No matter what G4 says, X-Com still stands as one of the best dozen computer/video games ever made. It trafficked in old school alien lore years before X-Files made the puny greys a menace to watch out for. It mixed tactical and strategic planning at a level of quality that really hasn’t been matched, though Creative Assembly has tried its best. And it – a game full of alien woo-woo, psychic control and plasma cannons – is the most honest and true representation of science and technology that we’ll ever see in a strategy game that doesn’t bore us to death.
We had a whole podcast about what makes X-Com special. And we could probably do four or five more. Like Civilization or Rise of Nations or Sins of a Solar Empire, it’s a game that contains multitudes and can be appreciated on many levels. It is a deeply personal game, since your choices could mean sacrificing a soldier you’ve come to rely on. It is an economic game, since you have to decided where to expend your resources for maximum short and long term payoff. It is a game with a story, a game with a message, a game with brilliant map design and destructible terrain, a game where every new alien encounter had the potential to be Omaha Beach; a lot of kids were going to get killed, but the mission was the important thing. X-Com is a thing of beauty and I am thrilled that Firaxis and 2K see fit to bring it back to life.
Often lost in all the talk about the tactical combat and the challenge of the alien menace is the scientific component of the game. This is probably because it’s kind of lost or subsumed in the brilliance of everything else. You had to build labs – that was obvious. And you had to research better weapons to take down badder aliens – also pretty obvious. Big deal.
What was not quite obvious, and what made the game special, is how the scientific advancement of your alien squashing crew was so neatly divided between your tactical and strategic levels. On the tactical level, you kill aliens and capture their bodies and hardware. On the strategic level, you investigate this hardware and the alien bodies and voila you get new stuff. As boring as this sounds when laid out like a game design doc, it had amazing implications for how a game would play out.
Every really good 4x game has the guns and butter problem, but X-Com isn’t a 4x game. And even its butter was also guns. (As we saw in Master of Orion, and will continue to see, science fiction strategy games are really invested in finding fancy ways to die). But the challenge of balancing recruitment, staffing, training and keeping the international funders happy was hard enough. Then you throw a research budget onto that – with labs eating up precious base space and dollars. Yes, experienced players know you need that research to survive long term, but the mid-term is where the rubber hits the road and maybe you skimp a little here and a little there. Sort of like post-secondary education funding everywhere. It is easy to focus on the battle instead of the war.
But then it gets good. Then you see how taking on challenges that could cost you half your crew might save the earth. You take amazing risks to capture technology that…well, it’s useless. Or it is for a while at least.
X-Com doesn’t treat science like Civilization. In Civ, you decide what you want to research, then you wait and you get it. In X-Com, your soldiers kill some badass alien freaks and stumble onto something and then bring it home for your eggheads to analyze. You might, from past experience, know what it is. But you have to wait until they figure it out. Then you have to hope you can make it and have the soldiers that can handle it. An army of mentally fragile troopers will not have much use for the psychic discoveries dug from E.T.’s skull. Yeah, you need to take some aliens alive to finish the game, but we know what’s really going on.
Science is not optional.
Science is also profitable! If you research an item and manufacture it, then you can sell it to supplement your income. (Laser Cannons, ftw.) But this all takes time and your mission might need medi-kits or grenades more. Science and technology in X-Com is a necessity, but you are often tempted to make it an option. Especially when things are going well.
In short, there’s a sense that your men and women see something, bring it back, and then hope someone can explain it to them. It’s a Stargate episode with more drama and less McGyver. And it takes more than an hour. The idea of observation/lab work/production has never been so perfectly modeled in a video game and I can’t imagine how well it would be outside of an alien environment.
Of course, like all good things, familiarity sometimes blinds you to this special quality. I had even forgot to add X-Com to the game list until Bruce Geryk reminded me. Once you’ve figured out the mysteries of the aliens and the secrets they are hoarding, then the strategic side and the science side really do take a back seat to the tactical fun. You already know the techs that will help you the most, probably, so you find ways of getting them and the amazing feeling of discovery that X-Com gave you at the beginning becomes more like an Easter Egg hunt.
I’m a weird person. I can happily discover electricity or the wheel or combustion or what have you over and over and over again in games, but once I know that a Mind Shield can be acquired by taking out the right aliens in the right way, then the game becomes less about science for me. I have the same blinders on for the amazing Alpha Centauri.
I acknowledge that this all totally absurd and I am not normal.
It is impossible to reflect on X-Com without seeing how intricately constructed it was. Every piece had a purpose and reflected back on another piece. When we talk about games as systems, this is probably one of the simplest and clearest and least math intensive examples, but also one of the most elegant. And it demonstrates how easy it is to forget true greatness when it is blended with a lot of simply awesome.
If Firaxis screws this up, I am laying waste to Maryland.
Next up, the only traditional RTS on the list and for very good reason, Age of Empires.