All Your History: X-Com Part 4 – Aliens: Resurrection
By 2002, the license for the X-COM franchise had become a proverbial hot potato, and it was cooling off with every new owner. The rights had passed from series creator Julian Gollop to MicroProse, from MicroProse to Hasbro Interactive, and from Hasbro to Infogrames, where the series’ last remaining project, a squad-based, first-person shooter called X-COM: Alliance, languished in development hell for years. Eventually Infogrames quietly put the game out of its misery, junking Alliance with no announcement, and no regard for the ignominious end of the franchise. X-COM seemed dead, and like the original game’s soldiers, there were no extra lives…
…or were there?
Like Hasbro Interactive before it, Infogrames experienced a period of rapid expansion in the late-1990s and early 2000s, only to suddenly hit a wall of financial hardship due to long-term debt, falling revenues, and unsustainable growth. Soon, the company began selling off the licenses it had spent the last several years snatching up. In 2004, Infogrames sold the rights to Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise to Take-Two Interactive. A year later in 2005, Take-Two entered into a multi-title publishing agreement with Firaxis Games, the company Meier founded after leaving MicroProse in 1996. Before the end of the year, Firaxis would be a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive.
Once again, a publishing giant was on a spending spree, but without the sudden collapse that stopped Hasbro and Infogrames cold. In the summer of 2005, Take-Two quietly bought the rights to the dormant X-COM license from Infogrames. And a year after that, Take-Two brought BioShock developer Irrational Games under its corporate umbrella. By May 2006, Irrational announced that it was hiring for work on “the sequel to one of the best loved PC franchises of all time.” And in 2007, rumors started swirling about what that franchise might be: signs were pointing to a brand new X-COM.
But as history had taught fans of the franchise, simply working on a new X-COM title isn’t nearly enough to get the job done. The new game wasn’t officially announced for another three years, finally being unveiled at E3 in 2010 with a projected 2011 release date.
And it wasn’t a sequel—it was a prequel. And it wasn’t being made by Irrational—2K Marin, another Take-Two subsidiary, was on development duty. And it wasn’t a turn-based strategy game—it was a first-person shooter. Was this X-COM: Alliance reborn? Was this even X-COM?
Longtime fans didn’t care to find out. The online reaction from hardcore gamers to this new XCOM was swift—and almost universally negative. It seemed as though history was repeating itself: another clueless publisher was screwing around with the series for no good reason.
And a year after its official announcement, their fears seemed founded. XCOM’s lead designer and art director left the project to start their own company. The game’s release date slipped from 2011 to 2012. The curse of X-COM seemed to be in full effect.
But unlike the franchise’s previous corporate masters, the people behind this new version weren’t ignoring the fans—quite the opposite, to hear them tell it. By E3 2011, the title had undergone a year’s worth of massive redesigns. Though it was still a real-time, first-person shooter prequel, 2K Marin’s designers claimed to be have scrapped the more action-oriented running and gunning aspects of the previous year’s E3 demo. In its place was a more tactical, strategy oriented, squad-based shooter, edging ever closer to the original title’s roots.
News of the game’s revised direction seemed to mollify the prequel’s critics. And so the fans waited. And of course, in January 2012, XCOM’s launch window was pushed back another year.
But something else had happened that month that shifted focus away from 2K Marin’s ever-delayed project. On January 5, Game Informer unveiled their February cover story, and shocked the industry: under the supervision of Sid Meier himself, Firaxis had been working on a straight-up remake of the original game that had started it all.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a turn-based, tactical strategy game set for release for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PCs later that year. The story revealed that the project had been in development since 2008, and kept under tight wraps until its announcement.
Though they’d long learned the art of skepticism, fans of the original game were blown away by what Firaxis was showing off. In March, Machinima’s Lawrence Sonntag met with the game’s creative team, including lead designer Jake Solomon, to see if this new XCOM was the real deal…or if it was too good to be true:
“For me this is a dream project. X-COM is my favorite game. It is actually—honestly—it’s the reason that I got into game development. I played X-COM in ’94 when I was a senior in high school, and then I went to college right after that, and that’s why I got my degree in computer science, and then I got a job in the industry. And so, for me, like, this is—I’ve been agitating to make this game for the last 12 years I’ve been at Firaxis. […]
But when you’re young and dumb, no one’s gonna listen to you. But now I’m old and dumb, and that means that they have to listen to me. So, I worked for Sid for a really long time and then when it was my opportunity, I was like, ‘hey, I know what we should do. We should make X-COM.’ I’m so, so, so blessed to be able to work on this game. It’s a dream job for me.”
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was published by Take-Two subsidiary 2K Games in October of 2012 to universal acclaim, earning high praise from reviewers and consumers alike. In Sonntag’s own review, he called it “the real successor that XCOM fans have been waiting for.” Suddenly, a whole new generation of gamers were discovering the joys that turn-based alien-fighting can bring.
But then, not everyone is pleased with X-COM’s return from the grave. When series creator Julian Gollop was interviewed by Edge in early 2012, shortly after Enemy Unknown’s unveiling, he expressed his doubts that 2K Games was up to the task. When asked about the 2010 announcement of the long-delayed XCOM shooter, he didn’t hold back:
“I thought it was a great shame because it was going down the same route as some of the previous X-COM sequels, like Interceptor and Enforcer—in other words, going completely against turn-based combat. It was a bit disappointing from my point of view and for many fans of X-COM. When from out of the blue we heard that Firaxis are doing a turn-based version, it’s as if 2K are trying to cover all their bets.”
However, with Enemy Unknown’s success, it seemed as though Firaxis had proven Gollop wrong with regard to its turn-based reboot. But the 2K-developed shooter was another story. By May 2012, XCOM was delayed once more, this time slated for a release sometime between April 2013 and March 2014. A Kotaku post reported rumors that the project was going through yet another redesign—this time as a third-person shooter that may be released as a budget-priced downloadable title.
While the ultimate fate of XCOM remains to be seen, Firaxis and Take-Two have shown that lightning can strike twice. With the reboot having received critical acclaim, Gollop’s vision of strategic, alien-fighting mayhem was reaching a wider audience than ever before.
And as popular as the franchise might be now, XCOM’s overall legacy is an outlier in the video game industry. Usually, a good game’s lasting influence can be seen in the projects that come after it, with mechanics and styles it’s influenced being used so often that they become standard. XCOM, however, stands alone. Its turn-based, strategic gameplay remained unique for nearly two decades after it first appeared in 1994, and its resurgence in popularity proves that its initial success wasn’t merely a fluke. Simply put, XCOM is in a class all its own.
But what’s next for the franchise? Will the prequel ever see the light of day? Will Firaxis tackle a remake of Terror from the Deep next? Or will they choose to blaze a new trail, building on the success they’ve found with their new version of Enemy Unknown? Until we know more, we’ll have to be content with simply watching the skies…