Last week at Gamescom, I got the chance to play a bit of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It is a game I have been quite excited about, so it was great getting to play it. Compared to its spiritual predecessor, it does have a problem: The Unknown seems like its gone.
I played the original X-COM a few months ago for the first time. Despite primitive graphics and silly jumpsuits, it is quite a scary game the first time you play it. Not only because all members of your squad are vulnerable, but because I played without a manual, and there is no tutorial. In the new XCOM, your squaddies are still very vulnerable (there are less of them, but cover helps some), but everything is streamlined, explained, and more modern. Every decision is presented with its consequences.
In particular this is true for the technology development. It is much clearer if a technology is useful. In the original, some techs were pretty much useless. This could lead to a player losing because they had wasted resources on dead-end technology. A modern designer would then fix this problem, but at the same time, much of the fear of the unknown is lost in this approach. Still, in the days of the Internet, obscuring anything in your game is an impossible task.
The new XCOM also has some problems in that it tries to scare the player through scripting in the earlier missions, rather than dropping the player in the middle of an unknown area, with aliens skulking around just outside your field of vision. Sometimes, it felt like the game was saying: “See this gore? Please be scared!”. A lot of the tension built up in the early game is done through story elements such as cutscenes and voiceovers, not through gameplay and mechanics.
I have no doubts that the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be a good game, or that it will not be challenging, but I’m not sure if the enemy will be truly unknown.