I got my PS3 copy on Monday, and so far I’m pretty satisfied.
For the younger readers, the original X-COM was one of the best nostalgic PC games on the market. I never played as a kid, but I got to see its awesomeness through watching various Let’s Plays on YouTube. Even with its flaws, I think it aged well (and it’s available on Steam). The premise: Aliens have started attacking Earth, and you’re in charge of the international organization, X-COM, tasked with countering the alien threat. You get to build your base, manufacture weapons, reverse engineer alien technology, monitor the globe for UFOs and shoot them down.
That’s where the game’s iconic turn-based tactical combat comes into play. When you down a UFO or respond to a terror attack, you send in the Skyranger with a squad of soldiers you’ve equipped. In the original, your soldiers had Time Units with which to perform actions, and you often needed a little micromanaging because it’s generally a bad idea to run out if you’re standing out in the open instead of crouched behind cover. You really had to think about what your soldiers were capable of doing with their turn, and you could switch between soldiers mid-turn. If your scout moved and spotted an enemy, it would interrupt his movement and you could switch to your sniper and take down the enemy before your scout continues his mad dash for the next piece of cover. It was a brutal game where doing things right didn’t guarantee everyone would make it back to base alive.
Recently, some game companies decided to try to bring the game back, and one of those remakes inspired a meme in the form of SpoonyOne’s cry of “Betrayal!” Why? They made it a first person shooter. That’s not X-COM. That’s not what made us fall in love with the original. It stood out as an example of crass commercialism, making a cheap, paint-by-numbers FPS and hoping the fans wouldn’t care because it’s got the X-COM name. If I recall correctly, Spoony did have some impact in that the development team tried fixing the inherent design flaw by introducing some tactical squad mechanics, but it was still an FPS, not a turn-based tactical squad game.
That’s not the game I’m reviewing at the moment, and not the one I bought. I bought the good one by Firaxis: The one that actually has turn-based combat. I think it’s a solid remake. The mechanics are streamlined in some ways, since you get two actions instead of a bar full of time units, but it’s still good because you still have to move carefully. You get defense bonuses based on whether you have low cover or high cover in the appropriate direction, so watch where you move. Your squad is much smaller, starting out with 4 slots, going up to a maximum of 6 if you pay for officer training. In exchange, your soldiers are slightly hardier in the early game, which makes it a bit easier to get attached. Don’t expect to get away with stupid moves, though.
Squad customization changed in mixed ways. Instead of having several slots for putting items in (and playing a minigame of Tetris), you equip armor, main weapon, sidearm, and backpack item, which feels more restrictive, though I suppose the upside is that you won’t accidentally eat up time units shuffling around ammo clips and grenades. On the plus side, your soldiers themselves get a bit of variety by picking up special abilities as they’re promoted, based on their class: Heavy, Assault, Sniper, and Support. I’ve had fun with the Assault class, using the Run and Gun ability which allows the soldier to shoot after a double-move, combined with Lightning Reflexes where they auto-dodge the first reaction shot against them. Typical result: Shotgun, face. One nice touch is that when a soldier gets promoted to Sergeant, he or she gets a call sign which comes in handy if you’re not familiar with the sort of names from their native country.
Angry Joe, in his praising review (9/10 with his Badass Seal of Approval) brings up an excellent point about the story in both the new and classic X-COM: The memorable stories come from your battles, not from pre-written scripts. Nearly every Let’s Play I’ve seen has some soldier who distinguishes himself by performing some insanely heroic acts against all odds. Sometimes a poorly-performing rookie gets a stroke of luck in a pinch that redeems him in the player’s eyes. That sort of thing adds replay value.
The big thing I have to learn to deal with is managing resources off the field. There’s always so much stuff I want to get or build, and you get paid on a monthly basis. Missions can include money rewards, but they only show up so often. You can sell alien bodies and artifacts on the gray market, but you have to shoot down alien ships, which requires satellites for detecting them, satellite uplink rooms in your base to support those satellites, and interceptor aircraft to shoot them down. There are some hard choices to make.
The choices get harder because there are alien abductions that happen in three places in the world simultaneously, and you’ve only got one Skyranger. You get different rewards depending on which attack you respond to, usually money, scientists, engineers, or an experienced soldier. The cost is that the panic level in the regions you pass on will increase. If a nation’s panic level is five at the end of the month, they withdraw their support from X-COM, so you have to find a way to quickly lower their panic level. So far, the only player-controllable one I know is giving them a satellite.
I’m going to be starting a new game today to apply what I’ve learned. I’m sticking with Normal for now, but sooner or later, I’m going to try “Classic” difficulty to get a feel for the old school unfairness.