There are few PC games with such stalwart fans as UFO: Enemy Unknown, or, by its more well-known title, X-COM: UFO Defense. Standing as one of the pinnacles of strategy and tactics gaming along with the likes of Jagged Alliance 2, X-COM is known as much for its campy B-movie alien invasion theme as for its bone-crushing, teeth-grindingly difficulty which requires significant trial and error to master - a reputation which is very much still known even today. Unfortunately, after a string of poor sequels, including X-COM: Enforcer, an Unreal Engine shooter, and the closure of MicroProse, the franchise seemed truly dead and buried, ending on a sour note.
After obtaining the rights and dabbling with yet another shooter which has yet to see the light of day, 2K Games handed the franchise off to Firaxis, the developers of the Civilization series of strategy games, and the result has been a remake of the 1994 classic, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In this day and age, this is about as close to a match made in heaven as you could realistically expect - a premier turn-based strategy developer being called up to recreate the magic of a beloved franchise, working in their element to revisit both the strategic base management and tactical turn-based combat the original game is remembered for. But the question every X-COM fan is asking is, does it live up to the legacy? And can it even improve upon the original game?
Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a solidly-built, tense, addictive and enjoyable strategy game which recalls the best of the original game - if not in direct practice, then in spirit. Many of the core tenets, such as high difficulty and a focus on replaying to learn and master the game, have been left intact. However, when it comes to answer that question of "is it as good as the original", my answer simply has to be "no." While I've enjoyed my time with the new XCOM, I do not think it will be an enduring classic of the genre in the same way Firaxis' own Civilization IV has been, and certainly not MicroProse's 1994 original.
Story & Setting (Or Lack Thereof)
I tend to open my reviews by talking about the story and setting a game has to offer, but truth be told, XCOM doesn't have much to discuss. Simply put, aliens have invaded our present (or perhaps near-future) Earth, and are doing all sorts of bad things, starting with alien abductions, but shortly escalating to all-out slaughter of urban centers. The XCOM Project is an independent, international organization started to counter the alien threat, receiving funding and support from dozens of countries around the world. You take the role of the unnamed Commander responsible for the strategic and tactical decisions of XCOM, and answer to a shadowy Committee in order to take on special objectives and report your successes (or failures). Beyond that, there is very little plot - refreshingly, XCOM is squarely focused on the gameplay.
However, even this scant amount of storytelling is still different from the abstract simplicity of the original game. Where the narrative side of things used to only be hinted at in the game's manual and comic book-style intro sequence, now there are semi-frequent cutscenes featuring a few recurring characters. These characters aren't really active players in the story, but rather simply human faces to different arms of your operation - science, engineering and tactics. XCOM still has no delusions of telling an interesting story, and in fact, much of the dialogue and cause-and-effect in your primary objectives leaves a lot to be desired, but because it's 2012 and the game has a sizeable budget, this is Firaxis' way of justifying the game's triple-A status. I'm neutral on the matter - while I appreciate the attempts to add some extra character to a game that was previously firmly centered on the mechanics, after a while I just started skipping past most of the cutscenes and occasional snippets of dialogue. The fact is that this sort of thing really wasn't needed and doesn't add a whole lot to the game, but it doesn't take away much either.
Despite being minimalist, the story does infringe on the gameplay a little bit from time to time. While the original X-COM had the same sorts of primary objectives that needed to be completed in working towards finding and capturing the aliens' headquarters, in XCOM they are presented much more directly and in a slightly more linear fashion. Panic levels around the world are tied, to a degree, to completion of story objectives, which means that there is limited time for forward progress as the "story" needs to be advanced at an almost pre-determined rate before the game simply becomes unwinnable. It's not really a bad thing, but it can occasionally reduce your strategic options available and make the game feel a bit less random and unpredictable.