Is there any chance that a hypothetical X-Com remake wouldn't suck?
X-Com is one of my all-time favorite games. I have it installed on both of my computers, on my PDA, and my library even contains a self-bound copy of the tabletop RPG game some dedicated fans came up with years ago. I could spend pages reviewing it and trying to put in words that certain Je ne sais quoi that makes it a classic and a truly great game. However that’s not the point of this post, and if you’ve already played it yourself you probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. If you haven’t played it, get off your ass and play it. This is the game IGN ranked as their #1 PC game of all time, beating out Starcraft, Half-Life, and Fallout. There’s a buggy freeware version floating around somewhere but if you want the full, patched, non-piratey bastard version of it you can buy it off of Steam for like 5 bucks. For $10 more you can get all the X-Com games in a pack, though to be honest only UFO Defense, Terror from the Deep, and Apocalypse are worth playing.
There is one rather unpleasant problem with being an X-Com fan though, and that’s the fact that there hasn’t been a worthwhile sequel or a playable remake of the game since X-Com: Apocalypse in 1997 (personally I think the last good game in the series was Terror from the Deep, but that’s just me). In an industry where developers have never been shy about making sequels, remakes and spin-offs, we’ve watched the X-Com series sit on the sidelines and gather dust for 13 years. Meanwhile, Fallout got a spin-off and was brought back to life by a new studio, and even Doom got a remake and a bad movie staring "The Rock". So is it too much to ask that X-Com get a little love too?
That’s not to say that there haven't been attempts at rekindling that old X-Com magic; just that little of it’s been any good or worth playing. A number of rather blatant X-Com clones have come out over the years and some of them, like the UFO series, have even gotten some recognition in gaming circles. However, none of them has ever managed to replicate the artistry of Julian Gollop’s work on X-Com: UFO Defense. The current intellectual rights to the series belong to Take-Two Interactive, which owns Irrational Games and in a roundabout way employs Ken Levine (If you don’t know who he is Google it your own damn self. I’m not here to hold your hand.). Well last year in a GameSpot interview Levine mentioned he was a huge X-Com fan, and that while he couldn’t say anything about his current project it was something he and his team were excited about. So now the big rumor out and about on the interwebs is that Ken Levine’s secret project is a remake of X-Com. Is there any truth there? I don’t know, and as a Final Fantasy 7 fan I’ve stopped being surprised by the disappointing and (IMO) idiotic decisions game developers and publishers can make.
So with these rumors in mind and a significant amount of optimism warming me up from within (as well as a significant amount of schnapps) here is some advice on how to produce (or at least design) a decent X-Com sequel or remake. Many of these are areas where the various clones and remakes have missed the mark and thus far failed to deliver on their promises of resurrecting that old X-Com experience.
1)Keep it complex.
X-Com is a rather complex game and as the player you have quite a lot of control over almost every aspect of the X-Com organization and its employees. You’re in charge of personnel, base construction, research and development, manufacturing, strategic air defense, and even sales, while also leading your soldiers into battle. So simplicity is not the goal here. Hell, look at UFO: Extraterrestrials, aside from the bugs, one of the main complaints about this X-Com clone was that didn’t come close to the complexity of the original games. We want micromanagement, lots of detail and a wide variety of choices available to us. What we don’t want is another Rebelstar: Tactical Command. If the player has to worry about the cost of fuel and the overhead required to run that second base, then you’re on the right track.
2)Diversify the aliens.
When you really get down to it, there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in the selection of alien baddies in X-Com. For the first few hours you fight nothing but little grey aliens with flying discs, then you fight cape wearing cyborgs with furry dinosaurs, then you fight snakemen with bugmonsters and so on. It was methodical and a bit boring at times. Though the game made up for it by ensuring that the aliens were both cunning and lethal. So make the alien roster a bit more interesting and a bit bigger, but avoid the urge to go way outside of the box like X-Com: Apocolypse with its weird biomechanical tentacle monsters. And do not under any circumstances get rid of the Greys.
Part of what makes X-Com so fun is that mix of X-Files and Men in Black that the game seems to draw its inspiration from. There's something really entertaining and satisfying about unloading a shotgun in the face of a little grey, probe wielding bastard. Similarly, a bit of variety in the missions might be nice. A game consisting of nothing but repetitive bug hunts can get a bit monotonous.
3)Update the music and put some thought into it.
X-Com had great music for the time. It helped set the mood in battle and throughout the rest of the game. However we’ve moved beyond the days of repetitive, midi mood music. Also, while a suspenseful soundtrack is great in combat, there should be a change in the tone of the music when you’re on the base management screen or the finance screen. The music shouldn’t make me feel like there could be an alien just around the corner while I’m trying to decide if I should abandon Africa and focus my efforts on Europe because South Africa just isn't willing to contribute as much funding as Norway is offering.
4) Keep it on Earth.
I know in sci-fi games there’s this urge to set the game on a unique alien planet where you can create a vast and storied world out of your imagination for the player to explore and experience firsthand.
In this instance fight that urge.
The main theme in X-Com is that you’re protecting the Earth. You’re fighting for humanity and everything familiar to you. That’s way it’s easier to understand not only what’s going on but to make certain tactical decisions. For instance, is a laser rifle better than an M-16? Yes, of course it is. I know this because those are familiar concepts. Is a blue energy pulse pistol better than a green energy biolauncher? How the hell should I know! A familiar setting like Earth also helped you become more immeresed in the game. There was somethign fun about being able to place your bases anywhere in the world you wanted. On top of that you could then decide on a whim which regions and nations you were going to protect based entirely on your own shameful predjudices. When playing, I’d often put a base in Nevada. Why? Because that’s where Area-51 is, and putting a base there would make me laugh a bit. That familiarity and immersion is lost when you’re trying to decide on which of the unfamiliar blobby nations on planet Xxitchlick you're going to build your first base.
5) Don’t change things too much.
This is an area where I felt particularly disappointed by the UFO series. UFO: Aftermath was missing a lot of X-Com’s micromanaging, and frankly the tactical combat felt a bit lacking in complexity as well. In UFO: Afterlight they changed the art style significantly and made the game look rather cartoony, which kind of killed the mood. The UFO series isn’t alone in this though. The X-Com series also began making this mistake after Hasbro Interactive bought out MicroProse. X-Com: Interceptor, the 4th game in the series, had little to do with the earlier games and was basically a bad Star Wars: TIE Fighter clone, and the less said about the digital abortion that was X-Com: Enforcer the better.
It’s been 13 years and what fans want now is a remake that stays true to not only the atmosphere and themes of the first game but to it’s gameplay as well. For the most part, an X-Com game will live or die on the quality of its tactical combat, be it turn based or real-time, so don’t skimp on the development of the combat AI. However, it would be a mistake to ignore the administrative, micromanaging side of the game and expect it to survive soley as a squad based, tactical combat simulator. X-Com was a game that allowed you to take on the role of the man (or woman) in charge of a complex military organization, and it was through the game’s complex micromanagement that this feeling was achieved. You had the freedom and the power to shape the X-Com organization however you saw fit and that’s how the game drew you in. And that’s the feeling any good remake will have to reproduce.
6) Don’t treat the players like children.
One of the things that makes an older game like X-Com fun enough that it remains popular even today is its somewhat unforgiving level of difficulty. In some games this was the result of bad game design and programming, but in others it was intentional. As one of the latter, X-Com was a game that threw you into headfirst into a global conflict, and as players we respected and enjoyed that. It didn’t ease you in by having you defend one nation first and then allowing to slowly expanding your area of influence over time. No, from the start your responsibility was the safety of the entire globe. If you placed your first base in a rather foolish location (Antartica) then your game would suffer and rightly so. As game designers continue to look towards game consoles in the hope of expanding their markets, it often feels like they make the decision to simplify and beautify their games in order to make them more appealing to casual gamers. With X-Com this would be a path to failure. X-Com was a game where one wrong move often meant the death of half your soldiers; where you were challenged to both keep this organization afloat financially and save the world at the same time. It was also a game where you could easily end up with over a hundred hours of gametime on a single saved game. To remove or even dumb down that challenge, complexity, and freedom would be to strip the game of what made us love it all those years ago.
7) Finish the damn game.
I can’t count the number of fan made, X-Com clones and remakes I’ve seen start up and fail over the years. While it may have been a disappointing game, at least UFO: Extraterrestrials made it to launch. It’s easy to plan things out and talk about all the amazing things you’re going to do with this game, but none of that really matters unless you actually put out a damn game. Here’s hoping someone does.