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A decade on, XCOM: Enemy Unknown remains the best franchise reboot of all time

The 2012 reboot of XCOM is a decade old – and it's still the best gaming remake ever.

It’s difficult to believe, but today marks ten years since XCOM: Enemy Unknown was first released. A lot has changed in the world of gaming in the ensuing decade ⁠— but for my money, Firaxis’ vision of a modern XCOM game remains the best video game franchise reboot there’s ever been.

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Still the high bar for a video game remake, Enemy Unknown reimagines 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense, dropping the dash in the name and dragging this unique strategy game, originally developed by MicroProse, into the modern age.

What makes XCOM brilliant is honestly a matter of sorcery ⁠— or, perhaps chemistry, if we’re being a little less romantic. The point is this: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that rare pitch perfect game that threads the needle that any video game remake or reboot faces brilliantly. It kept that which made the original a beloved and fondly remembered cult classic, but took informative cues and ideas from games released in the interim. Many games have tried this, of course, but few have been so resoundingly successful at making it all work.

When you do a little research into the development of Enemy Unknown, how this happened seems to become a little more clear. For a start, despite being a reboot of an older IP, and a Firaxis game that doesn’t have Ghandi in it, the XCOM project was given a significant budget. But more interestingly, the team apparently originally prototyped a full remake of the original 1994 title, and then worked outwards from there ⁠— revising the game, tweaking the features, flow, and balance in a way that essentially made Enemy Unknown more of an evolution of its ancient forebear rather than a revolutionary reimagining.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose. The mantra was best expressed in a rule Firaxis had: to join the XCOM team, you must have played the original. If you were being drawn into the project and hadn’t, your first task as a member of that team was to play through the brutal original.

Brutality is part of XCOM’s DNA, of course, and that was another crucial piece of the puzzle. This is still the case now, but when XCOM was in deep development games were, generally, getting a lot more forgiving. This was after Demon’s Souls was a cult hit, but before Dark Souls’ massive mainstream success reframed the whole difficulty debate. As such, it would’ve been easy for them to make a modern XCOM easy ⁠— and it does have breezy difficulty modes ⁠— but Firaxis kept in the hard-hitting elements of the original, defined by permanent death and loss of your valued squad members.

The interesting thing about all of this remains, as I said earlier, the balance. Enemy Unknown is referential to the original XCOM, but it doesn’t worship it ⁠— and as a result, it carves out its own identity as a very different game. What it brilliantly carries so perfectly is the spirit of the original, however ⁠— and the combination of these two things allowed it to reach incredible heights of brilliance.

Like I said, it’s such a precise mix of disparate elements that it looks like sorcery ⁠— but perhaps that is because anything sufficiently advanced resembles magic, as the saying goes. In reality, XCOM is an artistic piece that has a mathematical formula behind that balance that just makes sense. It just works.

What’s even more astonishing is that Firaxis followed up XCOM, easily 2012’s game of the year, with a sequel that improves on it in almost every way. The formula set, the development team was able to go town with new ideas ⁠— and XCOM 2 is genuinely one of the best games of the last decade.

XCOM 2, of course, ends with a tantalizing sequel tease of another returning element from the classic games ⁠— the Terror from the Deep. As XCOM: Enemy Unknown turns ten, it’s difficult not to think about that, and the series’ future. Firaxis is right now making Midnight Suns, a Marvel game with a dash of XCOM DNA. It looks good. But, honestly, what I really want from them is XCOM 3. I can’t wait for that to inevitably happen. In the meantime… maybe it’s time for another replay? Impossible/Ironman play-through, here I come…

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