This is the story of the videogame franchise that taught me me everything I know about aliens, and space.
Ok, not really. But close enough.
UFO: Enemy Unknown (known in America as X-COM: UFO Defense to attract fans of 1993’s tv series “The X-Files“) was released in 1994 by MicroProse for DOS and Amiga (ahhh, sweet memories). To make things even a little bit more confusing, the Playstation version was called X-COM: Enemy Unknown.
And it was like, finally! Everything every science fiction, UFO, space marines lover wanted to see. And all in one package!
The player took the role of the commander of X-COM, a secret international organisation with the task of defending Earth from an alien invasion. Something like a SPECTRE for good guys. During the course of the game, you would end up building (and defending) several secret bases across the world, hire scientists to research new technology and understand the alien secrets, dispatch fighters to intercept UFOs, and send out squads on tactical missions to stop the aliens’ evil plans for world domination.
The game had an amazing success. It was a unique and addictive mix of strategy, resource management, tactical combat, science fiction with a great level of detail, and was able to appeal to a very wide audience. It was praised by IGN “best PC game of all time” until 2007.
It combined many tropes of the “Alien” genre, conspiracy theories, a lot of X-Files flavour, a unique atmosphere between horror and sci-fi, and a manga feel-look that was fresh and appealing, recalling of classic Japanese cartoons that helped to raise a couple of generations until then.
And was able to put together several different game styles at once. The live-action aereal combat with UFOs,
the tactical turn-based missions when you sent out your squaddies into the unknown,
combined with elements of strategy, base management and scientific research
that were not alien (ah, ah, pun intended) to video game lovers of the time. MicroProse was also the publisher of the first Civilization 1991 game (which still holds the first place in my personal ranking here).
I literally adored this game, and I have played it until very recently. It could be hard: aliens were tough! And they had an amazing sense for obliterating an entire team of your squaddies when you made just one little tactic mistake.
But then, the rewards were so exciting. You could literally go from a single-base organisation, with one jet fighter, just a few unexperienced recruits and resources enough to get to the end of the month, into a planet-spanning super network with multiple bases, parallel research projects carried out at the same time, and ultra elite soldiers equipped with flying powered armor and ultratech weapons!
The feeling of keeping together an international combat force was emphasised by the presence of soldiers from all over the world, with (limited, of course) differences in their looks.
The strategic aspects of the game were really developed, with a big inventory to manage, weapons to choose from, different ammo types (armor piercing, explosive rounds, rockets, etc) and a lot of goodies to play with. Frankly, it was sometimes overwhelming.
As I said, the game was hard. It was very rewarding to achieve success,
but at the same time failure was always just a few steps away.
In case of defeat, Earth would surrender to the alien threat. With such an epic “game over” sequence, that was worth losing a game just to see it. But I mean, can you imagine being responsible of this?
My score: 9.5 / 10. Hours and hours of great gameplay. For YEARS.
The game had an impressive number of follow-up attempts. The first I remember was UFO (or X-COM): Terror from the Deep which was basically exactly the same game, just set under water.
Only much more difficult! To the point that often I would just quit a game out of frustration, and go back to play the original one. Of course, this means I missed the opportunity to deal with creatures like the Tentaculat:
but all in all, I think I can live with it.
Many other games belonging more or less to the franchise followed over the years, none of which managed to reach the same glory of the first one. Which feels a bit sad, no?
Until, in 2012, it happened:
Firaxis Games (again, those who develop Civilization games today) took over the challenge and delivered! The reboot-remake of the franchise was a total splendor, with many of the classic game’s features, in a very modern mix, packed with action, epic music and great stuff.
Super acclaimed, it was an insta-win for old time fans of the series, who just couldn’t wait to see it restored to its former glory, as well as for modern players who liked to step up to the challenge.
The story was the same. Earth was under attack, and the last line of defense was built around a semi-secret organisation with limited funding and desperate resources: X-Com. And who is called to be in charge? But you, of course.
All the elements were there, with a few changes due to the fact that, well, 20 years of videogames history had passed.
Aerial combat, more streamlined and with sexier graphics,
the monthly Council meetings on which your budget allowance would depend,
And your subterranean base, now with a 3D feel and realism, unthinkable of course in the 90s.
And the action! The turn-based action was still there, but the tactical missions were in a 3D environment, with modern camera action able to create an amazing feeling of immersion in the scene.
Old time hardcore fans regretted the now-limited choice of weapons and inventory management. True, but
old time hardcores always find something to complain about times are really different now in terms of gaming and fewer options mean a more streamlined, adrenalinic action.
You were just too busy dodging plasma-charged alien blasts and hiding behind ready-to-explode cars, to feel nostalgic about the past.
Also gone was the possibility of having multiple bases on Earth, in favour of a single one – from the position of which will depend a unique bonus available during the game. It’s a pity, but it’s done in favour of a more linear narrative. With just one base to defend, you really want to make sure it’s safe from harm. And in case the aliens attack it, what followed was a really epic against-all-odds struggle for survival.
The scientific research was still there, of course, with now new opportunities in terms of realism. Interrogating a living, captured alien has never been so much intense.
And the aspect that improved the most from the reboot was probably the capacity to personalise and manage all the soldiers, giving each of them unique features and abilities able to turn each of your squaddies into a specific person.
As weird as it could sound, you ended up really developing an emotional attachment to each of your guys, as the game and the story progressed and they were able to unlock new skills, but also to radically change – developing psionic powers, genetic mutations or turning into hulking cybernetic soldiers were all options in the later game. X-Com or X-Men?
In short, the game was really GREAT. Not for the faint of heart, still with a challenging level of difficulty, and a lot, lot of material to chew on.
My score: 9 / 10 (9.5 with full expansions and DLC).
It successfully inspired also a board game version, inspired to the same game mechanic and with a similar adrenaline-filled gameplay. I enjoy playing it from time to time.
And we get finally to the latest chapter of the series. Just a month ago or so (February 2016) the new X-Com 2 has been released, by the same team of the successful 2012 game.
This time the plot is different: the scene is set in a near-future, when the Earth has surrendered to the first alien invasion, and humans and aliens somehow share life of Earth.
A new collaborationist global government exists, with the purpose of keeping people happy and cooperative.
But X-Com is reborn, this time as a clandestine resistance movement, and with the objective of unmasking the new evil alien plot (because they always have an evil plot), overthrowing the big-brother style government, and restoring freedom. Or, at least, the freedom we enjoy today.
So, the game starts. This time you don’t even have a base, since all your operations are hosted on a mobile huge UFO of alien origin. You literally fly from one region to the next, bringing all your staff and equipment with you. Cool idea.
The gameplay is very similar to the X-Com of 2012 (yes, maybe too much). Faster and even more action packed, to reproduce the feeling of urgency that a
terrorist no wait, partisan no wait, freedom-fighter movement has to have, especially when facing a global, super technological regime. But very similar nonetheless. And this is a bit of a pity, because I was frankly expecting some amazing innovations or creative new game options.
None of that. Which is not entirely a bad thing of course. This really feels as a follow-up, not a full reboot.
The soldier classes have been re-mastered a bit, with new abilities and options, and all in all they feel really balanced and fun to play, with many different abilities to choose from.
Except this time there are more enemies, and of different kind. Robots, alien creatures, and a few in-between:
Worth of note is the fact that graphics have been really enhanced. The game is now really beautiful to look at.
Science and engineering are pretty much still there. They do their job nicely, but with no big surprise from the previous installments of the franchise.
Weapons blow up stuff (and organics) more than ever, since the environments (now procedurally generated, which means created by algorithm before each mission) are more diverse and destructible than before, and after many battles you will have the feeling of leaving behind you nothing more than a pile of smoking rubble. Which is always nice.
So how is the new game?
Uhhh… Not really new – but deeper. The character creation and personalisation options are huge. You get to customise each of your soldiers to a level never seen before, including speech, facial features, tattoos and scars, and even their personalities.
It’s fun to start with a soldier who is “laid back” and then decide, after a particularly traumatic mission, to disfigure his face with a huge scar and change his attitude into “paranoid”. There is no effect on gameplay of course, but it’s nice to have these options available, and they add a lot to the fun.
And a lot has been invested to develop the feeling of immersion and “being there” with your crews. Detailed pre-mission sessions, while you assemble and equip each unit (equipment can be customised more now),
and follow them in battle, nervously waiting for the drop, with the last mission briefing,
up until the after-action reports, which show you the (surviving) veterans heading back home, with their expressions and actions reflecting how the mission went (from euphoria to desperation), and statistics on screen to review their performance.
The space left to modding and community generated content seems very promising.
A lot of options started pouring in right after the game release, from pre-generated celebrity looking characters free for you to import,
to the possibility of modding your team looks or equipment, so to better suit all tastes.
My final verdict on the new game?
It is good. In my opinion not the best X-Com game ever, but the newest. With all that it means. Once I start playing it, the familiar “one more turn” OCD kicks in, and next thing I know, it’s 4 AM. It is fun, stimulating, and keeps you always engaged and on the edge of your seat.
A few shortcomings are a bit disappointing, like the lack of overall really really ridiculously new content (the research options and equipment range will feel limited quite soon, if you are a veteran of the franchise), and the generally limited freedom of action.
Yes, you can choose the order in which you take each mission, but the overall story is very streamlined, so don’t expect surprises after the first half of the game. The risk of failure exists, and then again, mostly in the early game phases. Then, as you go from one mission to the next, your soldiers will get experienced and your workshop will start pouring out kick-ass equipment, until you can confront face to face even the scariest alien horror.
On the other hand, the missions are varied enough – including saving (or killing) a VIP, “capture the flag” scenarios, sabotage runs, protecting civilians against alien retailation, and more – and I appreciated the freedom that the random generated maps and events offer. The gameplay – following the model developed for the boardgame – includes now a host of random generated events that can radically alter the course of a single game. As a result, you will never play the same exact game twice, or even the same mission.
A few choices are understandable, but feel sad. Like, no more aerial combat. Or no more capturing live aliens (and interrogating them). All in the name of a more linear game experience.
As I said, I understand these are developers’ choices. And somehow they spoil the fun by limiting the gameplay options. This is mostly what disappointed some of the fans of the series.
But on the other hand, once again, all the customisation options are a goodness, really. I cannot get tired of creating new characters, just for the sake of it, and throwing them in the fray to see how they deal with action. Your X-COM base has never felt so much alive, and if anything, at the end you will be sorry the game is over. Already?
As new modded content keeps coming in, it will only get better. Sure, a general impression of “the game could have been developed for one more month, or two” is justified, but it’s a common aspect of all multi-million dollar productions today. Patches will do their jobs, as will good-willing modders and players.
The game offers less variety than the X-Com with full expansions and DLC (namely, no genetic mutations and cyborg… yet) but this is also a feature that modern gaming has to deal with. There will be DLCs – we can only hope that not all the content will have a price tag on it – and they will enrich and improve what is already a compelling, fun and action-packed game. And very beautiful to look at. So once again we can proudly say: “Good luck, Commander!”
My score: 8 / 10 (8.5 once you start playing with the mods).