One of the best games ever made was released in 1994. It was called X-Com: UFO Defense, and it asked you to save the world.
It was punishing. Players had a fistful of dollars with which to build radars, recruit commandos and intercept the titular UFOs before they massacred the citizens of earth – who, by the way, will cut off your funding should you let too many attacks slip through your fingers. As a turn-based strategy game, X-Com was like playing chess in the dark. You lost operatives by the dozens. Earth fell to cartoonish-looking aliens again and again; yet you came back for more. Beating X-Com, you felt every dollar, scientist, crashed interceptor, obliterated troop transport and goddamned dead commando of your victory.
For this 12-year-old, it was kind of cool.
Ditto for many others; which would explain the surprise, alarm, and inevitable vitriol surrounding Take Two’s announcement of X-Com’s reincarnation – as a first-person shooter. As comment threads ignite with rage and wounded nostalgia, many are doubtless wondering what the fuss is about. What, really, is X-Com, and why would it suck as an FPS?
In UFO Defense, you begin your career as Sole Defender of the Earth by looking at a simple, jagged rendition of the planet. Rotate the globe. See that little blue square? That’s your base. From there you launch fighters, which respond to UFOs, and troop transports, which respond to crash sites and attacks. You also order guns, ammunition, supplies, soldiers, scientists and greasemonkeys to keep your little outpost running and productive. Recovered weapons and artifacts are researched, reverse-engineered, and eventually produced on-site.
Once a month, your investors report on your performance. In the early game, when resources are slim and attrition high, these can be grim indeed. Neglect an alien assault on Tokyo for a snatch-and-grab on a crashed UFO, and Japan might yank its funding. And you can’t get to Tokyo quickly enough unless you have a radar to detect the incoming assault, and for a radar, you need a base, which means money, which means funding, which means my 12-year-old ass was feeling a bit overwhelmed.
The tactical phase was even less forgiving. Responding to a crashed UFO meant sending your men into certain ambush; anyone without rudimentary knowledge of squad tactics was sure to lose at least three men to a medium-sized UFO, which could hold up to five surviving aliens. Your men had time units, which were consumed by walking, shooting, reloading, and even ducking. If you ran out just as you spotted an alien – and you often did – there was nothing to do but end the turn and watch as yet another rookie was cut down by plasma fire.
After a few aborted attempts, the smart player learn to protect the rich nations, figure out the alien gizmos as quickly as they could, and build better guns. After beating the aliens off earth, they took the fight to Mars, where they could use only what they brought. For many, it came down to a few men. They lost all, but they won the goddamned game.
It’s not unfair to say the series suffered a linear decline after UFO Defense. Facelift sequel Terror From The Deep was the same game, but underwater; Apocalypse was brilliant in some very important ways, but also clumsy, inaccessible and inexcusably ugly. Then the spin-offs: Interceptor, the paint-by-numbers space-flight sim; and Enforcer, the utterly forgettable, arcade-y third-person shooter. Plans for a proper turn-based successor, X-Com: Genesis, were dashed when Hasbro Interactive shut down in late 1999.
HI’s closure also scuttled X-Com: Alliance, a first-person shooter. It was previewed, promoted, and seemed to hold what hope remained for the franchise. Rumors circulated for years that it was still alive, being moved along by a team of die-hards despite evidence otherwise.
Take Two subsidiary 2K Games acquired rights to the franchise in May 2007, mere months before Irrational Games (then 2K Boston) would release Bioshock. X-Com fans knew it was no longer a question of if. When System Shock 2 and Bioshock auteur Ken Levine went on-record as admiring the franchise, hopes peaked.
Hopes dimmed when Take Two announced an X-Com reboot substantially different from what anyone thought, or wanted. For one, the hyphen was gone (hush, it mattered). And there was the matter of the press release: the people promoting XCOM seem to be unaware of what made the original so great.
“XCOM is the re-imagining of the classic tale of humanity’s struggle against an unknown enemy that puts players directly into the shoes of an FBI agent tasked with identifying and eliminating the growing threat. True to the roots of the franchise, players will be placed in charge of overcoming high-stake odds through risky strategic gambits coupled with heart-stopping combat experiences that pit human ingenuity – and frailty – against a foe beyond comprehension. By setting the game in a first-person perspective, players will be able to feel the tension and fear that comes with combating a faceless enemy that is violently probing and plotting its way into our world.”
Faces palmed across the community. X-Com isn’t a story-driven game. It isn’t linear. It isn’t Bioshock. And while we’re at it, it didn’t have a rich goddamned lore, unless you really, really like those alien autopsy tapes hocked on late-night TV.
And thanks, 2K Marin (for the record: the game is actually being developed by 2K Australia, which is part of 2K Marin, and helped with Bioshock 2), but we don’t need a first-person perspective to feel fear and tension. UFO Defense did that just fine with 16-bit graphics and an isometric view.
The words “FBI agent,” “violently probing” and “plotting” give me an awful premonition that XCOM is going to be a narrative-fucking-driven game version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; this shoddy alternate reality game (a marketing device as common as billboards these days) hints at a Cold War aesthetic a la Mad Men. Don Draper chasing down aliens? Could be all right, I suppose, but don’t call it XCOM.
Rumors percolate that Sid Meier’s outfit Firaxis, the legendary studio behind the Civilization games, is working on a turn-based X-Com game to be released in tandem with XCOM, whatever the hell it turns out to be. They would be the guys to do it, and would make me happier. Until then, I await news of XCOM with more dread than curiosity. Whatever 2K Marin produces, it won’t be what the diehards are looking for.