The beginning and the end.
There are some memories that just never leave you and are vivid as the day they happened. In the year of 1994 I can still see my sixteen year old self typing a well rehearsed DOS prompt into my computer and loading into UFO Enemy Unknown. I could have typed that command line in my sleep and often did when still dreary from playing through the night.
For those who don't live in a bunker there's been a bit of a zombie invasion as of late: books, films, comics and of course the games industry. In 1994 a similar infatuation was happening but this time it was for the ever popular theory of extraterrestrial life. The year before UFO was released from Microprose the legendary cult series X-Files launched onto the small screen and they really couldn't have timed it better. UFO sightings were at their highest for years and it seemed the world really did want to believe.
So what is it about this simple turn based strategy game that makes it the single best computer game I've ever played?
Base down like this..
The basic idea is that you take over an agency funded by the governments of the world to assess and engage the alien incursion on to our planet. Your time is split between the geosphere, base management and the isometric battlegrounds. There are many facets of the management side of the game, from researching aliens/alien tech, producing your own tech based on this research and expanding your base with various structures. At the end of every month you are given feedback from the council of nations and it's here you can either rise or fall. Do well and your funding goes up, scientists and engineers are drafted in and you get a very nice pat on the head. However if you fail to deal with UFOs, allow aliens to terrorise a nation or just drop a bollock in the battles you can lose funding and even have nations pull support altogether.
It was in the isometric battles that you would spend most of your time and it was here you could find that legendary tension the series is known for. You had a set number of action points and a set of actions which use them up: move, reload, fire etc. You would take your turn and then the aliens could take theirs. It was almost like a very elaborate chess set and maybe me being an avid chess player was why the game held such fascination for me. The mission types vary: if you managed to shoot down an alien UFO you could investigate the crash site; if a city was being terrorised you had to set down and rescue the citizens (while putting holes in your new space chums), and so on. For me what made these battles so tense was the 'systems' in place. If you used explosives then walls would collapse, fire could catch and spread, there was even smoke inhalation to consider.
A very good friend of mine was also playing UFO at the same time I was and we would talk about it incessantly. See, UFO gave you the option to put yourself and whomever else you wished into the game, as your brave soldiers could/can be renamed. After a few months had passed you would (hopefully have a few survivors) who would increase in skill and combat effectiveness and you would then feel like you dared add someone's name who you knew into the game. It was common for me to inform my friend that he had died the previous night when a alien grenade had gone off in his face.
Improving on perfection
After a fantastic reception the developers went on to release a sequel to UFO, know as X-com: Terror from the Deep. The games structure remained largely the same but this time around with a story which had the aliens attacking from our oceans and not the void of space. I found this second game to be every bit as tantalising as its predecessor, not only because this was my all time favourite game in a new setting, but there were far more mission types and design triumphs. While my heart will always choose the original UFO if I had to play one it would always be TFTD.
The dark years.
It seemed that Ridley Scott's Alien franchise wasn't the only Alien IP developers were willing to violate beyond a joke. It's fair to say there were many games that came bearing the X-com title since the sequel in 1996 and none of them were good. In fact most were so bad I don't even recognise them as the same series. Hell some were not even turn based strategy games! We watched... and we waited. Long-time fans of X-com have spent many years waiting for it to happen and then on the 12th of October 2012 ... it did.
A new vision of an old friend.
A game developer called Firaxis, headed up by a man I respect very much called Jake Soloman, released the game so many X-com fans had been waiting for for a life time. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was here, it was real and holy hell it was good, better than good, this was exactly the game I had envisioned so many times (well almost).
I had tried to play UFO and TFTD a few times in recent history but due to processor speeds being infinitely more powerful these days the DOS based game would play at a stupidly fast rate. While the classic gameplay was still intact, visually UFO and TFTD have not aged well. However these fleeting attempts served as a good reminder as to why we needed a remake, same game, few new bells and whistles but overall the old classic with a nice new lick of paint.
The story has not changed all that much (thankfully), an alien force is here to infiltrate and abduct its merry way across my planet and you as the commander of XCOM you have to engage and stop the alien menace.
Out with the old.
In terms of design there were a lot of the old systems that have either been stripped back or removed all together. You can, for example, no longer move the geoscope around, choose a time compression to your liking or even build more than one base. These choices, while a bit jarring at first, do make sense and take some tedium away from the task of having 5 bases to micromanage.
For me, Firaxis hit a perfect balance of form and function when approaching the graphical style of the battles. The environments look great on high settings, explosions are nice and meaty, the levels all break apart with satisfying weight as you rage war with the new aliens and things like fire and rain add terrific atmosphere. All that said, the levels still function as a reactive battleground with cars exploding, concrete crumbling and flames spread as they always did.
There are some elements missing from the early games and while I can see for the most part this aids the speed and flow of the game, I will always miss these aspects from the classic UFO game: the lack of atmospheric smoke and how it could overwhelm your troops, how you could pick up a crippled comrade and carry them to safety, and the far more accessible inventory of old. In addition, while it has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever, the lovely artwork showing alien autopsies and captured living creatures has now been replaced by a basic vector graphic and a wall of text. It might sound like trifling matters but seeing these pictures after researching an alien cadaver really added to the aliens' menace and I'm at a total loss as to why they didn't include them (obviously reworked for higher resolutions) for the new game.
So while Firaxis have totally nailed it when capturing the original game they have also added a few bells and whistles of their own. There is now a robust cover system which adds a much needed level of tactics to negotiating the various battlescapes. Cover comes in two flavours, light and full - obviously the latter offers more protection.
Each of the game's four classes now offer a rank driven skill tree to explore (most of the time with two skills at each rank) and I have to praise Firaxis here for a bang up job as each skill feels like it makes a real difference to how that solider will play. As they unlocked on my first play-through I could not wait to test each out and I feel like I'm still finding new ways to use these skills (more on this later). There are also some nice visual aspects of Enemy Unknown, the most obvious being the kill cam. This adds a cinematic sequence using the in-game assets when you kill or get killed. The only downside to this is that when you see one start up on an alien turn phase you know one of your flock is about to get potted - which takes some of the 'will they hit me?' away.
My three favourite solider skills in Enemy Unknown:
In the zone - this is a sniper skill and is so overpowered but I love it. If you kill an enemy who is not in cover then you get another shot. One of my favourite moves is to use the Archangel suit to propel my sniper far above the battle, then with this cover melting vantage point I've taken out entire squads of aliens.
Reactive shot - This bad boy is an assault skill and lets your solider crack off a shot against any enemy which comes within four squares looking for a cuddle. I cannot count the amount of times this has saved me from certain death from a Bezerker or Chysalid. It's also here you see the game systems working well together because when you shoot a Bezerkers they immediately run towards the source of the damage. This is a great way to lure them into the range of an assault solider with reactive shot!
Lightning Reflexes - Another life saver as this skill makes the first overwatch fire at that trooper miss. This is always a great way to clear the way and makes sure the squad members following you don't get a plasma sandwich.
One more change worth mentioning is the base design itself. From watching a few 'the making of' videos it's clear the base design was becoming problematic and someone on the team came up with the ants' nest design. So instead of having a flat base with lots of rooms connected you now see the entire base from its side. For me personally I love this design choice - it seems to really fit and in addition you can see the various X-com staff and soldiers going about their tasks or enjoying some downtime. If I'm really honest I've only ever stopped to have a good pan around the various rooms, but that's only because I've usually got more pressing matters to attend to.
I don't know how game developers decide on what projects get more attention but I'm sure from the reception it had Firaxis know they have an amazing future with the XCOM IP, if they want it. We have already seen a small DLC pack called Sling Shot and then the sizeable expansion late last year called Enemy Within. While the former is simply a small story woven into the main game Enemy Within changes, or should I say adds a mouth watering amount of options and gameplay. In terms of perks Sling Shot gives you access to named soldiers and two new items: one being a ship weapon and the other a guided rocket launcher. This rocket launcher is very powerful and can in some situations feel a bit too much. However, as this is the only upgrade on offer to the basic RPG, I see it as completing my heavy troops.
In Enemy Within we have a lot of new toys to play with and if you pan right back I suppose it's easiest to start with the new resource: MELD. This substance is basically alien nanites, suspended in a liquid and it can be gathered whilst on missions. The genius of it is each canister (once spotted) has a timer before it self destructs. It's clear as day that Firaxis wanted to pry those careful plodders out of their well trained shell and force them to take some risks. MELD then gives you two paths to explore.
Genes or Gears?
From researching MELD you can construct a cyber wing or a gene therapy lab and both allow you to change your soldiers permanently. I found the cyber upgrade a little shocking if I'm honest, in that for the soldiers to receive these new upgrades all four limbs have to be amputated. Now, I've never been neck deep in aliens before or had to command a secret government wing of troops but if my CO came into the mess one day asking who wanted to get a bit choppy choppy I'd be taking that job at McDonalds and quick.
The pay off however is that once the procedure is finished the mech solider can don a mech suit built for them to rage across the battlefield. These then become entirely new soldiers with their own skills and rules - they are amazing. While they don't have the amount of skills to pick up as a normal trooper the skills they do have are solid with huge tactical weight. One in particular I found useful was the melee attack, offering a method of bringing down the biggest enemies and at the same time have a very satisfying animation sequence when doing so. Mechs are a very powerful tool for sure but only if you use them to their strengths.
On the flip side you can also use MELD to enhance your troops on a genetic level. The obvious first, no choppy choppy. No sir, in this department your best troops get to keep their trotters and instead have their genes enhanced giving them super human abilities. I can see this being a bone of contention at the office party. In X-com fashion you are given a choice of two skills per area, so legs for example - you can either have the ability to jump up any height or adaptive bone marrow that heals wounds in the field. One of my favourites is the ability to modify your troops' skin so they can mimic the colours of their cover, in essence if they start unseen and end in full cover they are invisible. Add this to the sniper skill that treats half cover as full and you've got one of the most powerful abilities in the game. These skills work on top of your soldiers' existing skill sets and so once you have a fully trained trooper with a full range of enhancements the aliens start to feel the pain.
I think that this may be my only real criticism of the Enemy Within but once you have a solider this powerful, add psyonic abilities and then back him up with two fully upgraded Mechs there's not much that can stop you. I initially played through on normal difficulty which turned out way too easy. On classic it's a fair challenge but once you have survived the first three hectic months you start to find yourself winning every encounter with relative ease. Obviously Ironman setting (no saves) is next on my list but I'm saving that for a quiet gaming month.
There are other aspects to Enemy Within worth a mention such as the new human faction (The Exhalt) who have taken to dabbling in gene therapy themselves, namely infusing alien DNA with their own. It terms of gameplay there is plenty to keep you going, from unique missions (essentially hold an area) to some more specialist missions with awesome backdrops. There is even a defend the base mission which many fans were calling for from the original game. The Exalt will steal money from your funds, wipe out your current research and generally be a right pain in the rear. They do however, offer an additional layer of gameplay to an already broad and detailed experience. In addition there are plenty of new content on offer from grenades that stealth anyone hit, new ammo types and a far larger range of battlegrounds.
As the games industry accelerates into a very bright future it's hard not to feel a great well of excitement for what is to come. Some of the advances in tech, AI and graphical fidelity in the last few years have been astonishing. It's a testament then to my old adage, gameplay over graphics, that X-com is still with us and more to the point: is still a viable game to a younger audience who quite literally may not have even existed when I was first delving into its beautiful complexities.
As we now know XCOM 2 is almost ready for release in November and I suspect it will be this game I settle into over the quiet nights of Christmas. What is absolutely fantastic news is this will be a PC exclusive and I take my hat off to Fireaxis for having the balls to make this move. I've never been a fan of exclusives for exclusives sake but when there's a legitimate reason I can get behind it. Being on PC only is allowing the developers to use procedural level design to it's maximum effect as well as make the UI work perfectly with mouse and keyboard. I do think PC games are often held back to accommodate console versions and I hope more developers have the guts to unshackle themselves in the future as the gap between console and PC performance grows over the next ten years.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my review of X-com.