‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ brings the past to modern gaming

Oct. 10, 2012 | 4:27 p.m.

The general rules that apply to other parts of pop culture are frequently the opposite when it comes to video games: Sequels are usually an improvement on the original and a straight remake of a favorite old game isn’t always considered a sign that the industry is creatively bankrupt.

In fact, some remakes are welcomed back like long-absent friends. Such is the case with “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” a remake of the beloved computer game “UFO: Enemy Unknown” (a.k.a. “XCom: UFO Defense”) from 1994.

The game, which is half resource management and half turn-based tactical strategy on the battlefield, concerns Earth’s forces marshaling themselves against a mysterious alien threat. That battle involves capturing and researching alien technology, arming and training troops and then utilizing those troops as they investigate UFO crash sites and stop alien threats in America’s cities.

The fact that “XCOM” was released on the same day as “Dishonored” is a perfect way to compare the two projects and what they represent for gamers. “Dishonored” is a slick example of the state of the art of modern gaming. It’s got a rich, complex world, easy gameplay and moves you smoothly throughout the game. “XCOM” is a throwback to a more primitive form of gaming, reminiscent of classic board games like “Risk.” While you’re given all the time in the world to plan your next moves in the game, a misguided strategy may not be felt for several hours of game time. One word being used a lot among players to describe the game is “unforgiving.”

“XCOM” was released on Tuesday to impressive reviews: an average score of 88 out of 100 on Metacritic. Which is especially great considering that, aside from updated graphics and music, the core of the game has remained virtually unchanged from the mid-’90s. Yes, there are a few tweaks (the use of cover on the battlefield is now an essential element of the game’s tactical sequences), but for fans of the original, it’s a welcome throwback. And many gamers seem quite surprised that something whose heart and soul belongs to a previous generation of games could be so much fun.

One gamer, named Butters on Twitter, wrote, “xcom… its different…. but in a good way :)

The temptation would be to totally throw out the old playbook and create an “XCOM” game that feels more like the current state of gaming. And, in fact, there’s been another “XCOM” in the works since 2006 with a different developer that’s more of a first-person shooter than the strategy game fans remember.

But unlike other media, in which the classics are always available in the latest format, games are a little trickier. They may not always be available and older games can really suffer when played on new machines. But if the gameplay basics are solid, as “XCOM” seems to be demonstrating, the gamers will come.

However, you can’t please everyone. As the so-called ExtremeGamer from Ohio tweeted, “I didn’t care for XCom. No clue what I played but it was boring. Deleted.”

–Patrick Kevin Day

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