The XCOM: Enemy Unknown review that took 18 years to write

, | Game reviews

Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. This will lead to a series of events that would take me all day to diagram with straws, and even then, trying to understand it would fry your brain like an egg. Suffice to say, time travel will allow me to write the following XCOM review with the help of a leading authority on all things X-Com: myself.

After the jump, I came across time for you, X-Com

2012 Tom: Hello, I’m Tom Chick. I’ve been playing videogames for as long as they’ve been around.

1994 Tom: And I’m Tom Chick, too. I’ve also been playing videogames for as long as they’ve been around.

2012 Tom: Well, they just haven’t been around as long for you.

1994 Tom: I don’t see what that has to do with anything.

2012 Tom: The games I play are more advanced.

1994 Tom: Excuse me?

2012 Tom: More advanced. The people who make them have had more time to figure out how to do it better.

1994 Tom: By more advanced, you mean they’re made to be more competitive with other forms of entertainment. They’re easier to get into, they’re more immediately gratifying. They’re flashier. They’re suited to playing in shorter bursts.

2012 Tom: How would you know?

1994 Tom: You had me play the XCOM remake.

2012 Tom: Well, you make it sound like those are bad things.

1994 Tom: I’m guessing games in 2012 are made to sell before they’re made to play. I’m guessing a lot of the games I play have no place in 2012. I love X-Com, Civilization, Red Baron, and even war games with CRTs. Do you even remember what CRT stands for?

2012 Tom: Do I remember what CRT stands for? Of course. Cathode ray tube. I still have some of those monitors in the garage.

1994 Tom: You so do not deserve an X-Com remake. You should really let me handle this review.

2012 Tom: No, because you’d just start out complaining about the hyphen and it would go into a nerdcore rabbit hole from there. Just be grateful that I’ve invited you into the future to play a game you won’t get to play for another 18 years. Besides, it’s not a remake. It’s an update, or an homage, or a reimagining. It’s its own thing.

1994 Tom: If it was its own thing, it wouldn’t be called XCOM. But it is called XCOM and it’s missing a lot of stuff from the original X-Com.

2012 Tom: That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1994 Tom: Maybe. Maybe not. But a lot of the missing stuff is conspicuous for us X-Com fans. For instance, why aren’t there nighttime missions?

2012 Tom: Some of the missions are at night.

1994 Tom: Which isn’t the same thing. Nighttime missions have a whole other feel in the original X-Com. That was one of the few games that really appreciated darkness for what it is: a real pain in the ass when you need to see stuff. Remember F-19 Stealth Fighter? Flying at night?

2012 Tom: Wow, that takes me back.

1994 Tom: I bet flight sims are really cool in 2012.

2012 Tom: Well.

1994 Tom: I bet the dynamic campaigns are unlike anything I can imagine.

2012 Tom: That’s, uh, yeah. That’s one way to put it.

1994 Tom: I bet the flight models are amazingly realistic.

2012 Tom: Yeah, we’ll get into that another time. But these days, it takes an indie project like Day Z to really turn off the lights.

1994 Tom: Day Z? What’s that?

2012 Tom: It’s a zombie game.

1994 Tom: They made a whole game about zombies? Like, the whole game? Cool.

2012 Tom: Taking visibility away from the player is way too harsh. Just turn everything a little bluer and call it a night. If it’s good enough for movies, it’s good enough for games.

1994 Tom: That’s the kind of thinking that brought us all those full motion video CD-ROM games. But it’s not just the lack of meaningful nighttime. The missions overall have a whole other feel in the original X-Com. X-Com is like war. Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. I haven’t played them yet, but I know I’ll love games like Far Cry 2, Wind Waker, and Silent Hill when they come out.

2012 Tom: Hey, that’s dirty pool.

1994 Tom: I bet you’re still playing serious submarine sims.

2012 Tom: Lots of people didn’t like those games, and lots of people don’t need long stretches of boredom to punctuate their sheer moments of terror. Sometimes moments of sheer terror can be efficiently orchestrated.

1994 Tom: But you like it when that stuff happens organically. When the terror, when the action is all the more meaningful for the downtime.

2012 Tom: I do, but in 2012, I don’t necessarily need it. I don’t mind that this XCOM is densely packed with a certain number of aliens per screenful of map.

1994 Tom: There aren’t many screenfuls of these maps. Why are they so small? Why is there so little room to move? Why is it always so obvious which direction you have to go?

2012 Tom: It isn’t always. Some of the maps are bigger.

1994 Tom: Please. You played the original X-Com. You know what I’m saying. X-Com played out in large areas where you didn’t always have the luxury of putting your back to an inviolable map edge, much less the luxury of knowing where the aliens will be waiting for you. That uncertainty, that expanse, made X-Com X-Com.

2012 Tom: I have a feeling a lot of your reservations about this XCOM involve specific ideas about what made X-Com X-Com. I’d rather talk about what makes XCOM XCOM. The frequent discrete choices. The boardgameyness.

1994 Tom: Boardgameyness? What does that even mean? Like Monopoly?

2012 Tom: Like Shadow Watch.

1994 Tom: What’s that?

2012 Tom: Really, you don’t know Shadow Watch?

1994 Tom: Not for another six years.

2012 Tom: Well, you’re in for a treat. But in terms of gameplay, XCOM owes more to the great boardgames of the 21st century than to the original X-Com. This is a design about establishing simple rules and then breaking them. For instance, a soldier only gets to do two things a turn. Simple rule. But a heavy soldier with bullet swarm gets to fire before doing its two things, or an assault soldier with run-and-gun gets to move twice and then fire. Simple rule broken.

1994 Tom: Time units were better. You could do more things.

2012 Tom: More isn’t better. Has Sid Meier said that thing about good games being a series of interesting choices yet? Because this is that. Spending eight turns deciding who’s going to move next while you’re going down the street isn’t interesting. Why not compress that street, and those turns, into one important decision? Why not get down to brass tacks?

1994 Tom: You know what’s an interesting choice? Who’s going to get off the Sky Ranger first. The Sky Ranger isn’t even in this game.

2012 Tom: Yes it is.

1994 Tom: Just its butt. You have a big ol’ Sky Ranger butt at the corner of every map. That’s not a Sky Ranger. You walk around underneath a Sky Ranger. A Sky Ranger has wheels for you to hide behind. You jetpack up on top of a Sky Ranger to see better. A Sky Ranger has a ramp you come down.

2012 Tom: Yeah, like those boats that Tom Hanks came out of on D-Day. I do miss that.

1994 Tom: Tom Hanks was at D-Day?

2012 Tom: It’s a movie.

1994 Tom: That would make a cool videogame. How come no games have a D-Day level? Hey, did you get to the Sidonia level in XCOM?

2012 Tom: Wait, don’t tell me. That’s a spoiler.

1994 Tom: Didn’t you finish the game?

2012 Tom: Well.

1994 Tom: Did you get to the end?

2012 Tom: No. I got pretty far before my game was killed by a bug. Everything hanged during an alien activity phase. I hadn’t saved in over three hours.

1994 Tom: Ouch.

2012 Tom: Yeah. In that respect, it’s like the original X-Com. Do you people from 1994 even know about the difficulty bug yet?

1994 Tom: What difficulty bug?

2012 Tom: What difficulty level are you playing on?

1994 Tom: Veteran.

2012 Tom: Keep telling yourself that. But I didn’t really mind restarting XCOM. I’ve since gotten a couple more games going, but I’m trying to play on the harder difficulty level, which is so gratifying for how frustrating it can be. It’s a perfect expression of games as enjoyable frustration.

1994 Tom: I don’t like all this hoo-ha about satellites. And why does America have cheaper airplanes but South America is better at autopsies? That makes no sense.

2012 Tom: Games are inevitably about abstracting things. You play Civilization I and you have a problem with the continental bonuses in XCOM? How are those phalanxes doing against your battleships?

1994 Tom: Wait, you said Civilization I. There’s more than one Civilization in the future?

2012 Tom: I love the sleek strategic stuff. I love the sorts of decisions I have to make at the base. I love how well it creates a sense of tension from passing time at the base, how important events are always just a few days away, much more efficiently than the original game.

1994 Tom: So you haven’t gotten to the base assaults yet?

2012 Tom: The alien base assaults? Sure, I’ve gotten to those.

1994 Tom: No, I mean the XCOM base assault. You haven’t gotten to that yet? Where the aliens attack your base?

2012 Tom: No.

1994 Tom: Well guess what? You’re not going to. The aliens don’t assault your base in XCOM.

2012 Tom: That’s too bad. I love that idea that your home base isn’t as safe as you assume. I’m playing another game now called Cargo Commander, and it’s a great moment when you realize that aliens can get into your ship to attack you. You’re going to love that in a game called Fatal Frame 3 one day. But that makes sense in XCOM that they can’t attack your base. How are they going to attack a base from a side view?

1994 Tom: I know, right?

2012 Tom: I don’t mind the side view, though. I actually like it. It has a certain amount of charm. It looks like a Wes Anderson thing, like the cutaway of the ship in Life Aquatic.

1994 Tom: Who’s Wes Anderson?

2012 Tom: You and me come from such different worlds.

1994 Tom: Well, in my world, X-Com is way better than XCOM. I have serious problems with this fancy new version. I can see how the masses might like it. I can see how it would sell well. I can see how Microprose has sold out and you went right along with them. But there’s too much missing. There’s not enough of the essentials that made X-Com the game that it was. I’d give it two stars.

2012 Tom: Well, you don’t get to rate it. You can be a part of the review, but you can’t be a part of the final call.

1994 Tom: Why not?

2012 Tom: Because it’s not 1994 anymore. It’s 2012. This is a real shot of innovation and bold creativity and relevance in terms of bringing something older into the modern world of videogame design. As an example of game design in the year 2012, it’s inspired. Compare this to Dishonored, for example.

1994 Tom: What’s that?

2012 Tom: You know Thief?

1994 Tom: No.

2012 Tom: Well, Dishonored is like a game you haven’t played yet called Thief. And it still uses all the same tropes, from hoarding arrows, to creeping around vision cones, to navigating patrol paths. Dishonored might be a good game, but it acts as if the games we played in the 90s transplant just fine to the 2010s. Sometimes they don’t. XCOM knows that.

1994 Tom: I don’t believe you believe that. I don’t believe you think the games I love from this time — the games you loved — aren’t great in any time.

2012 Tom: It’s not just that. It’s more about how game design evolves, and changes, and adapts over time. You don’t know yet what’s going to happen to flight sims and strategy games and RPGs and RTSs.

1994 Tom: What are RTSs?

2012 Tom: Like Warcraft. Like Command and Conquer.

1994 Tom: What’s that?

2012 Tom: You have so much to learn. You don’t know yet how many kinds of games are going to go through a downward spiral of getting too detailed, too involved, too esoteric, of catering to increasingly vocal hardcore players like you and me. Yet all the while, publishers will need to see bigger returns on their investments, so they’ll realize they can’t cater to those people, to us. You don’t know yet what we’re going to do to videogames. Entire genres will all but vanish. You’re going to have a tough time of it.

1994 Tom: Well, as long as id keeps making great games. I’ve been playing a lot of Doom II. Imagine X-Com as a Doom II style game. I hope someone in the future thinks that up.

2012 Tom: Which reminds me that you don’t know yet how lucky you are that a developer plucked a game from your time and decided to update it to my time. Besides, if you want the original X-Com experience in 2012, you can still set up an emulator to play the original X-Com. Or you can play a really good clone on the iPad called Aliens vs Humans.

1994 Tom: What’s an Eye Pad?

2012 Tom: You don’t want to know. Your life will be 18 years of sheer hell waiting for it to be invented.

1994 Tom: Come on, tell me.

2012 Tom: You know the Gameboy?

1994 Tom: Yeah.

2012 Tom: It’s like that.

1994 Tom: Oh.

2012 Tom: Look. In six years, you’re going to write an article for IGN in which you list the four things that made X-Com great. You don’t know what they’re going to be yet, so I’ll tell you. One, the sense of attachment to your troops. Write this down. Two, the way the gameplay unfolds in the campaign. Three, the atmosphere. Are you getting this? And, four, the way you can break stuff. This new XCOM gets all four of those things right, even if it does some of them in different ways. It knows. It understands. But not blindly, not slavishly. More than a fan of X-Com, this game is a fan of the tenets of modern game design. It’s doing exactly the right thing, in exactly the right ways, at exactly the right time.

1994 Tom: What’s IGN?

4 stars