XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview
A few years ago we were interviewing one of the guys from Kaos Studios about Homefront, and the subject of emotional moments in games came up.
He revealed, with a perfectly straight face, that the first game ever to make him cry was XCOM: UFO Defense (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown on these shores).
A soldier he had recruited as a rookie and nurtured through mission after mission until he was an ass-kicking menace to alienkind was killed in action – it was a moment that hit him straight in the tear ducts and, 14 years later, he still hadn’t forgotten the sacrifice made that day.
This guy from Kaos wasn’t some emotionally unstable eccentric; he was just a typical XCOM fan sharing a typical XCOM experience. It might look like a cold succession of maps, lists, menus and statistics, but this is actually a game that gets under your skin and becomes personal like no other. For that reason, you won’t find much in the way of distanced objectivity in this particular preview.
We’re hardcore XCOM fans here – one of us has sunk dozens of hours into the PC original during the last year alone – and as such we don’t really want to hear facts and figures and lists of features from Firaxis; we just want reassurance that those guys love it like we do. And the beautiful thing is that’s pretty much all we’d had out of them so far.
The hexagonal view here really shows elements from Firaxis latest Civilization game.
Listen to any member of the Firaxis team talking about the original XCOM games and it’s abundantly clear that they are in awe. They’ll be discussing some aspect of the original that they’re desperately anxious to preserve in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and, just in the act of recalling how clever and effective it was in the original, their eyes widen, their eyebrows raise, they puff out their cheeks, they breathe heavily, they’re rendered speechless!
And these people have all worked on the Civilization series; they were handpicked by the single biggest name in strategy gaming, Sid Meier himself, but even they look upon XCOM as some sort of god.
If you’ve never played an XCOM game, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Well, we don’t want this entire preview to be about the old XCOM games, but then the fact that Firaxis clearly understands them so well is by far the most exciting thing about the new one.
Apart from streamlining the user interface, redesigning the start of the game so that it actually gives you some idea of what you’re supposed to do and taking advantage of modern tech by adding things like a dynamic, cinematic camera, there isn’t that much room for improvement.
Dynamic cameras means taking shots should be at least a little more visually interesting.
The Firaxis team’s biggest challenge by far is carefully preserving everything great about a game that they themselves describe as “sacred”.
So, for the uninitiated, we ought to try to summarise exactly what that “everything great” is. But that’s not easy – the scope, scale and ambition of XCOM was vast and even then, it was truly greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hard not to feel like we’re underselling it. But we’ll try.
Every detail matters in XCOM. Every success, every failure, every gain, every loss, every risk, every reward has numerous knock-on effects, meaning the whole thing ties together beautifully from top to bottom.
The fate of an individual soldier on the battlefield has a tangible impact on the overall progress of the interplanetary war and vice versa. Once you understand how all this complex interlinking works, you realise that there can be no success without failure, and that XCOM is built in such a way that you’re forced to accept loss and, ultimately, to make deliberate sacrifices along the path to victory.
That’s why one death can be so emotional – if the battle went well otherwise, then you know that reloading an old save in order to give one life a second chance would be a poor decision, so you don’t do it. You accept the loss and move on. And that’s how a bunch of statistics and parameters becomes so personal and so brilliantly involving.
If Firaxis can nail this – and, on paper, it certainly can – then expect XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be the best game of its kind ever made.