At many stages of my life, X-COM, in its various incarnations, has haunted my nightmares, for its obession inducing frustrations as much as its horror. It’s been ten years since the last official title was released, the ill-fated X-COM: Enforcer, which hammered a final nail into the coffin of what could have been a beautiful series. In fact, of the five X-Com games, only the original, UFO: Enemy Unknown, could actually be called a success. With these odds, the coming release of the imaginitively titled XCOM is inherently a nostalgic thrill mixed with terror.
For those who never played the series, the original UFO (1994) is a vast and sprawling story of alien invasion thwarted by a secretive multi-national special forces group, X-Com, who fight the aliens first with pistols and rifles, and later with the aliens’ own technology. The main game is turn-based tactics, similar to its ancestor Laser Squad and its contemporary Jagged Alliance. Also similar to them, it offers role-playing elements, with team members hired, fired, injured and developed, creating a emotional interest in their lives and deaths. What makes its memory so special, however, are the strategic options, the fully destructible environments and the terror. The Geoscape screen offered the ability to build bases around the world (which could themselves be invaded), purchase and build equipment, and track down alien craft, shoot them down and send troops to the crash sites. The tactical missions were three-dimensional, fully destructible and line-of-sight – features unlikely to be found in modern games. A character can investigate a blip on motion detector, only to be ambushed and run out of moves, or bullets, and then saved by another character blowing a hole in the wall with explosives. Entire levels can be demolished, but civilian deaths need to also be taken into account.
UFO was followed by X-COM: Terror from the Deep (1995), a poor effort by other hands, essentially a re-themed version of the original set in the ocean. The third instalment, X-COM:Apocalypse (1997) suffered from the feature-itis endemic of follow-ups to already packed-full games. It was crushed between this and the economic rationalism plaguing the gamescape of the late nineties (the same culmination of forces that crushed the Ultima series). The result, while it stole months of my life, is a noticeably broken game which constantly hints at features that were cut out due to budgetary limitations. This is combined with a questionable setting that combines an apocalyptic scenario with almost comical fifties styling – wholly out of place with earlier incarnations. The series then attempted to diversify upon its failings, with a flight sim, X-COM: Interceptor (1998) and a squad based FPS, X-COM: Enforcer (2001). Each fell further from the original mark, and each failed financially. The series was killed, and while it was followed by many pretenders, it seemed financially unviable for there to ever be another big-budget entry in the series.
It feels like a fever dream, then, to see the new footage of this new XCOM, a reimagining of the series by 2K Marin, and it certainly seems to contain a befitting level of excitement and terror. There are some questions, however. Firstly, it’s an FPS, departing far from the original X-COM games, and falling closer to X-COM: Enforcer, the greatest failure of the series. Secondly, the setting. While the nineteen-fifties setting highlights the dissonance between advanced alien technology and human technology (the grease guns seen in the trailer), the slightly comical look suggests the possibility that this may be less of a reimagining of the original X-COM, and more of an attempt to recreate the success of the retro-futuristic, tragi-comic Fallout 3 and Bioshock – a sequel and a spiritual successor, respectively, to game-series contemporary with the original X-COM series, and both left long-fallow in a similar way before being revived by a new production company.
However, even if this is the case, it will be emulating two remarkable games, and, regardless, I will reserve a space at the head of the queue on release in 2012. It is pegged for a March 9 release in Europe, March 6 in the US, on PC, XBOX 360 and PS3.