Monday, October 8, 2012

XCOM: Then... (1994 Microprose)

Tonight at just before midnight, one of my most anticipated games of the year is releasing. That's a bold statement in a fall that is so packed with amazing game releases for PC and consoles that even someone without a job or school commitments can't possibly make the time to play everything. When XCOM: Enemy Unknown arrives, I expect that my time with the other fall releases, as well as the games I still have from the Summer Sale that didn't get the time they deserve will come to an abrupt halt. I've spent a week watching videos and reading reviews. I'll give a full review of the 2012 XCOM once I've emerged from a likely weeklong bender playing it. To understand why I am so hyped for this game, you have to look at the game it is a remake of, 1994's X-Com: UFO Defense (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe.)

The Global Geoscope view is, along with base-building and the tactical combat, 1/3 of the X-Com experience.

Most games from almost 20 years ago don't hold up very well. Even if you can get past the dated graphics of years gone by, when you take off the rose-tinted glasses, gameplay has come a long way. The original X-Com is still compelling, still brutally difficult, and still fun if you can actually manage the downright hostile user interface. I've made my love of turn based strategy well known, between Jagged Alliance and Civilization I've spent countless hours planning, plotting and fighting battles one turn or action point at a time. Xcom is a game that I realize even now I've never gotten very good at. In the year 1999, Aliens invade and the Earth pools its money to fund a global organization to combat the threat. The situation is near-hopeless, but you are the last hope for humanity.

I can say that with many hours into the game, I've never won. I am still challenged even on beginner difficulty in a game that has veteran players modding it to further increase the challenge. X-Com does not tailor itself to the player, from the beginning, the aliens are playing to win, independent of your skill or decisions. Globally, you have to manage bases, respond to threats and learn where the aliens are and what they want. You fight on the ground with normal human troops each with unique names and statistics over landed UFOs or crashed ones you've shot down. Capturing alien technology for research, figuring out where alien bases are, even capturing live specimens for study are goals from day one, and even surviving the aliens is a challenge.

Inside an enemy spaceship, the squad from an Escapist Magazine forum's Let's Play
faces a dreaded Chryssalid. Zombification imminent.

Your soldiers get better with time, but against alien weaponry they die. Even once armor has been researched and produced, and you have energy weapons at your disposal, in a single turn a soldier can be killed, and death is permanent. Every battlefield is procedurally generated, all terrain (aside from UFO walls is destroyable, and if you have the action points, you can issue a wide variety of orders to the troops. Grenades, rocket launchers, and stun batons supplement conventional weaponry, and tanks can be loaded into transports to assist your troops. If a psionic alien can be captured alive while it is mind controlling your troops to drop grenades into the middle of the squad, psychic powers can be researched, and psi-soldiers trained.

The new game has big shoes to fill. Along with Sid Meier's Civilization, X-Com was one of the titles that made Microprose huge in the 1990s. Luckily, Sid Meier's own studio, Firaxis Games has taken up the challenge, and I look forward tonight to seeing Sectoids mind-control my hapless squaddies while Cyberdisks move in for the kill and Chryssalids happily turn civilians into zombies to panic and terrorize the citizens of a likely doomed Earth. Should be a lot of fun.
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