Feature Editorial: XCOM: Enemy Unknown; Allies Abstract?

I’m looking forward to Firaxis’s new game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The original game is a classic that I still pick up from time to time, despite certain flaws (such as game-breaking bugs and mechanics, along with a tendency towards tedious gameplay). The combination of high level strategy and research and tactical combat scratches multiple gameplay itches simultaneously, and it looks like Firaxis is looking to hit those same points.

One bit that intrigues me, though, is this part of the game’s description: “Worldwide Threat: Combat spans the globe as the XCOM team engages in over 70 unique missions, interacting and negotiating with governments around the world.” The original X-Com never did much with its premise that you were a secret paramilitary group funded by several nations of the world. It was all handled very abstractly: You got funding from various nations on a monthly basis that was adjusted based on your performance in that region over the previous month. You could supplement this income by selling off excess alien artifacts (presumably to those same funding nations). Nations could sign a non-aggression pact with the aliens and drop their funding, but this too was abstract; UFO’s would be sent on “infiltration missions,” and if they were not interfered with the nation would cut its funding. And that was the end of it; you never had to deal with any kind of direct oversight, or justify the level of civilian casualties and property damage after responding to an alien “terror mission,” or have to deal with internecine rivalries and politics between the funding nations. You got the occasional soldier with a Hispanic or Japanese name and the rest of them were all American and Western European. I’m hoping to see a bit more attention to the world in which you are operating, and a bit more diversity in your troops, considering you are drawing from the best the world has to offer (though when looking at the stats of recruited soldiers, it often feels like you are scraping the bottom of the barrel instead).

Going along with that idea, one of the interesting bits of the XCOM trailer is the news announcer who can be heard at the beginning and end. In the original X-Com, you never knew how much about what was really going on was known to the general public. You might think that the whole thing’s under wraps as part of a big cover-up, but that only lasts until the aliens start attacking major cities; at that point, you have to imagine that people are going to find out what’s going on, and are going to notice the unknown soldiers who drop in out of nowhere to fight the aliens. Part of the materials included in the sequel to the original, Terror From the Deep, was a booklet of world information, that included a vignette featuring an interview of a former X-COM soldier and newspaper clippings discussing X-COM funding and responses to terror attacks.* None of this was reflected in either of the games, though, as no attention is given to the civilian world aside from the occasional one getting shot by aliens during a mission or wandering into your squad’s lines of fire. It will be interesting to see if Firaxis does anything with this. After all, civilians are going to have a lot of questions about X-COM once they become aware of its existence, and the real world issues connected to private military companies such as Blackwater mean that it would certainly be topical.

In any case, I think XCOM is looking like an excellent game regardless of whether it addresses these issues, I just think that there is room within the narrative they appear to be constructing to do so.

*If you’re curious about this material, you can find it online at http://www.xcomufo.com/x2dl.html.  Download x2notebk.pdf. I think much of it was invalidated by later canon. Fun fact: The strategy guides for X-COM and TFTD written by Kuo-Sheng (Kasey) Chang were the first game FAQs I ever read.

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