I have been waiting for this for something like two decades. Around the time computer games started to get exceptionally good (by my calendar that would be around 1994), I got hooked on X-Com: UFO Defense. It stole time from MUDding, RTCW, and Star Control II. I poured endless hours into this game, which looked somewhat simple, but had some very surprising layers of complexity under the surface. The turn-based combat at the core was surrounded by a delightful strategy metagame, which included tech trees, base building, character development, equipment selection. This was layered on top of an interesting story and a very creepy vibe.

Since then, I’ve been awaiting a remake. Firaxis has delivered. Read on, but beware: some spoilers lie ahead!

It’s nearly 20 years later and this game is nonetheless faithful to the mood and feel of the original. It also incorporates a large number of modern game sensibilities (in-game tutorial, canned missions, high production values). The turn-based combat is still turn-based, but through some magical combination of streamlining and cinematic camera angles, they make you FORGET you are playing a turn-based game.

The original was really fucking hard. So hard that the new difficulty progression in the new reboot goes “Easy, Normal, Classic, Nightmare”. In an effort to desensitize new players to the brutality inherent in this game, the first tutorial mission ends with a single survivor from your squad of 4. In this writer’s opinion, that makes it the best tutorial ever.

It even sets up a neat story arc, with the veteran from that mission featuring in future missions, advancing in level/rank at the head of the pack.

I was concerned about the difficulty level after my first couple of missions, but I needn’t have worried. In the original, on normal difficulty, the Sectoid plasma fire would pretty much kill a human soldier if it hit. I actually had a couple of dudes hit by plasma guns at range last night and they survived, if only barely. One mission, involving an alien bomb in a train station, saw my soldiers scattered about the station. I thought we were mopping up, having defused the bomb, killed most aliens, stunned two Sectoids, and disabled the bomb. Suddenly, Thin Men dropped in from the ceiling, and one of them murdered one of my soliders, despite having good cover and overwatch discipline. This was a soldier that had several kills and had gained some levels, and even a nickname, so I FELT it.

The game also (in the same mission mind you) has done a good job of making me feel like I’m the asshole back in the HQ calling the shots. I was tasked with capturing a live alien, having just constructed Alien Containment and a couple of Arc Throwers. Understand that the guns these aliens carry can completely wipe out cover, including the whole side of a train car. I had put a soldier in cover inside the train, and a Sectoid popped out of cover outside the train and melted the entire side of the car, leaving my soldier exposed.

I had a choice when my turn started. I could get the soldier into cover again and possibly return fire. This would have been the safe option, the lowest-risk option for the life of my soldier. HOWEVER, the metagame benefits of capturing the alien were potentially huge (from past experience, it leads at least to Psionic powers). My other choice was to have the soldier rush the alien and stun him (it?). This was way riskier. I hoped the arcthrower would work, but since I couldn’t move after attacking that soldier would be very exposed on her flank.

I considered many angles here, but it boiled down to this: 1) She was a rookie (I like giving rookies Arcthrower), and hiring new soldiers is relatively cheap. 2) We want to begin interrogating an alien ASAP. 3) This could be the last alien in the train station, but if it isn’t, a rookie soldier standing out in the open might flush some additional bad guys.

I’m such a heartless bastard, but it’s for the good of humanity!

I could continue drooling about the game, but it calls me. It’s great. Hopefully it’s calling you too. I just researched a new weapon for my Interceptors and want to try it out on some UFOs.