Monday, December 3, 2012

Resurrection of a Classic

I had originally intended to limit my posts to just development related topics but I have found that I don't always feel I have something remotely interesting to say about that even once a week so I am taking a moment to post about something else, namely, my current favorite game.

I loved the original X-COM: UFO Defense published by MicroProse in the mid-nineties. I was in the military  at the time and living in the barracks. There were only a couple of guys that had a PC and the games always turned into a group effort within our circle of friends. Four or five of us would gather around the PC, drink beer and at each turn of the game we would swap drivers and someone else would deploy the squad while the others either cheered them on, badger them at what we thought was a poor move or drop our jaws when the completely unexpected would happen.

This game had a LOT going for it. It was detailed, complex, and especially at the later stages of the game, quite time consuming to control each of the 12 team members you could send on a given mission. We played through it any number of times as well as the follow up games that were published. We all gained immense enjoyment out of it and I remembered it fondly for many years.

You can imagine my reaction when I heard that X-COM was getting a reboot over fifteen years later and not only was it available for the PC but for consoles as well. I was overjoyed at the idea that my beloved game was going to be resurrected using technologies that were hard to imagine at the time but I was also extremely worried. I had no idea if the game that I remembered so well would be recognizable to me any longer.

I am happy to say that the fear was misplaced and the game that I remembered, while not exactly what it was, was still, at heart, the same game I fell in love with. They managed to maintain the same feel that I had in the first game while at the same time streamlining the controls, (and though I hate to admit it) the tedium of having to take care of so many details for so many characters on a team.

The transition was very cleverly accomplished. You still have resources, research, engineering, facilities and soldiers that need to be developed and managed, just like the original but the menu structures and controls for handling soldiers in mission have been streamlined and well thought out.

Maybe it's just my imagination but the amount of items that can be developed and created seems to be more limited than the original. For example, I was surprised to discover that there was only one aircraft, a fighter, that could be developed in the game using alien technologies. The original had a number of different aircraft both fighters and troop transports, that could be developed and built. It was disappointed to know that I couldn't develop a superior troop transport and that I would forever be limited to a maximum of six troops on any given mission.

The limitation on the number of troops concerned me because at the later stages, in the original at least, I don't think you could have reasonably completed the game. I was afraid that the game was going to abruptly become either too soft or too difficult in the later stages.

Thankfully, I needn't have worried. In the reboot, the game designers have overcome this lack of firepower in the field by added some features that both simplified the development of soldiers and balanced the gameplay between the large numbers of enemy troops and the limited squad size of your team.

In the original, if you wanted to outfit any given soldier with the proper gear, you had to view that soldiers complete stat and skill list, from the demolition (for rockets) or throwing skills (for grenades) to the stamina stat (how many things the soldier could do on a single turn) to the strength of a given soldier (how much gear can they carry before they just can't move).

The reboot introduces a class system for each solider. After the first promotion they are given a class of heavy, assault, support or sniper. Each class has it's own skill tree and each skill tree has two separate but complimentary branches that you can choose between as they advance. This both simplifies soldier development (I don't have to worry about developing a soldiers strength to carry a larger weapon) and load out (only the heavy can carry a rocket launcher). At the same time, the skill trees give each class distinct advantages that allow each soldier to easily overcome one or two aliens if played to the strengths of its class.

The engineering foundry also contributes to this, allowing engineering research that will provide across the board improvements to equipment or the development of an entirely new branch of technologies.

The fifteen plus years of hardware improvements in consoles (I play on my PS3) are pretty self-explanatory. Obviously the graphics are better but also the way the cinematics are worked into a soldiers (or aliens) actions, as well as the cut scenes are extremely well done and lend flavor to the game without getting in the way.

All in all, I would say that X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a huge win for Firaxis and 2K Games and, thankfully, me.

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