Avoiding XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Some time before the advent of HD, around 600 BC, a wise man by the name of Aesop mused “We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified” and, as tends to be the case where we dumb everything down as we ‘evolve’, this has become bastardised into the more commonly referenced “Be careful what you wish for; you may receive it” which is credited to ‘Anonymous’. Probably because they didn’t want to be held accountable for yet another language dilution. The intent is the same, however, in that all-too-often we will pine over something so much that, when it eventually happens, the resulting disappointment has us yearning for the time before we had our wish.
As someone who has almost a twenty-year relationship with Mythos Games’ turn-based sci-fi classic, UFO: Enemy Unknown, anyone who ever asked the inevitable question of “If you could take any game and remake it with modern tech, what would it be?” would be met with the same response – “UFO: Enemy Unknown”. There was always a very important caveat, however – the gameplay must remain the same, and only the graphics should be changed to bring them in line with today’s standards.
This isn’t my dominant ‘graphicum whoreas’ gene taking over my mouth and forcing me down the road of one who can’t handle anything that’s even remotely pixelated, because that isn’t the case and I adore the look and feel of the original 16bit characters and landscapes. It’s simply a case of wanting to play the game on a modern system, without major upscaling, but still enjoy the same level of immersion and gameplay offered by the original 1994 release. As tends to be the case with remakes, whether we’re talking movies or games, they overstep the boundaries of simple modernisation and veer into the un-nerving territory of the ‘reimagining’ where they assume carte blanche over all aspects… to the point where there is barely any resemblance to the source material.
As far as UFO: Enemy Unknown is concerned (or X-COM: UFO Defense to our American cousins), every developer who has tried to re-capture that certain magic you get from Julian Gollop’s original has failed in one way or another. While it’s true that the zero-budget fan remakes have perhaps come closer to achieving the goal of a faithful modernisation, the lack of resources – both in manpower and cashflow – has meant that many of these projects have ceased before reaching completion, leaving only the larger titles such as ALTAR Interactive’s trilogy (UFO Aftermath, Aftershock and Afterlight) to see the light of day.
When it was announced in 2010 that 2K Games (specifically, 2K Marin) were working on a new project, simply titled ‘XCOM’, tongues started wagging and attention switched from Goldhawk Interactive’s then-year-long development of ‘Xenonauts‘ to this big-budget release in the hope that it would succeed where all others had failed – to modernise UFO: Enemy Unknown without bastardising it. As it turned out, the 2K project was for a first-person-shooter and the only tie to the original was its use of ‘XCOM’, albeit in a ridiculously-loose sense – a devastating blow which tore through the fan community quicker than a Chryssalid through a squad of rookies. Once again, all eyes turned to Xenonauts and a highly-successful Kickstarter campaign proved once again that there was an audience begging for a true remake.
Then, from out of nowhere on January 5th 2012, 2K announced that it wasn’t just the ill-fated shooter they’d been working on, and that Firaxis Games (the masters of strategy) had been developing their own version of the classic since 2008, claiming that they were being “careful to keep XCOM: Enemy Unknown true to the elements that made X-COM such a revered game”. With Game Informer staggering their release of information throughout February 2012, the ins and out of this potential salvation slowly filtered through and it looked as though fans would finally get their wish – a faithful remake where original gameplay mechanics were retained and only the graphics were being updated. Even with Lead Designer, Jake Solomon, mentioning that some of the micro-management would be streamlined to make it more accessible, the general consensus here at GLHQ was that XCOM: Enemy Unknown could be what the XCOM community had been waiting for.
As luck would have it, my first appointment at last year’s E3 was with 2K. As an avid Borderlands fan, I was excited at the prospect of finally getting some hands-on time with the sequel, but it was the first of the two 2K appointments that had me counting down the hours… as I would be spending thirty minutes in the company of Jake Solomon and some of the Firaxis team as they showcased in-depth gameplay of the game they’d been working on in secret for four years. As sceptical as I was, everything that they showed was exactly as I’d expected it would be – turn-based tactical manoeuvres, reliance on research and development, with a strong difficulty curve depending on which race you were going up against. It ticked all the boxes but, as titles such as Aliens: Colonial Marines have shown us, there’s a huge difference between watching a carefully-choreographed tech demo and getting hands-on time… and so the jury was still out, at least from a personal standpoint.
I say ‘from a personal standpoint’ because all signs pointed towards a game that would satisfy the majority of UFO fans – it had everything that I expected to see but, until you’re able to lift up the bonnet and inspect all moving parts, you can’t say for sure whether you’re about to invest in a solid workhorse or a lemon. As a writer, I was more than comfortable to stand by what I’d seen and give it my seal of approval as a faithful remake but as a long-standing die-hard fan with my own ideas on what would make it perfect, I had to wait and see.
Last year’s Gamescom allowed me to finally sit down to a near-finished product and, with the choice of either the single-player campaign or a multi-player skirmish, I opted for campaign mode as that’s where I expected to spend most, it not all, my time. It didn’t disappoint, even though I was unfortunate enough to end up with a console version rather than one of the few PCs they had available, and the outside vanished as I made my way through the early missions, blissfully unaware that I’d gone over the thirty-minute threshold until a friendly tap on the shoulder from Ben at 2K reminded me that I should be making my way to the Borderlands 2 appointment.
All that having been said, however… despite owning it since launch day, it was only last week that I finally tore off the shrink wrap and installed XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I went with a simultaneous installation on the gaming rig and laptop, making good use of Steam’s cloud save so I could have the freedom to play wherever I wanted. Even after installing it, I waited another day before plucking up the courage to sit down and immerse myself because, ever the sceptic, I expected to be let down once again. I’d followed the development since that first surprise announcement, watched the various videos and live streams, and even had my own hands-on time with it… but I’d been burned by ‘XCOM clones’ before and wasn’t about to let them kill my enthusiasm once more.
By the time I was perhaps fifteen minutes into the single-player campaign, all my fears had allayed and I was left wondering why I had been so hesitant to take those first steps into Firaxis’ remake. Jake Solomon himself had said that he had always been a fan of the original and wanted to make sure that the end result was everything that it could possibly be, and it was… and more, to be perfectly honest. Sure, it was a shame to discover that the ‘ultimate craft’ had been removed, so the Avenger would never be a part of this new experience, and that they had taken out some of the micro-management in terms of not having to buy in more ammo after a mission (or running out of ammo while your team was out on the battlefield), but I don’t feel that the gameplay suffered as a result.
Having only one base was something that I had been dreading since first finding out that this would be case but, again, the ability to place satellites over multiple continents where your craft would invariably still reach the active UFO or crash site meant that it was never a negative. In fact, it could be argued that it was more of a positive as you only had to utilise the much-needed resources with a single base rather than having to juggle finances between several locations. This did hinder the rate at which you could perform research or manufacturing, but that delay only added to the longevity of the game – instabuilds may be great if you’re planning on a speed-run but when you want to savour it then those extra weeks, albeit with sub-par equipment, make it more of a challenge.
The greatest challenge, however, was with having a team with a maximum of six units. This was incredulous at first, as I distinctly remember taking teams of twenty-four units to ‘very large craft’ landing sites where they’d be picked off one-by-one thanks to those pesky Chrysallids or Ethereals with Blaster Launchers, to the point where I’d have to complete a mission with only four or five soldiers. And then it struck me… if I could manage it before when it was a necessity, then of course I could manage it when it was an in-built restriction with the gameplay mechanics. From then on, every single move was more considered than before; the tactical element elevated to another level where, instead of analysing the current positions of units and enemies, I’d be thinking ‘okay, what if it turns out that a Muton is hiding around that corner?’ and the military strategist in me took over.
Ultimately, as much as it pains (and simultaneously delights) me to admit… Firaxis’ take on UFO: Enemy Unknown surpassed my expectations on every level. The perks were a great addition to gameplay, meaning that you had to carefully consider your team before embarking on a mission rather than picking the highest-ranking soldiers and kitting them out with heavy plasmas and flying suits. Furthermore, not having to waste turns towards the end of missions to unload clips so that whatever ammo was left would be carried over to the base made an incredible difference, as it was perhaps the one thing that always annoyed me with the original – if there’s still twenty rounds left in the clip when that final turn ends and the team returns to base, then those twenty rounds should still be available to the next team, yet they weren’t. Whether that was a glitch in the original or a deliberate move on Gollop’s part, I have no idea but it was annoying.
After a surprisingly-brief twenty-nine hours, my time with XCOM: Enemy Unknown came to an end and, although the random nature of the 1994 release with its procedurally-generated missions and terraforming was gone and has been replaced with a somewhat linear storyline, I now have a choice whenever I buy a new laptop or rig: do I install UFO: Enemy Unknown and play through with those familiar little sprites, with the hope of taking Sergei Voronin all the way to Commander of X-COM or go with the shiny new version where I don’t have to empty clips before finishing a mission and live with the fact that I can only take a six-man team with me? That I even have this choice now is a true testament to how damn-near perfect Firaxis’ remake turned out, as Stu himself said at the time.
Either way, sometimes if you wish hard and long enough, wishes do come true… and have no sting in the tail. I’m sure Aesop would disagree, but I doubt he’d know the best way to take down a Reaper.
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- Avoiding XCOM: Enemy Unknown