Relax, the world is safe thanks to me, you can put your cheques in the mail later. Yes that’s right, after a hard-fought battle against the invading, probing, crop circling, cattle mutilating, hick abducting aliens, I have succeeded in destroying the threat. This of course means I am ready to give my thoughts on the latest Xcom revival of a classic by Firaxis, you better read below if you wanna.

Firaxis had a tough crowd really, the hardcore supporters had already declared their hatred for the new first person Syndicate revival, shortly after the Xcom first person revival was “put on hold” and they announced they were working on a return to the franchises roots as a turn based strategy game. So while the IP owners had perhaps dodged that bullet, they now put themselves firmly in the critical eye of the exact fans the name meant something to.

I remember playing the original Xcom lovingly, I would come home from school and load up my diskette on the Amiga and go off and shoot some alien scum. It’s mixture of atmosphere and management made every mission, every interception, every decision matter to me. I wasn’t just losing a random xcom soldier on a mission, I was losing my best buddy from school, the ability to rename your soldiers returns  although somewhat awkwardly in some regards.

I find it strange given you can customize the name and look of your soldiers but their nationality and gender are randomly set before you get them. It’s a small thing and certainly not a game breaking problem, but it does seem an oversight to require me to keep buying more recruits until I get the right nationalities/genders for my squads. What makes it more frustrating is when each soldier appears to randomly receive a class after it gains a promotion. The problem here is if you named all your soldiers you may suddenly find you have too many snipers or no support classes, requiring you to go back and buy more recruits if you’re trying to build your own customized squad. In hindsight, allowing players to choose nationality, gender and class should have been included and it’s the only real issue I had with the gameplay.

Much of the original scope still remains, you pick your bases on earth, trying to spread your interceptors and satellites to detect and down any alien ships passing nearby. You then have the option upon a successful interception to travel there with your squad and shoot them…or you could knock them unconscious if you’re one of them alien lovers…That feeling of a successful interception and then kitting out your squad for the drop are all right from the original with some modern-day cinematic moments to flash it up. Such as watching your drop ship troops disembark or interceptor take off. They are small and unnecessary details perhaps but they show where Firaxis has tried to add to an old game which was pretty damn good anyway, without messing with what made it great.

Gone is the action point method of taking turns, instead all your soldiers get a set amount of actions, namely two, although some actions require both stages to complete. It feels smooth and intuitive and I think probably helps make the turn based nature of the game easier for real-time players to appreciate. The little cut scenes of a shot or occasional random dash over the shoulder of a soldier is again a nice touch and I found myself regularly watching the animation on the edge of my seat praying it was a hit…or that I hadn’t run into another bunch of aliens with my last move as I uncovered the map. The addition of a cover system is new, although I think it works well enough, it’s certainly something I imagine the original should have had.

The maps are smaller than in the original, which is probably much more down to the console port nature of the game. It’s a shame really but no doubt the shorter more action orientated maps again favor players who aren’t willing to spend an hour exploring on a single map. The fact the scenery can be destroyed is a little wasted, it only happens during an explosion from a grenade, missile or car. Although you can accidentally take out a wall or a door with a missed shot, you can’t choose to aim at that wall or door to give yourself a strategic access point. I can only presume this again is a console trait, memory perhaps, regardless having a feature in the original but not in its successor a decade later, seems disappointing.

Visually it’s quite nice, it won’t win any pretty awards but it’s functional and characterful. Everything looks like it should, although there are obvious budget constraints on the variety of terrain, pine trees in Africa, American taxi cabs in Europe etc. All the cinematics are made with the game engine and this keeps the game fluid and works well. The audio is ok, I can’t honestly say it stuck in my head after playing it but it was suitably creepy when hunting aliens and “heroic” during moments of triumph.

The new method of base construction is pretty cool, the ant farm view of your base as you dig out tunnels and rooms and then add structures is interesting and a definite improvement over the original. Sadly your base is never attacked, unlike in the original, so you never get to fight battles within the structure you are building. There isn’t an awful lot of reason to go looking at the various rooms unfortunately, while you can, and sometime there are little soldiers, scientists and engineers working within those rooms that’s about it and once you’ve looked once you’ll never need to again.

The ui and control method is again, borrowed from the console design in many ways, it’s serviceable and far from the worst I have had to use but it still feels not quite right for a mouse driven interface. I didn’t like how the shortcut keys kept changing based on which soldier I was using and what action they had taken last, for example before moving shortcut 2 was overwatch, but after running to cover button 2 switched to a type of shot and suddenly overwatch was button 3 or 4…Then on the next soldier who had lots of skills overwatch was button 5, it was just awkward and meant the reliability of a shortcut was…unreliable I guess.

Overall despite some little gripes Firaxis have done an admiral job of reviving Xcom, while it suffers slightly from having to appeal to console players it also benefits greatly from additional cinematic and presentation flare Firaxis bring. You should play this, it has much of the flavor of the original while keeping the game engaging and action packed for players who perhaps were not big on turn based games.

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