Given how long fans have been waiting for the XCOM sequel, it would be almost impossible for Firaxis’s remake to live up to all of our expectations. I had the chance to play the game and see an early version of the E3 presentation last week, and, even though it’s not the remake I’d been imagining in my head for the last 15 years, it’s clear that Firaxis understands both what makes the franchise so cool and what needs to be done to update it for today’s audience.
If you don’t already know, XCOM is a big game. It’s part tactical combat as you lead a squad of soldiers against a worldwide alien invasion. It’s part resource management as you allocate funds to building and staffing bases around the world. It’s part RPG as your soldiers grow into an elite fighting force — those of them who don’t die, anyway. The synergy of all these interlaced systems, where the funding you get from each nation can be spent to hire scientists and engineers to research and make psionic weapons your soldiers can use in the field to kill or capture aliens to bring back for study thereby increasing the funding you get in the future to unlock even more cool toys to kill even more powerful aliens. When it works, it’s about the most fun you can have in a game. When it doesn’t work, it bogs you down in loads of repetitive micromanagement.
Firaxis’s new version of XCOM streamlines a few of the features. Gone are the reserved time units for varying shots. In their place is a two-action per turn policy where soldiers can either move and shoot, move and prepare to fire during the aliens’ turn, or simply burn both moves to dash ahead on the battlefield. Gone are the RPG stats for things like bravery and strength. In their place are unique upgrade paths you pick during promotion. You might discover, for instance, that your newly promoted squaddie is better at heavy weapons than support. At the upper end of the promotion tree, you’ll find powerful specializations like the invisible Ghost, whose movement powers and grappling hook can put him where you need him in a hurry. Or there’s the Archangel, a sniper equipped with flying power armor. And since you can only take four soldiers with you on any given mission, getting the right mix is imperative.
If it all sounds a bit gamey, rest assured; the tactical flexibility is still intact, even if it’s presented in a slightly more stylized format. Squaddies can take cover behind objects in the environment, and can even hunker down, trading sight for cover. Sectoid leaders can still mind control your troops and have them drop live grenades at their own feet. You can use suppressive fire to reduce the accuracy of enemies behind cover, giving your other units a chance to move around the battlefield more freely. The new XCOM even goes one better than the original by allowing you to open doors quietly without having to barge right into the room. And of course, the abundance of age old enemies like Chrysalids and Heavy Floaters ratchets up the challenge even further.
There are other contemporary touches. The location of each new XCOM base, for instance, can grant you specific bonuses. Put a base in Asia and you’ll be able to speed up all of that base’s projects. Put that same base in South America and it’ll do a much better job with alien autopsies and interrogations. (I’m not sure I want to understand the rationale behind that one.) Even the missions you undertake are likely to offer more specific rewards this time around. Rescue Chicago from an alien terror attack and you’ll gain four extra engineers you can use at your base to manufacture the tools and weapons you need to take on your next challenge.
Even your interactions within the base are much more modern. Rather than clicking tabs and paper dolls to manage your base, you’ll have a full 3D presentation, with animated interactions with your various department heads. Central Officer Bradford will be your main point of contact here and will direct you to the various stations that require your attention between missions. It’s a small touch, but being able to see my scientists actually working on a project adds a new layer of interest and drama to the whole operation.
Like lots of fans, I’ve always joked that all we need in another X-COM are better graphics, better Windows support and better load-out management. More than a few hardcore types may even be put off by some of the streamlining Firaxis has done here with the promotions or the bases. Having seen what Firaxis is trying to do to advance the overall design, I don’t think I’d be happy with just a graphics update and some UI changes anymore. You can see for yourself when the game is released on October 9.