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Some of the best things happen by coincidence or circumstance. Like when I was plodding through a dating rut in college and a friend encouraged me to attend a burlesque show; there, I met my wife-to-be. Or when my son confused me with the leather-jacket-clad rockers adorning the Ramones' Rocket to Russia album cover. That made me smile.
Or like those fleeting moments when a cowardly rookie soldier somehow sacks up and guns down a duo of Sectoids after he dodges several bursts of deadly plasma fire in X-Com: UFO Defense.
Everyone fond of the X-Com strategy games has a memory like that: something unrepeatable but forever memorable. Looking back on the series now in light of Firaxis' announcement that the studio has plans for a "re-imagining" of the original (dubbed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a clever mashing of the North American and European release titles for UFO Defense), I feel that the X-Com magic may have been such a happy accident.
Two design decisions in particular — ones that our "modern" sensibilities might conclude are "wrong" or "broken" — stick out in my mind as being unintentionally responsible for my reverence for X-Com. And I dearly hope that Firaxis can recreate what keeps this game so close to my aging heart.
Starting an X-Com campaign is like the first day at a new job. You’ve plenty of past experience pushing papers, but you don’t know exactly how paper-pushing works at this company. Your boss is inexplicably unavailable to answer your questions, and the papers you should be pushing keep piling up. And then someone barges into your office and tells you that unless you push these papers quickly and correctly, everyone's going to get the pink slip.
The first few minutes with X-Com evoke these feelings of helplessness, urgency, and pressure. This would not be possible had its designers, Julian and Nick Gollop, bombarded the player with a lengthy learning session dryly explaining the game's mechanics.
Can you imagine a triple-A, mainstream title releasing these days beginning in this fashion? And without receiving criticism for this "failing"? I'm reminded of Men of War: Vietnam, a recent squad-level tactics sim that some reviewers panned for being too difficult and obtuse. Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun wrote:
My sense of this game is that it’s great that the Men of War engine can cope with foliage enough to represent a jungle. It doesn’t, however, make me want to continue playing when I can’t see what I’m doing or when the difficult [sic] and incoherence of the missions match those of the actual war. [emphasis in original]
I saw that as Men of War's narrative strength: That through gameplay, Men of War successfully recalled the panic and confusion of America's Vietnam conflict. X-Com similarly creates such a mood by, well, being "broken."
So your first order of business in X-Com is to select a location for your initial base. This is where scientists will research mysterious technology, engineers will manufacture new equipment, radar will detect UFOs, and hangers will launch interceptors. And here is where your soldiers will make their last stand against the encroaching alien menace.
That’s the world on your shoulders, and your choice here can be critical in these early stages. Your available cash is based on your continued success. You can't let too many UFOs slip through. Funding nations would then withdraw from the program, and others might sign pacts with the invaders. After prolonged negative performance, they'll shut you down for good. X-Com offers no tutorial or tool tips to assist you in this decision; you’re entirely on your own.
This lack of explanatory text extends to every aspect of the game, and as a result, X-Com bestows a sense of ownership onto your accomplishments and failures alike that many other experiences lack. Coupled with the omnipresent pressure of your computer adversary, you become more emotionally involved the longer you play; you could lose anything you've built with one bad call. Yet if you do nothing, you'll eventually fail all the same.
X-Com becomes something greater in our minds because these things come together to form one of our most compelling narratives: the underdog story. As X-Com’s commander, you’ll direct a ragtag group of green troopers to claw and crawl their way from under the boot of an oppressive force and, in the end, crush that opposition with superior firepower.
At the beginning, you only have access to awful human technology: rifles, rocket launchers, pin grenades, fighter jets, and typical radar arrays. By the end, you’ve mastered the aliens' devastating weapons technology, psionic abilities (i.e., mind control), and lightning-fast saucer crafts. Your soldiers will be so incredibly powerful that you’ll be able to clear ground missions without even so much as setting foot out of the transport ship.
That’s no exaggeration: Fans have complained that the psychic abilities break the game by making the tactical battles a cakewalk. While their hearts are in the right place, this aspect of "broken" design is critical to the experience that X-Com fosters. Without this, X-Com would not be the story of the underdog; rather, X-Com would be the long slog of a treadmill.
You’ll undertake hundreds of missions over which you’ll spill the virtual blood of hundreds more soldiers. At almost every step of the way, the extraterrestrials will unveil new, deadly technology that will shake up your plans, keeping your fear alive.
In other words, you’ll take a beating from the aliens for most of your campaign. So when you finally get the upper hand, you won't be able to contain your eagerness. You’re tired of playing Rocky Balboa the chump and ready to play Rocky Balboa the champ. All you'll want is to mop the floor with alien scum mission after mission. And you will. Turning the tables is empowering, and your dominance over a force you’ve submitted to for so long is a feeling worth relishing.
This is X-Com. All the talk of destructible terrain, nameable soldiers, and iconic foes is too focused on the minute-to-minute play than experiencing the awesome responsibility of defending the planet from an alien invasion. I want to be the underdog, and the original game's various oddities coalesce to form that narrative; this is why it still lingers in my heart some 18 years later. Will Enemy Unknown?