Five games later, the fifth XCOM title appeared around the dawn of the millennium. This last entry was entitled Enforcer and it was a simple shooter that had no strategic depth whatsoever. It pitted you on a solo quest to eradicate the aliens from the first game with only a robot. A straightforward third-person shoot-em-up that had no overreaching tactical control or anything canonically connected to the XCOM saga itself. While the game was perfectly functional and fairly pleasing on the eye (for the time) it stood apart from the usual managerial affair inherent in prior titles.
A couple more titles briefly came to light but were subsequently cancelled. Genesis was meant to be a complete remake of the original, while Alliance went on to further the story established in UFO Defense. Both titles looked fairly promising and the latter even managed to reveal a decent cinematic trailer. Set twenty years following Terror from the Deep, you’d form an alliance with a new race of aliens to fight familiar aggressors. It would set the combat in a first-person perspective while leaving the micromanaging to a simple two-dimensional interface.
Unfortunately, it never happened. Even high praise such as “the pinnacle of tactical gaming, a new high-water mark that’ll bust through established game genres,” couldn’t save it. Despite reports about its eventual release during late 2001, it would delay further with a loss of dev team member. In 2002, the entire kaboodle was no more and so it would appear the franchise was over for good.
A fresh beginning
The first decade of the 21st Century would see a plethora of squad-based strategy games with varying success. The UFO series especially (Aftermath, Aftershock and Afterlight) attempted to homage the original XCOM series with a middling amount of success. Though lauded for buggy and repetitive gameplay, they were fairly competent strategy titles. But their overly complicated user interfaces and steep learning curve set them apart. Three short years following the release of UFO Afterlight, a new XCOM trailer appeared. But it wasn’t anything the fans would ever suspect.
With a fifties setting and a first-person perspective, it upset a lot of people. Fans had waited for years for a modern successor to the saga and were livid at this lazy FPS title. Claiming to be a survivor horror title, with aspects of run-and-gun, it would have minor squad managerial elements too. But delay upon delay inhibited its eventual release. This coupled with public criticism would change the entire format into a third person affair. The setting would move on ten years into the more turbulent early sixties, while the game employed a role-playing element of character classes.
But this concept would be shelved for a later date. In the meantime, a new reveal in 2012 showed the world a complete reboot of the original XCOM title. Labelled XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it delighted the majority of fans who wanted the traditional overhead strategy format. Familiar weapons, foes and even aircraft made their debut appearance with a fresh look. The staples of alien research, team management and base building remained steadfast. Yet some would laud the seemingly comical appearance of the new setting.
Beginning in the year of 2015, we find the world to be under attack by forces unknown. Urban centres are under fire from bizarre creatures and reports of alien abductions are rife. In response, the world’s nations band together and form the XCOM organisation, choosing the player as it’s new leader. It is up to him/her to oversee the organisations role of shooting down UFOs, investigation alien landing sites and defending cities from alien incursions. At the same time, you’ll research their technology and physiology to adapt your soldiers and aircraft in the coming battle.
Its future DLC would incorporate a third party element called Exalt into the war. This is a human organisation, similar to XCOM, but it uses the panic of alien invasion to seize the chance at attacking XCOM directly. Also, the DLC introduces the player to the concept of Meld, a nanomachine resource used to enhance your soldiers. The DLC also contains an XCOM base invasion mission and other special events, such as launching an assault upon an alien battleship and infiltrating Exalt.
Playing the game
For those who’ve played the original, this reboot follows in very familiar footsteps, albeit generally simplified throughout. The reduced funding available is rather noticeable, as resources, facilities and aircraft cost far less to purchase and maintain. Whereas in the original title the player oversaw a budget of millions, the reboot gives a meagre three figure amount each month. Squad numbers have been reduced to a maximum of six soldiers, plus you’re only allowed to visit one out of three terror sites at any given time. Sacrificing two of them causes panic to rise in those respective nations.
As a matter of fact, panic becomes the games balancing act throughout the conflict. Nations that experience repeated neglect and assault will eventually withdraw XCOM funding from the council. As well as saving the local populace, panic is reduced by a system of global satellite coverage. Nations under a watchful eye will have reduced panic, making it easier for the player to focus on the more dangerous hotspots. A contingent of interceptors within each nation will ensure the satellites protection.
The technology tree is of a similar nature to the original game. Laser weapons provide a substantial upgrade to current arms, which eventually become replaced with those of the aliens plasma guns. Personal armour suits are laden with unique abilities, such as a cloaking device and grapple hooks. The health system has been changed to a simple handful of hit points. Weapon fire is likely to cause wounding, instead of killed outright. Yet psychological elements such as panic and going berserk are still here.
Aliens are now much smarter in combat, forcing the player to take cover more often. Reaction fire is no longer automatic, while time units have been completely removed. Instead, each soldier has two movement/action points. You can either run within a limited field and perform one action thereafter. Or you can dash to the outer limits of your movement range, sacrificing both action points. Terror sites within cities are now special events that only occasionally happen. While the elimination of aliens is paramount as ever, you’re also tasked with meeting up with civilians and rescuing them directly.
The idea of the sixties set prequel to the modern events of Enemy Unknown wouldn’t be completely forgotten. Released in 2013, this would hold tight of its third person squad concept and omit much of the overreaching managerial aspects of previous titles.
Instead of a nameless and faceless player character, you would take on the role of one William Carter. Beginning at Groom Lake, Nevada, you’ve been asked to report to a Director Faulke, with a mysterious briefcase in tow. Upon arrival, he suspects the officer greeting him isn’t all she appears to be. This turns out to be a valid gut reaction, as the woman transforms into something not of this Earth. A disgusting black substance violently vacates her body and attacks William, critically wounding him in the process.
The possessed woman opens the case. A monumental flash obliterates her, while merely knocking William unconscious. When he finally awakens, he finds his wounds have healed. Suddenly, the base outside is under attack and William makes haste to find the Director. Accompanied by soldiers along the way, he eventually finds Faulke and the two evacuate in a helicopter, just as the base is about to explode by an alien device. Having escaped the battle, William finds out that communication blackouts are in effect, even lines that would normally link them to the government itself. Without further ado, Faulke personally awakens a project called The Bureau.
Formally designed to keep military forces co-ordinated in light of a possible Soviet invasion, it has now become the front line of dealing with the alien menace and renamed XCOM. Outfitted with a whole cavalcade of engineering, scientific and armed personnel at its disposal. Its role is to downplay the invasion to the populace while researching the invaders intent and forming a counterattack against their plans. William’s new role is to lead teams of operatives across the country to investigation numerous locations. From rescuing VIPs to exploring huge alien structures within towns, it’ll be through these missions that William will learn about the larger picture.
Playing the prequel
On the outset, this isn’t like any other previous XCOM game whatsoever. Intercepting UFOs, researching alien technology and base building are out of the player’s hands. Instead, your role is to merely play the role of a frontline soldier, leading William and two other AI combatants into battle. Naturally, over time you’ll outfit your squad with more advanced weaponry but these only make slight enhancements. Your main focus will be to upgrade your skills and those of your teammates. Similar to the gun battles in Mass Effect, it’ll be your call to direct where your squad should take cover around each new area.
The skills used in battle are fairly varied and allow a myriad of ways to combat the aliens. A sniper character can perform a one-time critical shot, while an engineer can instantly place a turret. Williams skills are unique to his character, such as healing a squad mate and literally lifting an alien from cover. Utilising skills in the most optimal way possible, while keeping your team alive is key to success. I personally found a lot of enjoyment with lifting a Sectoid from cover, while ordering a sniper to make the final kill.
The cast of aliens from Enemy Unknown make a return, albeit with a few tweaks and some newcomers. Though they have omitted the more advanced Floaters and Cyberdisks, in lieu of a Sectoid controlled Sectopod. Fans of the original game may remember these two-legged robots. Silacoids make their debut here, both as a usable ally and an enemy unit. The Zudjari or Outsiders are a new breed of soldier. They come in a varied assortment of different classes, from those using mind control and other outfitted with enhanced shields.
The missions in this prequel are much different than simply defending the local populace. Apart from the occasional terror site side quest, you’ll be following a more story-centric path in the main missions. You can also level up your AI partners to send them on missions without your help. After each mission you participate in, you’ll get a chance to talk with other characters to further the story and outfit your team with newer backpacks and weapons. The backpacks enable certain ability boosts on you or the AI partners, such as increase headshot damage or increased damage against alien shield systems.
Play the games. How well do they hold up?
Naturally, if you’ve played the original strategy games, you’ll know what to expect here. However, some may not appreciate the simplified approach and smaller scale of base management. The limited operations in both games are certainly jarring. You are no longer choking off numerous alien bases constructed on Earth, or fending off intruders within your own HQ. These events do happen in EU but only once per game. Terror sites are also few in number, though the Enemy Within DLC adds extra event missions during the progression of the story.
Research in Enemy Unknown feels much more simplified and more streamlined. Even researching difficult projects takes only a matter of days instead of weeks. Capturing live aliens is still a vital avenue of progression, though only a couple of species are key to success. You must capture creatures to keep their weapons intact, as killing them will also destroy whatever they are carrying. Others creatures and their corpses only further optional weapon/armour research and development. Research into better aircraft is limited further, only requiring you to make one new hybrid alien/human vessel. Previous games had you researching multiple tiers of new interceptor and transport aircraft/submarines.
In terms of both appearance and sound, both titles hold up exceptionally well. The vibrant colours and aural aesthetics in Enemy Unknown still convey a sense of foreboding and unease. You know from the first mission that you’re up against a more powerful force. With every step taken, you survey your surroundings with caution, while the ambience draws you in with subtle environmental sounds effects. The best example for this is during the terror site missions, where the background noise is chock full of gunfire, sirens and screams.
Music during EU feels subdued compared to the original game back in 1994. Which in and of itself sounds disappointing and somewhat lacking, you never notice it’s absence and perhaps the silence during combat adds to the atmosphere. Outside of The Bureau’s headquarters, the music ramps up especially during firefights. A mournful fanfare will sound if any of your men go down in action. Considering how susceptible they are to injury, that’ll happen frequently during prolonged fights
Enemy AI is much more aggressive in these two games. Both titles have the aliens taking cover, save for heavily armoured units. While you can be opportunistic to catch them moving about in the open, this is done far less frequently and usually best left to dedicated snipers in EU. With the real-time combat in The Bureau, this becomes more of a challenge if the aliens stay dug in for long periods. In EU, allied AI will respond quickly if given the Overwatch command, sometimes activating two or more units in the vicinity. However in The Bureau, AI teammates will suffer damage all too quickly, regardless of cover. Couple that with you being the only character who can heal turns a simple skirmish into a real fight for survival.
The choice in each game of downscaling the player’s managerial involvement works for the better. I’ve heard friends express their disappointment over the heavily reduced budget in the reboot and while it is a little disappointing, you’re still free to build a fairly sizeable base for the ongoing war. While the first two XCOM games virtually insisted you make a secondary base to stave off alien attempts at colonisation, you’re still free to install interceptor bases at locations around the world. Plus, the reduced squad sizes give each mission a more cautious approach. No longer can you rely on a group of fourteen plus individuals to steamroll over the entire site.
Focusing on a squad of three individuals in The Bureau leaves it to the story itself to make progress. From the start, you can instantly make use of alien weapons found on the battlefield. While they are slightly more powerful than human weapons, they play such a minor role that it is possible to use regular shotguns and rifles all the way to the very end. The story in and of itself helps deliver a richer narrative than that seen in previous XCOM titles. You are no longer the nameless protagonist but a fleshed out soldier leading the fight with numerous character interactions.
Overall each title is worthy of being a part of the long-running saga. Both games are simple to get into without overburdening newcomers to the franchise and can be played without prior knowledge. The introduction of a narrative within each game feels refreshing and breathes much-needed life into the game’s world. Each main character has their own personality, and while sometimes very cliche, they can surprise you. The Bureau isn’t going to win many hardcore fans over, as it is simply a squad-based shooter in the XCOM universe. Its lack of research and development is unusual but since every weapon is potent enough, you won’t miss it for long.
Sometimes a reboot is a good thing. It isn’t going to please everyone, especially fans of the original. But there’s enough intact of the original to make foundations solid enough for new ideas. You’ll still lose soldiers along the way and regret not investing time and money into better research avenues. But this is war and the price of freedom is always high.