How X-COM: Terror from the Deep builds tension

I've been checking out the 2012 installment of XCOM recently. I used to play a lot of the classic X-Com titles from the 90s (UFO: Enemy Unknown and - even more - X-Com: Terror from the Deep), and I admit, I have high hopes for the remake. I could potentially like it even more than the original, but after a few hours in I have exactly one major problem...

Where on Earth did all the trademark horror go?

Battles in XCOM (2012) tend to start like this:

  • My squad is deployed in a cosy little corner of a map, relatively safe and all facing the right direction.
  • They take a turn or two moving forward, taking cover.
  • Then they spot aliens! The aliens do a little dance, then take cover. Music changes to "battle".
  • More aliens can join later after entering field of vision and doing their respective little dances.
  • When the battle's over, music calms down a bit until you find a next group.

This looks like a carefully engineered solution to make the combat system devoid of horror characteristic of the old installments.

Let's contrast that with how a typical engagement unfolds in UFO:

Your team starts out inside the landed craft. Your soldiers have to move out before you get any kind of reasonable visibility of the terrain around you. Hopefully you're able to find some cover while avoiding reaction fire. Then you click "end turn" and let the alien do their part... On higher difficulties this is when the first alien grenades begin to fly. Depending on how you spread out your squad, you can already lose a soldier... or all of them. (On higher difficulty this can be indeed considered unfair and you can make it a bit less unfair by using smoke grenades carefully.)

What happens next is a sequence of turns where you move out and start to cover more and more ground. Each piece of shadow, each nook and corner can hide an alien that can (and will) surprise you the moment you start to feel safe about a particular area. Keeping that in mind, you have to cover enough ground to approach the alien craft... How do you do that? Will you set up a firing squad next to the entrance and wait? Will you set a rookie to scout? Or pick the best soldiers to do a quick entrance? Or just bomb the interior from the outside with grenades? There's lot of choices and each of them has the wonderful potential of Possibly Going Terribly Wrong, because with each turn of your own the aliens are doing Their Old Thing, while appreciating better visibility then you, ready to surprise you. UFO does a lot to prevent you from feeling in control of the situation.

And when you finally do, it feels really great.

In contrast, XCOM does a lot to make the game more predictable. You are almost never under fire by enemies that you can't see. No, the game makes double sure to give you a zoomed-in view of your enemy before any fight ensues.

Oh, did I mention terror missions? They seem to be a common element of UFO and XCOM, but they are drastically different in terms of both their role in the game and the way they play out in practice.

In fact, I'm pretty sure UFO's terror missions were named after the terror they induce in the player...

XCOM's terror missions play out pretty regularly - advance, encounter dancing aliens, fight, advance - UFO does something completely different. You're being thrown in the middle of the fray: the aliens are swarming the area and every time you end your turn you cna hear them executing civilians. Even if you manage to eliminate the alien threat in the area, how many of civilians are going to remain? Two? None? In UFO, even a "won" terror mission can feel like a failure.

If that is not enough, during these missions you encounter dedicated "terror units" that are able to convert civilians (and your own units) to zombies that turn to attack your squad... Just in case the above doesn't put enough pressure on you.

I wouldn't jump all the way that all of that makes XCOM a worse game than the classic original - I'll wait with any kind of judgement until I'm finished with the campaign. There's a good amount of other more notable differences (many of them I really like), but this pivotal change of the game's atmosphere is what struck me the most so far. At the very least this means that the 1995 game's place in my heart remains uncontested for the time being.


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