X IS FOR XCOM
Hello, Dann here again. Yes—I’ve managed to sneak onto Sarah’s blog again, and this time for another entry in her alphabet thing! So obviously, being me, it’s games again (it’s always games), and today is the letter X. Coincidentally X is for XCOM, and it’s a doozy.
I’m going to be talking about XCOM and X-COM, two sides of the same intellectual property. To clarify, I mean I will be ‘cracking open a nest of vicious history spiders’.
While it’s most definitely the more recent XCOM (2012–present) games which has generated the most discernible noise for the long running franchise, and even led to a massive surge of titles inspired by it, many of the elements from the title; the unforgiving combat, and careful resource management are faithfully transmuted from the old series, X-COM, to the new. As a matter of fact, the modern series (bar War of the Chosen) is at its worst a distillation of the memorable moments from the Julian Gollop led earlier entries.
The original title in the old series, UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defence in North America) was notorious for being ultra tough. You’d start the first mission with a dozen rookies, and most of the time you’d fail to get half of those —possibly very delicately named— soldiers off of the landing craft. It was then an uphill battle in order to gain a foothold, to build bases around the world and develop a force strong enough to push back against the alien invaders.
In a gaming age when people were used to having to get the most out of the games they were purchasing, plenty of people stuck with it and grew to love both the depth and extent of the game, and the volatility of your squad line-up; Colonel Howes could be torn asunder by an errant shot, and the onus largely fell on the player (with the rest on the random number generator).
It channelled both the scorching heat of conflict—of snap decisions both successful and not—while also requiring the player to take on the chilling gaze of the architect, of the general, of the merciless commander sending a unit to sacrifice as to flush out a location and secure a win for the many, for a future, for a chance to exist for a moment longer. Losing a soldier, even a valued one, could get enough people back to base in a good enough condition to weather another week — enough time to get a new plane in the air. It was a game of trying to control a rolling snowball, and if you made the right choices and the right sacrifices, then by the midpoint you could be actively pushing ack.
It was hard, but by gum was it rewarding! Every successful mission was an inch crawled towards victory, every soldier lost was a hero towards defending the human race, every movement taken was formative to the future of the planet.
Then, long story short, there were almost a dozen spin-offs, through various companies, including the curious Terror from the Deep —with it’s obtuse difficulty— and Apocalypse, which was actually from the original developers, but took on a political aspect, with multiple factions at play.
This all at a time when the industry was still trying to find its feet, with new genres springing up left-right-and-center and publishers and IP-holders attempting to swing their properties towards the next big thing. It must have been unbelievably hard to sell slower paced games in a time when the core audience were imagined as sugar-guzzling teens.
So, now we come to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Launched in 2012, the rebirth of the series was spearheaded by a small team at Firaxis—a studio under Take Two and 2K Games who were best known for working on another favourite of mine, the Civilization series.
Where X-COM had sprawling maps and over a dozen units under your command, XCOM’s maps were smaller and more dense, but at your most you could only command six soldiers in any one battle. It made for a concentrated, sharper version of the first game, removing a lot of of the micromanagement (how many missiles to take,) and streamlining the base-building by making it more of an ant farm than a conventional base-builder. Importantly though, the tension of taking rookies on missions was still there, and the game’s ability to signal that the mission is going awry with brutal misfortune is still most definitely present.
An outstanding series of extra content followed the game’s launch, each slotting into the core game’s campaign, adding extra characters and missions to the game.
Then came XCOM: Enemy Within, which launched as stand-alone, although was much more like an old-school PC expansion pack. It added in a new resource, a bunch of new enemies, weapons, items, technologies, as well as a range of cybernetic, implant and psionic options for players. Once you’ve grafted Hernandez’ head and torso into a gigantic mech frame, and implanted Fitzwilliam with all sorts of strange creations, are you not as bad as the genetics-warping aliens you are trying to fight back?
XCOM 2 launched (on PC) early last year, and saw players switched from the defence against aliens to the offence as they organised an insurgency against a (XCOM:Enemy Unknown alt-history) victorious alien-human alliance.
What with the player being on the offensive, yet severely outnumbered, and fighting as a guerilla force the gameplay took on a variety of major changes. A stealth phase was added, a melee enabled class was added to the game, and a third layer of play which revolved around moving your base around the world to establish and connect with resistance groups, was added to the game. As expected, technology had shifted too, a lot of hacking elements were added, and the way that the aliens were set to bring XCOM to an end shifted as well.
New enemies were added to attempt to counteract the common tactics of players of the previous titles; a unit which could create deadly rifts which unload weapons in one turn and detonate the next, an enemy which disguises as innocents, and a hulking mechanical brute among other things.
Small expansions, as with the first game, added further enemies (in the form of alien champions) to this, as well as deepening the already impressive character customisation options which were available.
The motherload, however, came in the form of 2017’s XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. WotC was actually what I was going to write this piece about before I got carried away with background on the series. It’s an expansion by the traditional format, and it also launched at full price, and justifiably so — it contains changes and alteration to almost every aspect of the core game, completely reinvigorating a game which had yet to go stale.
WotC adds a mass of changes including a zombie-esque enemy which serves as a deadly environmental hazard during a lot of missions, three new friendly factions (which are then like classes, highly specialised classes), and the three titular Chosen. Each of the Chosen are specifically tailored to fight effectively against respective new classes, but they’ll also grow in power the longer they remain undefeated. Not only are they an increasing threat in how they modify the campaign by tweaking and altering events, but they can also appear in almost any of the game’s missions — enough to turn a rough mission into an unforgettable one.
Most importantly for me, the new content changes the game from a game where you had time to carefully plan your next movement around the world map, to one where you were regularly being dragged around the map. The first six or so missions of WotC were each introducing new mechanics, one battle ending for another to begin shortly afterwards; no time for rest, and a heavy rotation for the surviving team members. With extra characters in the cycle of the front line the expansion’s bond and tiredness mechanics come in, the latter demanding people are rested (to keep that rotation going) and the former making allies who fight together be able to perform extra abilities.
The change of pace, the added variety, and the added danger, all worked together to somehow make XCOM even better, and WotC has easily helped further validate Firaxis’ skill with the XCOM IP.
Meanwhile, earlier this year Julian Gollop successfully funded his spiritual successor to XCOM: Phoenix Point. A game which combines XCOM Terror from the Deep’s underwater origins of the enemy with the very curious, and scientific reality, Pandoraviruses. In his new title players will fight strange mutated creatures which cover the land in a strange fog which infects life — leading a faction in the fight back against them (an attempt to discover a cure) you must also deal with other human factions who each have their own interpretation of the aliens role and how to address their presence.
As it turns out. Now is a very good time to be a fan of squad-based strategy games.
Julian Gollop, creator of the X-COM series, on PC Gamer talking about how XCOM is undeniably a genre of its own now:
Rob Covell, one of the amazing writers over on a website I help run, writing on his own blog and talking through an XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Playthrough: