Whether you called it by its original title UFO: Enemy Unknown or by the more common rebranding of X-Com, Mythos Games’ 1994 strategy classic captured the heart of nearly every PC gamer. Players of the era spent dozens of hours building their global secret military in an attempt to save the world from a surprise alien invasion. This modern retelling of The War of the Worlds achieved a brilliant dual-level strategy as you built bases and intercepted UFOs around the world in between turn-based tactical battles against these foes from the unknown.
X-COM has gone on to be known as one of the greatest video games ever created. Articles continue to appear regularly today, eight years later, singing its praises. IGN ranked it as the #1 PC game of all time. Computer Gaming World, PC Gamer and Gamespy have all enshrined X-Com in their tops lists many times over the years. X-Com proved to be a game unrivaled, then or now. While numerous attempts have been made to recreate the formula, none have truly succeeded..
Despite of the number smoking craters left by creators attempting to re-create this classic, my hopes were raised to new heights when Firaxis, the studio home to Sid Meyer and the legendary Civilization franchise, announced they were taking a stab at it. I mean, if the Civ guys can’t do it, who can? It was a heavenly dream team.
Recently the demo dropped on Steam, bringing an end to a years worth of anticipation and child-like giggling with a single 5GB bombshell. X-Com: Enemy Unknown, the remake of the #1 PC game of all time, is, first and foremost, a console game. Worse, it’s a console strategy game seemingly made by people whom have never made (or perhaps even played) a strategy game. PC gamers have it even worse as the game has been thoughtlessly ported back to the original’s fan base by people who apparently think gaming begins and ends with first-person shooters.
The user interface of X-Com: Enemy Unknown elicits the same thrill as walking on broken glass. Want to zoom in or out? Click and hold the mouse wheel while moving the mouse up or down. You can’t actually rotate the camera this way, something you’ll have to do often since units are neither dithered nor highlighted amongst the dense terrain. For that you need use the Q and E keys to cycle through four preset views. Click on the button to order one of your soldiers to fire and you’ll be greeted with a whiplash inducing camera move and an excessively large pop-up dominated by a “More Info” button that doesn’t actually give more info about what you’re trying to do, but rather opens your character stats. Tooltips are missing from several UI elements, like the important ‘Get me out the this weird shooting mode you let me into even though I can’t shoot’ button. Even using the assigned, unmappable hotkeys, a task not typically necessary in PC turn-based game for over a decade, it becomes clear the interface was designed by someone to whom keyboards are as alien as X-Com’s opponents. The number keys are used to select actions, not your soldiers. F and C change floors in a building. The ‘End Turn’ button is backspace? Really?
Think you can just remap a few keys to mouse buttons and try to make due? Think again. X-Com doesn't feature control remapping. Not even to invert my upside-down mouse wheel. Additionally, the game’s cursor feels sluggish and floaty in a way only a bad Xbox port of the Unreal engine can deliver.
The very language the game uses to communicate is inconsistent. Cover markers appear everywhere, icons on doors only appear when your are next to them, and rooftop access points like drainpipes (?) and breakable windows never have visual cues. Lines of sight are not represented and there is no map to get an overall view of the situation. Ammunition is displayed as a gun graphic that becomes hollow with each shot rather than a number. In fact, numbers are excluded everywhere except your odds of hitting. The player is instead expected to count dots and dashes for information.
How a legendary PC strategy game in the hands of a legendary PC strategy game company turned out as a console-based title lacking in information necessary to be strategic is a mystery. X-Com: Enemy Unknown may still be a great game worthy of its namesake, but it is undoubtedly a chore to play on the PC. The demo is too short (consisting of only a tutorial and one short mission) to get any feel for the quality of the gameplay, but how am I to trust people that can’t even get a mouse to work right to remake an experience so many others have failed remaking before.
Thanks for the year’s worth of excited giggling, Firaxis, but I really could have done without the punch to the gut at the end.