XCom – When Reboots Go Right

Back in the day, one of the more popular and innovative strategy games was called X-Com: Enemy Unknown. It was sort of like two games in one, actually. In one, you managed a series of military and research bases to provide equipment and coverage to the planet in the face of an alien menace. In the other, you took soldiers with said equipment to go meet said menace face to face. It was a good and interesting game… and also brutally difficult. 

It’s no surprise that there’s been a trend, lately, for reboots of games from the ’90s. Folks my age that have wanted to see their treasured childhood games are now old enough to actually make that happen. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out so well. Other times it turns out brilliantly. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a good case of it going well. The new XCom is another.

The new edition of XCom does a great deal more to update the classic than just throw out new graphics, though said new graphics are really good. It also adds a bit more in the way of a story. It’ll be the same story every time (for a game with huge replayability potential, so you’ll be seeing it a lot), but that makes it feel like there’s more going on. It also has more varied missions to offer. In the original there were four types: Normal encounters, alien terror missions, invading alien bases, and friendly base defenses. Each essentially had the same objective, which was to kill all the aliens (and the terror missions added “save the civilians”). Now I have a mission where I need to collect a VIP and return them to the drop point. Or now I need to defuse an alien bomb. Or I need to capture a specific alien for study. And the terror missions are handled better so I can “rescue” civilians. It adds a lot more to the whole experience.

The combat mechanics are greatly simplified, yet without losing all the tactical options. The original was hard. Your treasured veteran soldiers would save you, but losing one was heartbreaking. Now, your veteran soldiers get new abilities rather than just upgraded stats. So losing them is harder. But the abilities add a lot of flexibility to it, which means you’re less pressed for time every single turn. Need to take out four at once with a rocket launcher? There’s a Heavy for that! 

Another huge bonus is that the micromanagement is significantly lessened, both in combat and at the base. Ammo is automatically available so you don’t have to stack a soldier with loads of it. Certain special weapons are automatically given to certain classes, so you don’t have to micromanage the rocket launchers, for instance. On the other hand, there’s more management involved in research and production, as even researching materials requires available resources. Want to research plasma weapons? You need a weapon AND the allows AND the elerium etc. That gets frustrating and slows down your dedicated research base.

I kinda wish they’d stayed closer to the original designs for the aliens, though. It’s not like they’re not great now, but that above all else hurts the old XCom feel. The floaters look a lot cooler than their older counterparts, as do the mutons, but it’s just not the same, you know? The Snakemen’s replacement looks awesome but appears to be meant to take on a totally different role. The new Chrysalid looks terrible, though. These are minor complaints, ultimately. Each of these designs would stand up on their own with no issues if I wasn’t comparing them to their old style. 

All in all I’m exceptionally pleased with it. It properly captures the tension of the first game without keeping it stupid-complicated. That’s often pretty difficult for a reboot, especially one that’s trying to cover such a classic while maintaining the moronic difficulty levels thereof.