebelstar Raiders before that) the original X-COM : UFO Defence has made it onto many platforms and saw a popular revision not so long ago with Laser Squad : Nemesis. Also well noted is the fact that any given top hundred games of the last twenty years will no doubt feature at least one of the X-COM games near the top end.
Back to today and a game that bucks the modern trend of big hitting first person shooter franchises, Firaxis have delivered a turn based strategy title that should be contending for game of the year. Viewed from the classic isometric perspective the game oozes quality, the depth of detail in the environments is spot on, the control system is smooth and quick and interspersing the action with mini cutscenes never gets in the way, they just add to the tension and drama as a skirmish unfolds.
The heart of any X-COM is back at base, managing your scarce resources and keeping your global sponsors happy, while choosing when and where to react to abductions or ufo attacks. Each decision will have consequences for you as the clock moves on. There are changes here in comparison to the old game, today’s base building is seen as an ‘ant-farm’ – a zoomed out perspective where accessing key facilities open up actions such as research. This works and while there were complaints about the loss of multiple bases around the world, there is more than enough going on in the game to keep you busy, especially now there is no need to worry about an invasion at that Cuban barracks that you never used.
X-COM offers plenty of options with research opening up different strategies, at lower levels it will be easier to have a wider approach and be able to upgrade equipment, Interceptors and facilities as required. At the harder levels this becomes critical to manage well and challenging to manage at all. An effective research program will offer up advances in weapons, armor and facilities, but it takes an expert balancing act of resources to take advantage of these new wonders. The vicious circle depends on your global support and the scientists or engineers they supply, not forgetting that successful missions will reward you with funding or tech personnel, making every away mission a critical one.
On the battlefield the game has done away with some of the detail of the original, but this has not been detrimental. By limiting available actions,making some character behaviors context sensitive and adding abilities based on rank I believe the developers have delivered an improvement without compromise. If there was one outstanding gripe, that would be the inability to scavenge items from a fallen comrade or enemy, when my last man with a grenade goes down to an opportunistic shot, I want to be able to retrieve that grenade and use it.
Once you sight one of the varied and exciting aliens a quick squeeze of the right trigger will bring up the combat menu and zoom into a third person view, from there a single option to shoot is offered plus other abilities that will end your turn. The shooting option does away with the old choices between snapfire, autofire or aimed shot, and it works well, in the interest of keeping the game moving the simple choice between firing or not, followed by a further move or overwatch mode hits the spot. There are also many abilities to buff each character once they have been promoted into a given path be it Sniper, Assault Trooper, Heavy or Support, as they rank up new skills come into play that can change the game immensely.
Because resources are limited and troopers that survive a few missions become familiar, it is too easy to become attached to them, the better they perform the more they will rise through the X-COM ranks, gaining special abilities along the way. All well and good until a few complacent or over confident decisions could see your squad decimated in a few short turns, there are lessons to be learnt here and they are not all game related.
X-COM offers a fair scale of difficulty to choose from, the icing on the cake being the Ironman setting, a take on the game where saves are not reloadable and when characters die, they are gone for good. This is the way to play X-COM, suffering defeat at the hands of the brutal AI certainly makes you appreciate both your wins and those mini personalities on your battlefield.
There is also an inevitable multiplayer mode, a great addition and a nod to the hot seat versus mode that gave Laser Squad an extended life. Set up mixed teams by spending and allocation of points and go crazy, what’s not to like? It is about time we got a thinking mans Deathmatch.
This game deserves to be one of the greater successes of 2012, bringing enough of the retro X-COM to satisfy those of us old enough to remember it and offering a fresh and exciting challenge to more recent generations. I know right now I’ll never get tired of seeing my troopers smashing windows to line up their shots, kicking in doors or racing to cover, if this was my only game this year I’d be a happy bunny.