Dabe Alan / 2k Games
XCOM is a gamble on a hardcore genre, and there is more riding on its success than you think
There will be many industry eyes watching the sales of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The game is scoring around 90 on Metacritic after the first round of reviews have gone live, and I will confess that I’m not sure what else I can say about the game after spending hours playing the preview build, writing about different aspects of play, and then playing the final version of the game. I think fans of turn-based games will be very happy with Enemy Unknown, and I think that the combination of splashy camera angles, a more guided experience, and strong controls on the consoles could introduce a new generation to this sort of game. That’s why the stakes are so high with the game’s release. If it fails, it’s going to do so very publicly, with many members of the press and fans of the series pulling for it. If that happens we won’t see another game of this type, with this kind of budget, for a long time.
Looking out is more important than looking back
Enemy Unknown is the right kind of franchise reboot, and comparing the original game to this updated version is telling. There was much time spent on the game’s tutorial, as modern gamers don’t like feeling adrift in their games. There is only one base that you control, although the decisions you make while expanding that base and researching new weapons and armor are very important. The small, vocal set of XCOM fans should be happy, but in many ways they’re not the most important group to placate. “I think the hardcore fans know [XCOM] and love it and remember playing it, but there is a huge player base that consider themselves hardcore that have never played XCOM before,” Garth DeAngelis, the game’s lead producer, told the Penny Arcade Report in a previous interview. “I think there’s an inherent appeal to this IP: aliens invading Earth. We wanted to embrace the original and not lose sight of what made it special. We think it will fit into the modern landscape nicely… Our wrinkle is that we’re not a shooter, we do things differently. We think we can scratch an itch that players have never heard of XCOM and may not even know that they have.” That’s what’s at stake here. This isn’t a smaller game trying to make a niche audience happy; Enemy Unknown is a mainstream, $60 title on consoles and the PC that’s pushing turn-based strategy gaming in a very real way. The punishing, uncompromising nature of the original wouldn’t fly in today’s market, and perhaps that’s a good thing. “I’m trying to think back to 1994, when XCOM was first released. Gaming was still a subculture, and especially when it came to hard-hitting strategy games like XCOM,” game journalist Patrick Stafford wrote. “Players were extremely dedicated to the game, obsessing over every detail. It was a common point of interest for many people, banding them together. For many it no doubt defined a lot of their teenage years.”That sense of being protective of the past has to go, at least in some ways. “…When it comes to gaming remakes, sometimes it’s better to let go of the past and cling on to what fresh opportunities a reimagining can bring,” Stafford said, and he’s right. Being precious about the changes made to a classic franchise in this case is missing the forest for the trees, as I don’t think 2K Games is trying to resurrect a franchise as much as they’re trying to expand the viability of a genre that has been stagnant for some time.
Wait, were we trolled by 2K Games?
Back in 2011 2K Games president Christoph Hartmann responded to criticism about the then-upcoming first-person shooter version of XCOM. “The ‘90s generation of gamers all love XCom and we own the IP, so we thought OK, what do we do with it? Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on it. But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary,” he said in an interview with MCV UK. “I use the example of music artists. Look at someone old school like Ray Charles, if he would make music today it would still be Ray Charles but he would probably do it more in the style of Kanye West. Bringing Ray Charles back is all fine and good, but it just needs to move on, although the core essence will still be the same,” Harmann continued. That sound you heard was a few million middle fingers going up as gamers reacted to this heresy with disbelief and anger. The problem is that I've been told repeatedly that Enemy Unknown as been in development for around four years, meaning the game was likely in full production at Firaxis when Hartmann made these remarks. It's possible he was banking on our anger, and the fact we'd be ready to support a strategy-centric XCOM title just to prove him wrong. Or we're giving him too much credit. Still, it's interesting to go back and re-read the angry comments responding to Hartmann's apparent slight to the strategy genre when the company was actually betting heavily on a strategy game for 2012. It's also worth noting that 2K Games has supported the hell out of XCOM at industry events, they've made developers available for interviews, and have even sent the press extensive preview builds so they could write detailed early looks at the game. This is what you do when you know you're sitting on a good game, and the mountains of positive pre-release coverage have proven out this strategy.
The possibilities for turn-based strategy have never been greater
Think of all the right moves that have been made with this game. It would have been nearly impossible to get a turn-based strategy game greenlit without a known property attached, and XCOM is still a powerful draw for core gamers. There is multiplayer in the package, and it’s fun, but the appropriate amount of resources have been allocated to it. You can pick a level, create a force out of existing character models and assets, and fight against your friends. It adds value to the game without spending a large amount of the budget and resources forcing an intricate multiplayer system when the real draw is the intense single-player game. This isn’t to say that the game has bowed down to modern sensibilities. Enemy Unknown features an extensive tutorial that does an amazing job of introducing players to the game, but you can also turn on Classic and Ironman mode if you’re ready for a more anachronistic challenge. This modern XCOM is willing to coddle players who need it and punish players who ask for it. Even with quick-saves you can lose the game if enough countries pull out of the XCOM project due to your inability to protect them, which means that if you make enough poor decisions early in the game it can be hard to pull out of the nosedive. In many cases it seems like the hardcore fans are confusing the game’s welcoming nature for a game that has been dumbed down. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dead soldiers stay dead. It’s possible to lose on both the micro and the macro scale. You learn the importance of cover very quickly. Turn on the right settings, and the game is willing to break your nose for your mistakes, and even on normal difficulty you don’t win the missions easily. The game may bump you in the right direction to move the story forward, but that’s it. Success or failure is up to you. In many ways this is an incredibly hardcore product, but it’s wrapped in enough modern trappings that a wide audience may try it, and fall in love with this style of play. Compare the savvy way this game has been updated and changed for modern audiences with the clumsy Syndicate first-person shooter, or even the fabled XCOM first or third-person shooter that has apparently fallen on hard times. Enemy Unknown isn’t a shot-for-shot remake, nor is it a complete re-imagining. It’s something in between, and it has the potential to put this style of gaming back into the mainstream. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has every opportunity to become a hit. The game has decent brand recognition, it seems to have a solid marketing budget, the reviews have been incredibly positive, and it’s a top-notch game serving a genre that needs a mainstream hit. If Enemy Unknown turns a solid profit, who knows? We may seem more high-quality strategy games released and aimed at the mainstream market. If XCOM flops we’re back to smaller games in the turn-based genre being celebrated due to their very existence. I have a review copy of the game on my hard drive, but I’ve already deleted it, and I’m going to buy my own copy of Enemy Unknown today. This isn’t just an attempt to inject new life into a genre, it’s a company betting heavily on a game they believe in, despite the historical problems strategy games have seen on the consoles. I'm ready to throw my chips in with 2K and Firaxis. More XCOM: