My friend Andrew was the only friend I knew with a computer when I was 12.
He had a few games for it, including one we'd picked up at a car boot sale called: UFO: Enemy Unknown.
We loved it. We had built our base, equipped our ships and put together our squad. Our favourite soldier was Wolfgang, who was a crack shot with a laser rifle. How many times had Wolfgang picked off multiple Cyberdiscs or brought down a troublesome Chryssalid, while his comrades cowered in fear? We'd lost count. He was our war hero.
Until that epic match. Until that Alien grenade landed at Wolfgang's feet...
My mum picked me up that evening and I was silent. She thought I had been fighting with Andrew. But I was in mourning. Wolfgang didn't make it back.
That was always the joy of XCOM, as the series became known. It was a deep, involving turn-based strategy game from the talented mind of British developer Julian Gallop, but more than that, it had an emotional centre and an unpredictability that allowed gamers to craft their own stories.
Two excellent sequels followed – the rock hard Terror from the Deep (1995) and the ambitious futuristic XCOM: Apocalypse (1997). But then that was pretty much it. There were a handful of spin-offs, a few spiritual successors, a couple of aborted sequels - but the turn-based strategy franchise from the 1990s all but vanished.
That was until 2012 when Firaxis, the talented developer behind the Civilization series, brought XCOM back with a remake of the original game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a triumphant return for the series. The gameplay had been simplified, but that same emotional attachment and strategic depth remained. This isn't just MCV speaking, the game's Metacritic average sits at 90.
The magic of XCOM is in the challenge, in the emotional bond fostered between players and their soldiers, and the tough choices it presents,” said 2K Games' UK marketing and PR boss Simon Turner.
It's a tough balance to get right, but it proves that as much as games have changed in the last few decades, challenge and choice still matter.”
The success of Enemy Unknown has spawned another, but Firaxis has left behind the remakes in favour of an entirely fresh XCOM sequel.
The most obvious change with XCOM 2 is that the gamer is no-longer fending off an alien threat... the enemies are already here, they've invaded and have taken control.
XCOM is now a rebellion, a unit tasked with kicking the alien scourge from the planet. 20 years after the events of the original game, the XCOM division is managed from a floating base, which is vulnerable to attack. Whereas in previous games, XCOM had to politically look after countries to ensure it received the funds it required, now the task is to liberate territories from alien control.
Yet beneath the surface, the biggest change with this new XCOM is in the unpredictability of battles.
Like that grenade that toppled our beloved Wolfgang, the original XCOM games were filled with unpredictable moments. If there was one minor criticism to make about 2012's remake, it's that as the game progressed, some of the challenges became more formulaic.
And this is a big area that Firaxis hopes to address.
We had three major goals for XCOM 2: Make the game more unpredictable, make it more challenging, and make a game that is replayable enough that players can come back to it and always find something new,” continued Turner.
I think the success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown came from the way players told their stories about the game. Players are natural storytellers. The attachment to their soldiers spawned so much genuine emotion, and produced so many fun shared stories that we wanted to make a game that empowered them even more in this direction.”
Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis added: From Enemy Unknown to XCOM 2, something that we really wanted to push, which actually does harken back to the original game, is that we want the game overall to be way more unpredictable. We want it to be more unwieldy in a good way. This is an alien occupied earth now, so thematically the power has been completely taken away from the player. This is not the aliens invading our home. We need to take our home back.
We want a strategy layer that feels different every time you play. There is not a go-to strategy anymore. You can do so much now and it changes every time.”
One of the big successes of the 2012 XCOM: Enemy Unknown was that Firaxis had made the game work, and work well, on Xbox 360 and PS3 – formats not known for their turn-based strategy games.
But with XCOM 2 Firaxis has decided to focus on the platforms it knows best – PC and Mac.
Firaxis' pedigree is PC,” reminds DeAngelis. We have a few key pillars, like modding, which we did not do with Enemy Unknown, and we wanted to create a robust toolset for modding to encourage the community to get involved. And so we decided to focus on the platform that would best allow us to do that, which is the PC.”
He continued: There is always cost for developing multi-platform, because you are splitting mindshare. We've been able to focus purely on making the best game possible, to get in the maximum number of enemies, abilities and classes and not worry about concurrent development. That is a huge positive.”
The ability to focus on PC means that Firaxis can layer more depth onto the series, bring about those unpredictable moments and add more customisable options. However, DeAngelis is keen not to make the game impenetrable.
Accessibility is still very important,” he says. We want it to be accessible, but not in the stigma sense that it is
dumbed down. We want as many people as possible to enjoy and play our game. We still want it to be challenging, because accessibility and challenge is different. But we now have the benefit of some of this ingrained player base and knowledge of how the game's systems work – from Enemy Unknown.
We want it to push a bit further with the unpredictability. It is going to be a bit harder – you'll never know what is going to happen, and there will be lots of micro-systems and sub-systems in the strategy.”
Reviews for the game suggest that Firaxis' XCOM 2 is a more urgent, emotional and, most importantly, confident game. Enemy Unknown successfully won over the fans and attracted a new audience to the series, and now it's time to take that somewhere new.
And I, for one, can't wait to see how Wolfgang performs this time.
Following the successful remake of Enemy Unknown, fans were calling on Firaxis to return to the 1995 underwater sequel – Terror from the Deep.
The studio has since decided to take the series in its own direction, but producer Garth DeAngelis says the team did consider another remake, and he won't rule out a possibility of seeing it in the future.
Terror from the Deep definitely did occur to us,” he tells us. We love the XCOM community and I have seen that feedback on the forums from the hardcore fans. Creatively we decided not to go there... not yet anyway, who knows in the future.