Last week, one of my chums from across the office asked me for suggestions for a piece he was writing about scary alien encounters in games, and I ended up gushing endlessly about the original X-COM games and how awesome they were. I worked myself into such a lather that I just had to download them all from Steam when I got home and immediately started playing X-COM: UFO Defense (a.k.a. UFO: Enemy Unknown). It’d been about 15 years since I last played it – would it stand the test of time?
Well, the graphics and user interface haven’t aged very well at all, but once I acclimatised I was overjoyed to discover that UFO Defense is still every bit the tense, addictive, engrossing, heartbreaking slice of game design genius it ever was. Absolutely one of the best games ever made, no doubt about it. And now, after a week of playing X-COM solidly, I find my feelings regarding the imminent 2K Games reboot are much stronger than they were before. But I’m not going to whine about the change of genre or the change of setting or the fact that the Gollop brothers aren’t involved. In playing X-COM anew, I think I understand what makes it such a truly great game, and it is something that can be carried over into an FPS. In fact, it already kind of has. And that’s where Left 4 Dead comes in (but not just yet).
See, the thing that makes X-COM so good is that the balance between procedural and scripted occurrences is absolutely perfect. And it has to be said the European name for the original game sums up that masterstroke better than the American one…
Enemy Unknown – that says it all really. You know you have an enemy, but you do not ever know exactly what it is, exactly where it is or exactly when it’s going to start trying to kill you. There are so many randomly generated factors in X-COM, but they’re all channelled through carefully crafted parameters, resulting in a highly realistic sense of probability, but no absolute predictability. The classic example of this is that when you investigate a UFO crash site, you know that surviving aliens tend to be found in and immediately around the wreck itself, but only an X-COM novice would be fool enough to turn his back on that barn or that cornfield.
Never have I been so afraid of cornfields.
But a game doesn’t have to be turn-based strategy to make a balance like this work. Neither does it have to be set in 1999, or designed by the Gollop brothers. Left 4 Dead is none of those things but it still manages to generate much the same kind of fear and tension as the original X-COM games using much the same balance between scripting and random elements. The realisation that there are such strong parallels between X-COM and Left 4 Dead has given me a renewed hope for the XCOM reboot. If a strategic, co-operative, atmospheric, terrifying, unpredictable, B movie-inspired, utterly superb FPS can be made with zombies, then surely one can be made with aliens too, right?
Not enough is known about XCOM yet to judge for sure whether or not 2K is getting it right, but everything that has been shown and said of the game so far would indicate that 2K understands the core principles behind the franchise, including that delicate balance between routine familiarity and sudden unpredictability. And if I was them, I’d be playing a lot of Left 4 Dead and taking plenty of notes…