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River City Retro Alien Wars 3: How the X-COM series fell from grace


It's been a while but I've finally been able to write the next chapter in my RCR Alien Wars series. I'm sorry about the delays but I've recently moved to Tokyo where I'll be living for a while so I've been busy recovering from jet lag and playing my ass off at the arcades. With my current daily life, it looks like I won't be able to keep up with the self-imposed one-blog-a-week schedule i had going. For the few of you that haven't forgotten me yet, don't worry. I might be a bit slower but I'm going to keep blogging. In case you haven't been keeping up with these posts, let me give you a quick run-down.

There's this little series called X-COM. It's quite unknown among the vast masses of gamers but at the same time, several people who did play it regard the first installment as the best PC game ever made and that includes IGN.com. It's truly a hidden treasure. If you're a pirate and you've just dug up a pixelated chest at the spot marked with an X, you're most likely going to find a copy of X-COM inside. With this series of blogs, I'm trying to provide the map and I hope that at least some dtoiders will put on their eye patches and dig it up.

Up to this point I've covered Enemy Unknown which started it all, its cheap knockoff called Terror From The Deep that I refuse to hate and Apocalypse, the more than worthy sequel. At this point in time things were looking bright for the X-COM series. It didn't quite have the following that Dune or Command & Conquer had but its brilliant combination of strategy and tactics were still without equal. It had every bit of potential to flourish as a franchise.

What was: Spin-offs!

This was exactly what a certain man named Dave Ellis was thinking too. Having been a MicroProse employee since the beginning and having written strategy guides for both Enemy Unknown and Terror From The Deep, (damn that title sounds cool!) he knew the games better than anyone. He loved them even more than I do and was constantly pushing for MicroProse to do more with the series but ironically, his undying love might have been exactly what caused their downfall.

When he finally pushed MicroProse far enough to put him up there as the head designer for everything X-COM, he started to wonder where the series should go next. He started looking at different franchises and especially the Star Wars games. As we all know, Star Wars is an incredibly potent universe. First person shooters, role playing games, real-time strategy, you name it. Everything Star Wars can work as long as it's executed well. Mr. Ellis believed this to be true for X-COM as well and imagined all kinds of spin-off series' being developed alongside the standard strategy titles.

I believe this is where he went way out of his league. I'll be the first one to commend X-COM's quality but what makes these Star Wars games work is that they not only have quality, but also a huge following ready to eat up every new piece of media as long as it's within reasonable quality. X-COM on the other hand, was still very much a cult game even at this stage. No matter how good previous titles might have been, they still hadn't earned their name.

Anyways, one thing he and his team thought about was the idea of being in the cockpit of an interceptor from Enemy Unknown. This inspired the obviously named spin-off, X-COM Interceptor. Although it was originally intended to be a retelling of the Enemy Unknown, Dave let himself get inspired by Star Wars once again in addition to the Wing Commander series which was itself inspired by those legendary movies. The battlescape of the previous three games was replaced by an arcade space shooter with neither the quality of Wing Commander nor the engrossing story of Star Wars. Any quick look by a previous X-COM fan would suggest to quickly brush this game aside and wait for the real beef but let's not be too hasty here.

After all, Enemy Unknown was a genial combination of strategy and tactics. All that the arcade shooter replaces is the tactical part. The strategy part of the game is completely intact and it is exquisite! Taking place inbetween Terror From The Deep and Apocalypse, Interceptor is located among deep space mining colonies that are trying to make up for earth's depleted resources. Replacing the globe from the first two games and the city from the third, you have control over a collection of star systems in which you build bases and deal with the same alien species that were attacking earth back in 1999. Just like before, you bring back equipment from interception missions and research it to improve your own.

What's really cool about this game is that the aliens play by exactly the same rules as you do. They have star systems which they mine for resources and use that to build their equipment. The more you destroy their stuff, the more you impede their economy. All in all Interceptor isn't a bad game. Was it a worthy follower to X-COM Apocalypse? No. Was it a good direction for the series to take? No. Was it the start of X-COM's downfall? Probably. Did I beat it twice? Yes. Did I enjoy it both times? Yes. What could have made it better? Either a deeper dogfighting system or not being a spin-off as a whole!

Dave Ellis went out of his way to make a somewhat mediocre arcade experience combined with a good strategic system. I really believe he should have calmed down and focused on what he really needed to do: stop strategy fans from talking about Command & Conquer and get them to talk about X-COM instead. Unfortunately he set off on a path into obscurity with Interceptor while Blizzard took away Command & Conquer's spotlight for him with the jewel that we all know as Starcraft.

What wasn't: More spin-offs!

Around the same time that Interceptor came out, I was going crazy for another X-COM title. I remember running over to my friend's house with the latest issue of PC Gameplay magazine in my hand. "Hey look at this. This is going to be so awesome!", I shouted. The game I was talking about was X-COM Alliance. This was going to be a full fledged first person shooter. It was going to have it all. The squad based tactics, the overwhelming technology research, a beautiful Unreal engine. We were going to play Enemy Unknown from the view of a single soldier and man, was it going to rock!

Look, I know all this excitement is pretty contradictive to what I just said one paragraph earlier but this is exactly how little Metallion reacted when first hearing about Alliance. After a significant number of years have been added to both mine and the game's age, I'm taking a calmer, more sober stance. Would this game really have been so great? What did Dave Ellis say in an interview one time again? "The guys who did Terror From The Deep had begun working on alliance."

Let's see... Terror From The Deep? How was that game again? If I recall correctly, it wasn't anywhere near finished when it came out. Even the latest versions still have game-breaking bugs in the research tree. Then what about the development cycle? Alliance was first started by a team in the UK, then encountered a lot of financial troubles and studio takeovers. The game moved to a completely different team in the United States that had barely worked on it at all. Finally in a huge restructuring of the company, most of the gaming department was closed down and with it went the Alliance team.

Little Metallion is crying inside of me as I write this but perhaps Alliance's cancellation was for the best. After all, this series didn't need any spin-offs. Besides, the guys working on this FPS weren't exactly id Software or Epic Games either. Would they have been able to create a powerful FPS game? It's a question that will never be answered but with all those earthquakes in its development cycle, I kind of doubt it. I hope Alliance can rest in piece while the little child inside of me fondly thinks back of the excitement he felt when the project was first announced.

What should have been: Genesis!

As I mentioned in the Interceptor section, all of these spin-offs were meant to be developed alongside the main Strategy series but that's unfortunately not exactly how it went. A game called X-COM Genesis was in development all along but met the exact same fate as Alliance. It's a shame really because this looks like it would have been both the real sequel to Apocalypse and felt like a 3D remake of the first game all at the same time. As shows in both Interceptor and Enforcer, which we'll get to in a second, the team wanted to walk away from Apocalypse's new aliens and return to the roots. This game was scheduled to start with the destruction of Mega-Primus and give us back both the Geoscape and the oldschool outdoor Battlescape. The only thing that does make me raise an eyebrow is the plan to replace the turn-based system with a real-time one not unlike the optional one in Apocalypse.

You could call me a purist and perhaps you'd be right but still. I think texture designer Bob Kathman said it best: "Your hand-picked squad would be all healthy and then they’d just start getting hammered in one turn. You were helpless to do anything until the chaos ended and then you’re sitting there in shock, gawking at all of the carnage and ... OK, your turn!" Now that's what freaking X-COM is like!

What shouldn't have been: Another spin-off!

Sigh. That's basically what I've got to say in this section. One big sigh! Here's the deal. What used to be MicroProse was sitting on the mediocre sales of Interceptor and the cancellations of Alliance and Genesis. With all this time and money going down the drain, they took out the plunger and frantically tried to suck at least a portion of it back in. The result is a battered and withered piece of software covered in drainage water and brown stains. This, my friends, is X-COM Enforcer.

Let's have a look at the story. In the previous games, earth's governments decided to form a multinational military organization, employing the worlds most elite combatants and scientists. This re-imagining isn't having any of that bullshit. The only way to defeat an alien threat like this is to have one mad scientist build a killer robot all alone in the middle of the desert. Didn't you guys read any comic books as a kid?

Thats ok, right? Running around exploring and blasting aliens is fun right? Yeah, usually it is but this game just reeks of a rushed and uninspired cash-in. Except for course, there wasn't so much to cash in on the X-COM name anyway. This is just your simple mediocre arcade shooter. You blast aliens, are told where to go next and then blast more aliens. When this is perfectly executed, you can have a great game on your hands but all this piece managed to achieve was being the final nail in X-COM's coffin ... until recently anyways. I was going to end this blog on that sentence but now I feel like a change is in order.

2K, what the freaking hell are you doing?!

I am going to keep this short but all I can really hope is that this new X-COM first person shooter is going to be the X-COM Alliance that my younger self used to wish for. I am not going to lose any sleep at night waiting for this game though. Anyways, this series of blogs is almost over. From now on I will tell you about how even though the official games had stopped appearing, their spirit simply refused to die.
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About Metallionone of us since 4:11 AM on 10.14.2009

I'm a dude that used to write cblogs regularly but doesn't do that any more.