Some Thoughts on the XCom Reboot

Here is the initial full disclosure: I’m not especially fond of the original XCom games. Sure, they’re neat, but to someone who didn’t first play them until last Christmas, when he bought them for 5$, they’re a dated mess of turn based strategy that is wholly unappealing.

Of course, now there’s a new XCom game. Developed by the (fairly high profile) team at 2K Marin, who made the almost altogether deplorable Bioshock 2, a game that was 35$ I desperately want back. Of course, they worked on other games, too, and while Bioshock 2 was deplorable it was also about as close to not awful as they could have gotten it, which reassures me to their talent level. Also, some of them were involved with Freedom Force. A positive.

That said, I have some mixed feelings about the new XCom game.

The positive, I think, comes from intent. People are saying that the new XCom is destined to fail, that it can’t succeed because the original was a very niche title and without appealing to that niche it’ll never succeed, but that’s pretty ridiculous. XCom was a turn based strategy game, and admittedly I don’t know the core of it, but if you told the developers of the original XCom that they could make the combat bits a turn based thing like Fallout or a cooperative first person shooter where you and a couple AI controlled allies (or allies controlled by your buddies), they would pick the latter every time. It’s a modern thing to fetishize the retro, to say, “Well, developers did that because that’s how they intended the game to play and how dare you fuck it up!”, but a lot of these decisions were made because, quite honestly, it’s a lot easier to program a turn based strategy game than a first person shooter with cooperative AI.

Just look at how genres splits went. In 1993, no one made shooters except the people at id Software, and they were the technical elite of the industry. Go to 1998, and the only people really making them were id and Epic, who are also pretty technologically savvy, and Valve, who are borderline geniuses. Flash forward to the present day, and everyone does, because now the tools and the talent are available. Giving players a more visceral experience of the action is now very possible, and when you play older games like Fallout and (presumeably) XCom, you get the feeling that developers wanted you to have that sort of feeling.

As for it being a niche game, and they should make one “for the fans”, games should never be developed for the fans. Fans of XCom will buy the new one, pretty much irregardless. Like, they’ll complain, and bitch, and moan, but they’ll check it out. If a quality game is made, they’ll get it. Look at Fallout 3. Fallout fans complained, they launched petitions, they whined and whined and whined and you know what? I’d bet 90% of them bought it. And you know what else? It did some really cool, novel things. It brought a lot of those good old ideas forward, and dressed them up in a modern, immediate scheme.

As for it not being successful, I’d imagine 75% of PC gamers and about 98% of console games nowadays have no idea what XCom is. XCom is not a franchise anyone cares about anymore, and having the name on it doesn’t really hinder it from growing the brand.

Of course, this begs the question: why the fuck call it XCom in the first place? I don’t know. I haven’t the foggiest. They’re supposedly not using any of the mythology, any of the mythos, and the connection is basically “You’re a government agent who explores and fights aliens!”, which is pretty unique to XCom but still would fit much more in a “this game was heavily inspired by XCom” situation.

Something I think that sheds light on this is another, entirely different game. As different as you can get. Red Steel 2. Red Steel 2 is the oddest bird ever. Supposedly it’s a fantastic game. Phenomenal. Reviews were incredible. It’s unique, it’s for the Wii, we should be eating it up. Except…no one bought it. No one. Probably will sell worse than the first one. And it was marketed, too. Not brilliantly, but it was marketed pretty well.

So what was the problem? The franchise. The scads of people who bought Red Steel 1, who were friends with someone who did, and who know it’s terrible. The thing was tagged in red paint with a big do not buy sign, and no amount of positive publicity could fix that. And yet the franchise name continued, even though the two games were almost completely disconnected.

And I think that’s what happened with XCom. Someone (probably the publisher) thought it would be a good idea to tack this interesting, fantastic idea (seriously. Read the XCom previews only as an interested gamer, and…there is no game I want to play more, despite how sketchy the screenshots look) to a storied franchise, to make it seem like, hey, there’s this grand tradition. To make the nostalgia happy gamer, who, it seems, was never there when the chips originally fell, feel like if they bought this, they were hardcore, and they were part of this thing.

To use a musical metaphor, the modern retro thing is kind of like post grunge. The initial angst, the initial event was over, and then someone came in and thought, “this is a cool sound, let’s see if we can milk some more money from it.” And you get cool things out of it, sure. We got Live and The Foo Fighters and Silverchair out of post grunge, and we got Fallout 3 and Mega Man 9 and maybe XCom out of this retro kick, but that doesn’t make it seem any less exploitative.

So, as a gamer, I’m going to give XCom a fair shake, but I’ll be no less disappointed in its origins. I’ll probably enjoy the hell out of it, and I’ll probably buy it when it launches, and I’ll probably write a review of it, but that review will be disappointed in the name they slapped on the box.


  1. curly

    never played the xcom games either

    this looks like spacey-lovecraft meets mad men

    which sounds creamy delicious

    then again there can be horrible design decisions even in inspired settings (bioshock i’m looking at you you blurry-eyed basterd) so i dunno

    • Tom

      Yeah, I mean, I appreciate the people who are getting all upset at the bastardization of the franchise, and it’s very true, but I read things like the PC Gamer preview and I want to be all over that game.

      Like, I’ve not been as excited by a preview since…well, all my examples are bad because they’re disappointing (Bioshock, Final Fantasy XIII), but I can still get excited!