I completed XCom: Enemy Unknown earlier this year, and I wanted to get a few thoughts down about it.

The first time I saw XCom was in 1996.  I had just left my military basic training, and one of my fellow students was playing it on his PC.  I was blown away at the time.  The game took the strategic elements that I loved from the old D&D Gold Box games to the next level.  It also added a terror element by making the enemy moves hidden.  Years later I bought the original XCom on the PSOne, and later on the PC, and I played them into the ground.

It’s very easy for a designer to capitalize on nostalgia and simply make a new version of an old game with little more than asthetic changes.  It’s much harder to critically look at the old game, extract the essence of the game in a way that replicates the experience for a new generation, but still make improvements to the gameplay.

Upon reflection, I now realize that there was one major problem with the original game: it allowed you to have a huge crew for your recovery missions.  This seemed great, as you could send your team out in squads and canvas a large area at once.  The problem was that a single turn took a long time to complete, and even longer if you wanted an optimal strategy.  By mid-game, a single mission could take hours to complete.

In the new game, you start out with only four characters and, in time, you can upgrade to six.  By reducing the number of players you could use as well as the overall scope of the missions, the designers were able to make the missions go much more quickly and efficiently.  I frequently found myself saying “just one more mission” in a way that I would have never considered with the old game.

Generally, I am not a fan of “dumbing down” a game, especially if said dumbing down takes away from key functionality.  On the other hand, I do appreciate when a game developer takes the lessons learned from games past and asks “where can we go from here?  How can we make it better?”  This is a narrow tightrope to walk because the slightest slip to one side (oversimplification) or the other (excessive complexity creep) can crush a new product.

With that in mind, I think the developers of the new XCom: Enemy Unknown have walked that tightrope beautifully.  The new game has taken the original game and boiled it down to a much simpler, stronger product.  All of the chaff is gone, and all of the best parts remain.