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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Any X-Com Remake Needs (For Any Genre)

A subsection of the gaming world, the section old enough to remember playing games off floppies with nostalgia, woke up this morning to a sudden sense of excitement followed by a wave of dismissal.

I'm not saying it wasn't displaced. But for those not in the subsection, let me bring you up to speed:

X-Com was one of the best games ever made.

Period. By any standard. It was released in 1994 and I'd hold it up critically to games released last week.

And here's the second point: it's never really been properly remade. The sequel, Terror Of The Deep, essentially just reskinned it. Apocalypse swapped out so many mechanics as to essentially be a different game and after that we get ports to completely different genres. Successors like Aftermath trade out key elements - honestly the closest we get are the projects which keep all the core elements and just update the graphics ... but those are all small, independent releases (but hey, hats off to each and every one of them).

Few projects bother to focus on one of the things that really resonate with X-Com fans: the game was personal. Through micro-management, you nurtured rookies through the ranks and as they became hardened veterans they became key components in your strategy. You had to use your aces to punch through hard parts - but if you put them at too much risk, their death could brutalize your campaign.

Here is my first litmus test for any X-Com recreation:

Do my squad mates have first and last names? No? Then you failed.

And after that - do I have to make life or death decisions which might mean that James Smith, the American who just got promoted last drop after his first terror doesn't make it home to his kids? No? Then you failed.

That's X-Com. It's about deciding whether to jump in to save Paris from invasion knowing that half of your crew might not make it home, if any do at all - or let it fall while you gather your strength at the risk of international favor. That's X-Com.

I have very serious doubts about 2K Marin's potential on this project. Here are their words:

With BioShock 2, the team at 2K Marin proved themselves as masters of first-person, suspenseful storytelling, and with XCOM they will re-imagine and expand the rich lore of this revered franchise," said 2K president Christoph Hartmann in a press statement. "Players will explore the world of XCOM from an immersive new perspective and experience firsthand the fear and tension of this gripping narrative ride."

According to 2K, XCOM reimagines the original's "classic tale of humanity's struggle against an unknown enemy." But unlike the original, which saw you directing squads of super-soldiers, you play an FBI agent "tasked with identifying and eliminating the growing threat." Less Starship Troopers, more X-Files, in other words.
- BioShock 2 Creator Revives XCOM After More Than Decade

So, you're and FBI agent. Unlikely you're going to be in charge of bases, or making large tactical decisions, or possibly even getting to know a squad of soldiers. Sounds like you'll be going in alone, shooting up some aliens, and following some plot.

That doesn't sound like a new X-Com. That sounds like F.E.A.R. 2.5 to me.

You could do it as a shooter - but you have to break out of the Hollywood mentality that grips the FPS genre so hard. When I was modding Unreal, I was playing with a conversion that gave you a base mode where you needed to recruit new soldiers and head off to maps to track down powerful aliens. You could tell your squad to go places with a simple point and click interface. It was necessary to place people so that everyone was well-covered, to walk the map slowly, to provide lighting, etc. I never got it past what laughingly be called an alpha - but I think you could make a shooter that stayed true to the central themes of the original game. I know I'd like to play such a game.

I just doubt Marin 2k is making such a game. The fact that they aren't even bothering with the PlayStation 3 makes me wonder if it even has much of a budget and everything I'm reading sounds like it will be X-Com in name and name alone.

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