X-COM: Enemy Unknown (Preview) – A Look Ahead
by Mark R
Back in 1994, a game was released that turned one particular video game fan from the type of person who played games on their Amiga as something to do while their machine ray traced various 3D images in the background into a fully fledged gamer, booting up the computer specifically to play a game. That game was UFO: Enemy Unknown, developed by Julian and Nick Gollop and released by Microprose at exactly the right time for it to take hold in the annals of gaming history – the X-Files had exploded on to our TV screens the year before, Travis Walton’s abduction had been immortalised in Fire In The Sky, Kyle MacLachlan had taken us on a trip back to Roswell and so, suddenly, the world had once again taken notice of our friends from out of state.
Even as a 22 year old who had been intrigued by UFOlogy since the age of five, it wasn’t necessarily the alien theme that pulled me in; it was the level to which the player must go to ensure the perfect balance and maintain enough growth progression to face the alien incursion on an even playfield in the final battle. Instead of the modern gaming techniques whereby your crew are thrust into a situation pre-armed, with the option to sustain their advances using regenerating health and ammo drops, every step of the way in Enemy Unknown was a tactical decision… and there were repercussions. Running out of ammunition would mean that this particular soldier would have no defenses available to them unless the alien tech had already been researched to the point where any weaponry and ammo found on felled aliens could used. If the level of research hadn’t yet been reached then the only other source of supplies was a dead X-COM agent.
A downed team mate would either die immediately or lie unconscious until such times as someone with a medi-kit was able to revive them which, in a turn-based game, is rarely a plausible option given the amount of time units required to reach the injured soldier. In most cases, they would be dead before anyone could reach them and if they were lucky enough to have someone get to them in one move, they would invariably run out of time before being able to administer the aid. This micromanagement extended beyond the field and was the backbone of the entire base strategy, with the player being solely responsible for every single aspect of base management from ordering supplies to ensuring that there were enough storage facilities to house any artefacts and recovered alien life forms, be they alive or dead. UFO: Enemy Unknown was a game which, some eighteen years after its release, was still one of the first things I install on every new system and features gameplay that has never yet been bettered, placing it at the top of my all-time top ten and one which was crying out for a damn good modernisation.
The news that Firaxis Games was embarking on a “reimagination” of Enemy Unknown was, therefore, something that immediately piqued my interest. After all, how could a studio led by the king of strategy himself, Sid Meier, possibly drop the ball, especially as the lead designer on the project, Jake Solomon, is reported to be a lifelong fan of the series. The comfort of having this team working on the remake was temporarily brought into question after Game Informer’s Adam Biessener reported that Firaxis were “removing no small amount of micromanagement” from their version and that they were “getting rid of tedium and uninteresting mechanics”. As someone for whom the most important aspect is said micromanagement, this was tantamount to telling me that Kinect was going to be a requirement for the next Xbox console and that game studios would no longer support the PC as a viable platform.
My enthusiasm dropped to the floor immediately and, with no medi-kit-wielding compadre in sight, died before reaching the end of Biessener’s article. Would Firaxis’ reimagination go on to evoke the same disdain for the IP that 2K Marin’s presentation at E3 had done when it became clear that “XCOM” was, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a cookie cutter shooter? The latest edition of Game Informer (issue 226) would, however, suggest otherwise. In fact, after twice reading through their eight page feature, the reality appears to be that this upcoming release not only checks all the boxes any fan could possibly throw at it, but also adds another few in for good measure.
Graphically, Firaxis’ offering is considerably different from the Microprose original but, with it being eighteen years on, it’s only to be expected as the difference in tech between then and now is akin to comparing apples and black holes. From what we’ve seen thus far, the Geoscape remains and brings with it a more epic feel; in fact, one could almost imagine looking out from the observation deck of the International Space Station and seeing a similar sight. A look at the top right corner of the Geoscape shows the “Upcoming Events” area where any current research or development is displayed along with an indication of how much time is left. As one who spent a considerable amount of time researching, usually with a team of fifty scientists and fifty engineers per base, this is particularly useful as there’s no need to drop back into base management mode for an update.
As with the original game, which missions you embark on will depend entirely on the reach of your radar as well as the speed of the crafts at your disposal, and the airborne enemy incursions will result in a face off with your enemy, although screens of this particular aspect have yet to surface so it’ll be interesting to see how far Firaxis will go in terms of craft detail, or whether they’ll resort to the silhouetted style of the original. With so many similarities in the Geoscape, it’s safe to say that their plan is to stay true to form as much as possible, and the similarities don’t end there.
We already know that the Sectoids make a welcome return and, for the most part, are identical to those in the predecessor. They still have the Psionic abilities, although lead designer Jake Solomon has said that any XCOM squad member panic attacks will not result in the utter devastation familiar to anyone playing the original, whereby one panicked unit within a confined area could quite easily take the entire squad out and remain unplayable for several turns. Solomon explains “We’ve tried to make it the sort of thing that won’t catastrophically end combat for you, but it is the sort of thing that you have to manage.” As well as the familiar grey faces of the Sectoids, we see the return of the Cyberdiscs and Mutons.
The Mutons have undergone a subtle facelift in that they retain their pink skin hue and green second-skin-style armour but their physical make-up has changed to bring a more brutish appearance and with movement not unlike that of an ape. If injecting the Mutons with the latest serum from Laboratoires Gruntiere wasn’t enough, Firaxis have taken the Cyberdiscs one step further by not only making them virtually indestructible in their disc form, but also introducing a shape-shifting feature where the disc has to open up to enter attack mode and takes on a spider-like appearance. It is during this phase that the Cyberdisc is at its most vulnerable, but in this mode it is also capable of unleashing the “Death Blossom” – a large-area attack, capable of taking out an entire XCOM squad.
The only new enemy unveiled thus far is The Thin Man which, if you’ve ever frequented the Something Awful forums, may be familiar to you as it bears a striking resemblance to Victor Surge’s creation of The Slender Man. They are described as being incredibly agile, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (making them particularly effective against roof-based XCOM snipers) and freakishly fast when it comes to evasive tactics, due to their ability to cover a large radius without much effort. Should you be quick enough to catch one in your sights and take them down, the fallout from such actions could also be disastrous as their death comes in an explosion of acid, causing damage to any infantry and equipment.
While some of the original enemies, such as the Silacoid, Celatid, Sectopod and Reaper, never posed much of a threat to anyone beyond rookie status, the absence thus far of the Floater, Ethereal and Snakeman races does beg the question of whether Firaxis are playing their cards close to their chest for an ultimate reveal or they’ve decided to scrap these in favour of an all-new line-up of foes. One thing is for sure, however, and that is that they will have to push the envelope if the feeling of panic and that inevitable cry of “fuuuuuu…” from turning a corner and coming face to face with a Cryssalid is being passed on to a new creature. Unless you have several other units on overwatch, that guy is toast and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it except cry as Sergeant Sergei Voronin transforms into yet another Cryssalid.
As with the 1994 release, Firaxis have opted for the procedurally generated missions and terraforming to ensure that not only are no two missions the same, but repeated playthroughs will also be like playing the game for the first time. This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why X-COM fans return to the game time and time again. In terms of tactical similarities, the beautifully frightening fog of war returns with the landed craft being surrounded in a shroud of darkness, so that soldier’s first step may also be their last as the area in front of them may well uncover to reveal an alien, poised and ready to kill before the squaddie can even reach for their weapon.
Tanks will also return to the game, with the SHIV (Super Heavy Infantry Vehicles) already unveiled and, rather than having a very basic choice of a few standard vehicles, these can be kitted out with whatever tech the base has at its disposal, so if you’ve already moved on to Plasma or Fusion Ball (assuming the Fusion Ball returns, of course) then your SHIV can be armed with said weaponry. The down side to the SHIV is that it swallows up an incredible amount of base resources in terms of research and manufacturing so it’ll likely be one of those “suck it and see” scenarios where you give it a shot just to see what it’s like but stick with infantry in the long term. One thing which was confusing with regard to the SHIV is that it’s reported that they “take the place of a squad member” which, given that the tanks in the original game took up four squad places in a craft, is particularly generous.
Contrary to what we had originally thought with the “removing no small amount of micromanagement” comment on the Game Informer website, it would appear that Firaxis are retaining as much of the functionality as possible and the familiar territories of research and development are still catered for, representing an important aspect of the ongoing growth of the base and squad. In fact, it would appear that The Meier Influence is strong when it comes to this reimagination of Enemy Unknown if the recent description of diplomatic relations is anything to go by. Whereas the original relied on X-COM infiltration and defensive tactics to retain the support from the Council Of Funding Nations, this new release may also rely heavily on such tactics but an element of trading has been introduced with the example being given that Japan may feel threatened enough to request that XCOM provide them with a shipment of laser weapons, so the player is then faced with the choice of either acceding to their demands, thereby taking necessary weaponry away from their own squad or assigning valuable resources to produce more weapons by reducing production elsewhere, or refuse to co-operate and continue as before. Refusing to help, regardless of how much good is being done elsewhere in the world, will invariably result in Japan reducing or removing their funding.
As well as funding, the Council have bonuses associated with each continent, providing you have complete satellite coverage. While Africa may not be able to keep up with such financial behemoths as Japan, their natural resources more than make up for this shortfall as you’re going to need their raw materials in order to keep up with the restocking of the armoury and ammunition. Quite what this means is, as yet, unclear but the implication is that the ability to simply place orders for additional ammunition and weaponry may have been removed in favour for a constant manufacturing process. For those with a passion for micromanagement, this is the difference between Roller Coaster Tycoon’s “build a kick-ass park” approach and Theme Park’s more involved “don’t forget to re-order fries” mentality. Imagine returning to your base after a successful mission and discovering that you’ve effectively run out of ammo just as another call comes in that requires your attention. This is, in my opinion, a genius move on Firaxis’ part, although I imagine some will be put off by this level of detail and it may come as a shock to console devotees.
Squad handling has undergone what can only be described as a complete restructure and this, if anything, could be what turns fans of the original off – the time units have been removed. As mentioned earlier, Enemy Unknown will retain the turn based strategy approach of the original but, rather than having squad members perform based on available time units, Firaxis have taken an entirely fresh look at this by introducing what they’ve dubbed “double-move”, whereby your unit will have unlimited time to explore the map but only one opportunity to move to attack mode, so as soon as your shots are fired, that particular unit’s move is considered over. It’s a bold move and, speaking to other X-COM fans, one which has caused some head-scratching as well as a few derisive snorts.
With the time units being taken away by one hand, the player has been given an intriguing gift with the other – perks. As before, soldiers are classless until they develop experience in the field and will naturally lean towards one particular strategy, based on how you’ve played the character. At the end of each mission, as with the original, soldiers will have their stats increased and may indeed rank up to the next level and it’s at this point that certain units will have the option of selecting a specific perk along with their level-up, such as the Squad Sight or Snap Shot perks on offer to the sniper. The Squad Sight perk appears to be a gift from the heavens, allowing your sniper to open fire on any enemy within the playfield as long as the enemy is within view of another squad member. These bonuses are only available if the mission was a success, so losing any squad members in the field will still allow the levels to increase but will void any chance of gaining a bonus… a great twist, considering how difficult it can be to clear an area with no casualties.
Snipers also come with yet another perk to their class, in that they can use a grappling hook to make their way to the top of buildings in order to surveil the area and pick off enemies with ease. This sort of tactic was generally reserved for units equipped with Flying Suits and the Alien Blaster, capable of following a series of plotted points before detonating at its final destination with more destruction than the late Barry White in a pie factory. While this ability may stand the sniper in good stead with most foes, it’s important to remember those freaky Thin Men and their ability to defy logic and leap on to rooftops.
Although the sniper, on the face of it, sounds like they could be the ultimate killing machine, they come with a monstrous handicap: it takes an entire turn to take a shot. Yes, you read correctly, if you want to move your sniper into position and take a shot at the enemy then you’re in for a shock because it’s one or the other. This may sound sensible to those with the obvious mentality of “why would you want to move a sniper?” but you still have to get them to their spotting position in the first place and this gameplay mechanic means that, should they encounter any enemies en route, they would be entirely helpless and, presumably, end up as a pile of death on the ground. It’s an interesting move by Firaxis, to create such a powerful unit and then give them such a crippling handicap, but it could prove to be a tactical coup if used correctly and snipers with a particularly high experience level will unlock the ability to move and shoot in one turn.
Another move which requires an entire turn is the reloading of ammo. Unlike the original game, there is no need to manufacture additional clips for each player to take into the field as the game works on the assumption that your squad has been fully stocked with enough ammo to get them through each mission. As yet, we can’t say whether this also applies to clips for alien tech but, as it hasn’t been specified, we can only assume that this is the case. Should your unit run out of ammo, however, it’s not possible to simply reload and continue with the turn. This could either mean that the reload could be used in lieu of the attack action, allowing the soldier to move into a position of cover before switching to a reload move, or it could simply be that it does require an entire turn, so moving and reloading isn’t possible.
Instead of being able to build multiple bases, Firaxis have made the decision that the game centres around only one base, to present the player with a more strategic approach to defending the Council Of Funding Nations rather than being able to pepper a myriad of bases across the globe. The base defenses can also use alien tech, presumably similar to the Grav Shield and Plasma Defenses of old, but the base itself looks very different in this upcoming release.
Rather than taking the overhead approach, Firaxis have instead opted for a cross section much like an open-faced doll house, with the base being built on various levels rather than in a radial manner. Without meaning to throw out an unnecessary pun, the cut-away design feels rather alien compared to the familiar top-down view from before but, as with any changes to familiarity, this will, in time, undoubtedly become second nature to use. It does, however, look rather messy in the screen shot below.
So, where does this leave us? In truth, in a much better position than first expected. While there are signs of streamlining, in terms of the simplification of ammo assignment and lack of time units, the introduction of such features as level-up perks, resource gathering, diplomatic relations, and being confined to only one base with which to defend the entire globe all serve to enhance the micromanagement that was so important to the gameplay of the original. If Firaxis can keep on track with their plans and adhere to what made Microprose’s ground-breaking title so great, then we may just have another modern classic on our hands.
Next stop, Cydonia.
Sources: Game Informer, Game Informer Issue 226
Last five articles by Mark R
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- Hard West - Review
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- Best of 2015: Great Times Ahead: Late to the GTA Party (Bearhugger70 Exploded You)