About a month ago, Firaxis released a sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you haven’t played it, you should, because it’s awesome. It benefits not only from being an excellent game, but also from not really requiring you to have played the first game because of some interesting canon discontinuity. Anyway, I’m not here to sing the praises of the new XCOM game, though I could probably do that all day. I’m actually here to talk about the important differences between XCOM 2, it’s direct predecessor, and it’s great ancestor: X-Com: UFO Defense.
Now, you should know that this series is pretty important to me. Ever since I discovered the original X-Com at a thrift store when I was like, eleven, I’ve pretty much thought that it was objectively the best video game ever made. Now, here we are, 17 years later, and I honestly think there’s still a decent case for that statement. Of course, what makes a game good isn’t objective, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would say that the new games are much better than the original. In some ways that’s just fact instead of opinion: the graphics are better, there’s voice acting, a stronger narrative, more character customization. So why do I say that the original could still be considered a better game? Well, because I think some people would ultimately value the extra freedom afforded by the original, which brings me to…
The Subtitle of the Article
The new XCOM series is amazing, but it doesn’t give you nearly the amount of freedom that the original did. Gone were many of the elements of base management, or even force management. Soldier customization was more interesting, but there was a lot more direction being given to you. The combat mechanics, similarly, are a lot more simplified in the new franchise. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean there are times when I crave the extra complexity of the original.
So, for those who don’t know, in classic X-Com you could manage multiple bases with more complex layouts. There was an absolute minimum of guidance, and without hitting the right research you may only see progress in the form of more dangerous enemies. Combat had an interesting thing where accuracy was not represented entirely by a chance to hit or miss, but by a chance for deviation in the path of the round from the target. So it was possible to fire a shot at an alien, miss, and hit the alien (or ally, or civilian) behind him. This also meant you could fire blind shots if you thought you knew where an alien was, not that this did you much good. The original also factored in a lot of stuff that seemed way ahead of its time, things that most players wouldn’t need to pay attention to until the higher difficulties, like characters passing out from a lack of air in smoke-filled rooms, or how the third dimension affects your grenade throwing.
There’s a lot less of this in the newer games, but our tradeoff is a much more intuitive game with a much better structure. I had, at best, a loose idea of what I needed to do in the original until a friend of mine started bragging to me about how he had beaten it. As a kid, my chances of reaching Cydonia without some kind of outside guidance were very slim. In the new games, I feel like young Game Detective probably would have reached the end. Not because the games are easier (they are, but that’s not really the point), but because they give you a much better idea of what you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to go. Also, while all of that extra stuff in the first game’s combat system could be cool, it could also be really annoying. Sometimes your shot would miss, and the game would make you watch the bullet go all the way to the end of the map because it didn’t hit anything.
So which do I prefer? Well, that really depends on the day. I think if I were going to recommend one to a friend I would go with the new series, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sheer complexity of the original. Honestly, though, the question of which is better is less important to me than noticing the strengths that come from a game embracing one or the other. Freedom vs. structure in games is a spectrum where every game designer eventually has to decide their place on, and I think it’s interesting how a franchise with such a strong reputation for being on one end of that spectrum has shifted closer to the middle with its newer games. It’s even more interesting because I believe any X-Com fan will happily tell you that these games capture the spirit of the classic.