I’m X-Coming

Last week 2K Games announced that their 2K Marin studio is developing a new X-Com game. This re-imagining, which will be available for Xbox 360 and PC, seems to signal a new direction for the brand and eschew the turn-based strategy roots of the series. Going under the title “XCOM”, it will be a first person shooter. “Players will explore the world of XCOM from an immersive new perspective and experience firsthand the fear and tension of this gripping narrative ride” says Christoph Hartmann, president of 2K, in a press release. The same stock of studios handling XCOM were involved in the development of the Bioshock series, which is a strong pedigree in the field of overtly immersive first person shooters to link any new game to. If that’s the direction they are aiming in, there is clearly encouraging experience to draw on within 2K, and so more than enough reason to focus development along that route.

The shot released with the XCOM announcement. As you can see, something unmistakably distressing is definitely happening there.
The shot released with the XCOM announcement. As you can see, something unmistakably distressing is definitely happening there.

Based on what information we have (or rather don’t have), what may yet differentiate XCOM from probable peers such as the F.E.A.R. and Bioshock series is the structure built around the core first person gameplay. In contemporary titles of this ilk it is generally a narrative thrust that propels the player through the game. In the original X-Com games, what pulled many players through proceedings was instead a drip-feed of information on a growing and diversifying enemy. The nature of the challenge being faced was revealed through researching aliens, their equipment and their craft. As the pieces were gradually filled in, the overall picture and final solution became clear. What could pass for the “surprise twist” of the very first game in the series unceremoniously popped up in a research window once enough was understood elsewhere. It looks as if 2K may take this general structure, which is common to the core titles in the X-Com series, and wrap it in a more immediate and aesthetically striking package. This approach makes sense. After all, the central concept, that a largely unknown alien force is attacking Earth and the player must learn about and repel this attack, is a compelling one, that continues to intrigue within the mainstream.

2K state in their press release that “XCOM combines the strategic core of the groundbreaking franchise with a suspense-filled narrative and distills it into a tense and unique first-person shooter experience”, which suggests that either XCOM will feature strategic elements separate to the core gameplay, or the combat itself will require strategic thinking. The latter seems more likely to me at this stage. While trying to integrate research, resource management and global decision-making to this new title would be a noble nod to the original games in the series and would certainly appeal to the fans of those games, it would probably represent a notable technical challenge. Additionally there would be a risk in then taking that game to market alongside the likes of the Halo and Gears of War titles, which have a highly successful narrow focus.

However, there are more subtle mainstays of the original X-Com games that we may see in this new title. Missions in the core series titles generally involve some variation on assaulting and exploring an immobile alien craft, responding to alien “terror” assaults of human cities, raiding alien bases, or repelling alien raids on human bases. All of those scenarios throw up exciting possibilities for this new XCOM game. One of the most tense situations from the originals was opening the main door of the alien craft and rushing in. Often you wouldn’t know what species was on the other side, let alone their number and armament. If you throw the possibility of cooperative squad action into the mix then a distinct and exciting proposition begins to form.

A striking aspect of those first games in the series was the violence and occasional flashes of gore. The world of X-Com is harsh, brutal and unforgiving. The aliens had specialist species designed to terrify the human population, and they knew how to use them. The enemies’ use of mind control deserves a mention, but arguably the most famous of all their frightening weapons is the Chryssalid. Once it had seen you it was difficult to put down before it implanted its eggs inside one of your squad, the effect of which would be unfortunate. Said squad member would first become a zombie, then later would transform into a new Chryssalid. It was an effective use of body horror and it’s hard to see those particular aliens failing to make the cut in some form in 2K’s apparently fear-focussed new venture.

It knows where you live and it's on its way. Prepare aioli.
It knows where you live and it's on its way. Prepare aioli.

Beyond, we may also see a nod to the persistent squadmates, ability progression and ranking system of the original X-Com strategy titles. In them, you had to realise which of your soldiers were expendable and which were truly valuable. If a soldier died, he stayed dead, so the risk that you may lose a truly valuable unit had to be constantly balanced with the reward of utilising your most effective tactical options. Additionally, the player was largely given free reign over outfitting and equipping their squad, with the proviso that you generally could not be certain of the threat you were facing next. If some elements of that combat make-up were included in XCOM they too could add greatly to its success.

The very first game in the series, UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-Com: UFO Defense), is universally critically acclaimed even to this day. It will forever pop up on lists of the greatest games of all time principally because it remains timeless. I choose, at this stage, to greet this announcement of a re-birth for the series with excitement over the possibilities and no tangible worry. We’ll see over the coming months as we learn more details just how much effort has been made by 2K to integrate some of that timeless appeal into their new title. If they can capture even a small fraction of that magic in XCOM, we might be treated to something excellent when the game so many have been quietly waiting for finally arrives.







4 responses to “I’m X-Coming”

  1. Andy T avatar
    Andy T

    I can’t wait for this I used to love the XCOM games so much. I would still play the old ones to this day if I had a copy of them that would run on any even slightly modern computer.

  2. Simon avatar

    They’re on Steam, dirt cheap and I got them running very nicely on Win XP last year. Highly recommended.

  3. Kat avatar

    I’ve never experienced the original XCOMs but this looks like it could have the makings of a good game for my 360 🙂

  4. Andy T avatar
    Andy T

    On steam you say…well perhaps I’ll just be heading there now then

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