New Trailer Shows 2K Still Doesn’t “Get” X-COM

Posted: June 4, 2011 in PC, PS3
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In Defense of UFO Defense

MicroProse’s original X-Com game, X-Com: UFO Defense (or UFO Enemy Unknown in Europe) is what you would call a classic. It married turn-based, squad-level combat with ingenious micromanagement and simulation, forcing you to take a lot of risks in the early stages, ending up with a high casualty rate, but also with increasingly powerful technology as you researched alien hardware and physiology, eventually mustering the technological might and manpower to take the fight to the aliens’ front door. Squad management was tough, as new recruits had high casualty rates and poor aim, and were susceptible to panicking, going berserk, or getting killed horribly. Base construction, aerial interception, and death-around-every-corner missions on foot as well as a creepy, atmospheric vision of the near future made it a memorable, successful, and well-loved title. It frequently shows up on best PC game of all time lists.

2K Games’ XCOM is a first person shooter.

That simple fact, when it was originally announced, was in its own right enough to send most longtime X-Com fans (such as myself) into a Wolverine-style berserker rage. But I decided to wait. And then, at last year’s E3, the first trailer came out. The trailer showed a bunch of FBI agents in 1950s suburbia hunting down alien goo monsters. So…an isometric strategy game with deep management options, set in the near future is somehow now a first person shooter set in the 1950s.

“Exsqueeze me?”

I’ve tried, but I can’t seem to understand 2K’s logic here. To me it sounds like someone said “X-COM…say, that sounds like X-Files! Let’s get wasted, watch a bunch of episodes, read some Venom back issues and see what happens” more than it seems anyone on the development team actually played the game. Noticing it bore more than a passing resemblance (to the point of probably using the same assets) to a certain other 2K franchise, X-Com fans dubbed it “XenoShock”. After that first trailer, all news on the game went noticeably silent. Speculation among the fanbase guessed they were retooling the game to be more tactically oriented in response to the overwhelmingly negative response from…pretty much everyone.

And now with the second trailer, shown above, they’ve done absolutely nothing to calm the X-Com fans down. We basically got more of the same that we got with the first trailer – sure, there was a squad shown, but this doesn’t fix any of the fundamental problems with the game.

Saying What Everyone is Thinking

First of all, the setting. X-Com: UFO Defense was set in a future inspired by anime, comics, and cartoons. The characters were all in cool GI Joe or Centurions-style armor, and this was part of its brilliance – it sort of showed what would really happen if these kinds of cartoon characters showed up to fight an alien menace – they would be slaughtered, and horribly. In addition, your X-Com agents were drawn from an international pool of agents, and you could place bases all over the world. 2K’s game, which I would rather call something else, takes place in a 1950s suburban setting, filled to the brim with mid-century modern houses and G-men with square jaws and shotguns. No form-fitting armor, no jet interceptors, no dropships. If you’re going to turn it into a first person shooter, at least have a shred of respect for Julian Gollop’s original game and set it in the same universe.

In addition, you have characters and story. UFO Defense didn’t have much in the way of story – it was adapt, defend, build, attack, and survive. 2K’s Robot Cowboy Baseball (as I will now be calling it, as that name has as much to do with 2K’s game as X-Com does) features “a bold new origin story told from a first-person perspective”. I know every game developer since Metal Gear Solid was released is a closet auteur with a burning need to tell stories, but the fact is, story is not the focus of X-Com. The meat of the game is in commanding and managing your troops and resources. There’s genuine excitement and suspense in not knowing if a Chrysalid is going to be around the next corner.

In the original X-Com, you’re in charge of protecting Big Blue.

In addition – what’s with the monster design, or lack thereof? The only alien we see is black goo (I guess they were so hard-up for ideas, they stole from Marvel’s Secret Wars). Would it kill you guys to actually show something? A Sectoid, a Floater, a lizard man? I’m guessing Robot Cowboy Baseball probably doesn’t have any of those, or one of them would have at least made an appearance.

And while the 2K Australia team assures us you can research things, all we’ve been shown is taking pictures of dead bodies. Which…is pretty much the research from BioShock. Considering this team worked on both BioShock games, I presume they’re just repurposing the same engine and gameplay for Robot Cowboy Baseball. Research seems like it will give petty upgrades like “damage +” or “x amount of research unlocks weapon y”. What we’ve seen isn’t new, it’s just culled from a previously released game.

There’s a reason it’s considered one of the finest PC games of all time.

The shift from turn-based isometric strategy game to story-based FPS also really bothers me, and not just because the previous X-Com spinoff shooter, Enforcer, was about as fun as hitting yourself with a hammer and then jumping into a trashcan full of broken glass. It’s such an out-of-left-field change that it’s like making a new Civilization that’s a racing game, or a new Wizardry that’s a fighting game. Hey, why not make a Batman movie starring Kevin James as Batman, and it’s a romantic comedy with Jar-Jar Binks as his sidekick! Sure, first person shooters are all the rage, and I know you’re a business with the goal of raking in the big bucks from the FPS crowd, but this is the kind of non-risktaking that hurts innovation in games. Big companies don’t want to lose money and therefore refuse to take risks on less popular genres. I mean, hell, you guys could have easily made it work as a real-time strategy game! That would have been more acceptable. But making it a shooter reeks of “me too”. Well, there are a LOT of shooters coming out next year, and I really doubt many gamers are going to notice Robot Cowboy Baseball when Battlefield 3, MW3, and BioShock Infinite hit the market.

Batman and Jar-Jar: Thunder Down Under

Which leads me to my final thought: why call it X-Com at all? It has no connection to the old games, is in a completely different genre, and those that are interested in the game are generally not part of the original X-Com fanbase (who have been overly hostile towards Robot Cowboy Baseball). So my question is, why use the name at all? Why not create a new intellectual property? This wouldn’t alienate and anger the existing X-Com fanbase and would allow the game to stand on its own merits. Either grow a pair and release a real X-Com game or retool Robot Cowboy Baseball into its own game with its own name.

2K has set themselves up for a massive failure here. I hope they realize it.

  1. Steerpike says:

    Sing it, brother. This “reboot” doesn’t look good at all. Why can’t anyone save the players recognize what made X-COM so great?

    Look, people: take UFO: Aftershock. Remove a bunch of the bugs. Polish the bejeezus out of it. Add a robust relationship/political maneuvering engine. Drastically improve character building. Establish three modes of tactical play you can switch between in real time: Site Commander (turn based, control of all units); Tactical Commander (timeshifted, control of available units), Single Soldier (real time tactical shooter). Add more weapons, more upgrades, more base facilities, more complex research trees, more political consequences for your actions, more storyline, and opportunities for stuff like backroom dealings and public knowledge management.

    Do not just make a shooter set in the fifties. Jeez!

  2. Alien42063 says:

    I could not agree more with this opinion of the coming catastrophe that is Robot Cowboy Baseball…lol. So sad for them to destroy such an awesome IP.

    Very sad!! 😦

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