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Friday, June 14, 2024

Crapshoot: X-COM Enforcer, where you’re a robot for some reason

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, what if the nations of the world decided to forget the X-COM project and just have Robocop fight their alien wars for them? It might work!

In 1994, a game was released called UFO: Enemy Unknown. You may have heard of it, or even now be mid-way through its inaccurately named remake. (Psst: They’re Sectoids!) It was followed by several sequels and spin-offs—Terror From The Deep, which was much the same only much harder and rather more blue, X-Com: Apocalypse, which wasn’t half bad even if it wasn’t finished, and X-Com: Interceptor, a valiant if ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a space-sim spinoff.

And then there was… this. A game that even now X-COM fans usually agree not to talk about. A game that betrayed the series, its heritage and the fan base to such an extent that even saying the words “X-COM: Enforcer” can… can…. BLEURGH! Oh, damn. Those were new shoes.

But was it that bad? Now the pain has faded, maybe it’s time for a retrial.

CLERK: All rise for the honourable Judge QWERTY and his sexy black cap.

JUDGE: Good morning, gentlemen. Ah. X-COM Enforcer, is it? Splendid. My egg timer is broken, and I do rather fancy some soldiers after dispatching this one to Madame Guillotine.

DEFENCE: Your honour, I know my client is facing an uphill battle here, and will never convince the world that it is a true-blooded X-COM game. I intend to prove however that on its own merits it is a perfectly enjoyable action game for what it is, and one that deserves a second chance.

PROSECUTION: A true-blooded X-COM game? Your honour, it is not fit to share the syllables! Allow me to remind the court of what the defendant actually is. After the games that came out, two more projects never reached fruition. There was X-COM: Alliance, which was a failed shooter years before that bloody Syndicate thing put the last nail in the coffin of 2K Marin’s FPS thing3

DEFENCE: Objection! Hearsay.

JUDGE: Sustained. For now.

PROSECUTION: We’ll see. Then there was X-COM: Genesis, which was to be a remake of the first game’s strategic roots, only hopefully with an interface that didn’t feel like the designers were stabbing your brain with crystal shards of pure ‘urrrrgh’. When that was cancelled…

DEFENCE: When it was cancelled, X-COM: Enforcer was hastily produced in order to make at least some money. Yes, mi’lud, these facts would appear obvious to a chimp—as my colleague proves. Since when though does a game’s origin have any bearing on its final quality? Sometimes, it is in desperation that genius is revealed. Not in this case, obviously. I’m not insane. Still, it’s worth remembering that at release, X-COM: Enforcer was not without its supporters. I call the first witness to the stand.

JUDGE: Please state your name for the purpose of narrative expediency.

WITNESS: Sir Reginald Metacritic, Grand Poobah of Gaming and Keeper Of The Scores.

DEFENCE: Do you remember when X-COM first came out?

METACRITIC: Indeed, good sir. ‘Twas years ago, back when people understood what an ‘average’ was, and didst not routinely crap their pantaloons with fear that some tiny blog in the Outer Hebrides might sully their hard-earned score with dissenting opinion. X-COM Enforcer came out to mixed or average reviews, based on 15 critics, with a sweep of scores from 25 through to 81.

DEFENCE: But most were in the middle, you say? Not the bottom? Could you perhaps give us an example of one of these ‘reviews’, in its objective glory? Where ‘objective’ of course means ‘I agree with it’ or ‘I am blissfully unaware that all reviews are inherently subjective?’

METACRITIC: Certainly. “While the game does have its sophisticated side, it’s pretty much nonstop action. There are a few games on my hard drive that are perfect for when I’ve only got fifteen minutes to kill and Enforcer is right at the top of the list.”

JUDGE: I see. And that quote would be from…?

PROSECUTION: “People Who Are Wrong Magazine”, your honour.

DEFENCE: Objection!

JUDGE: I’ll allow it, having seen the defendant’s choice of camera angle.

METACRITIC: Ahem. Another, by the name of—

PROSECUTION: (under breath) Idiots Monthly

METACRITIC: —says “Despite a few small design quirks, this is one release I found I just could not stop playing from the moment it was installed on my hard drive. I heartily recommend it to all of you who want an adrenaline rush of the highest order.”

DEFENCE: “An adrenaline rush of the highest order.” Does this sound like a game that warrants our opprobrium? Can the prosecution not comprehend that, just perhaps, this was a bit of harmless fluff made in desperation, and perfectly acceptable for what it was?

PROSECUTION: Objection, your honour, my opponent is farting words again. I have no idea what possessed certain reviewers at the time, though we definitely shouldn’t rule out Satan, but the game speaks for itself. Just look at it. Look at it with your pitiful human eyes! I mean eyes. I have no vested interest whatsoever in preventing Earth ever building another unstoppable alien killing machine.

DEFENCE: Have you seen Deus Ex recently? I admit, even for the time this was no looker, and these days it’s like staring at the Elephant Man’s naked holiday snaps, but that is besides the point. Since when was a game’s technical merits what mattered rather than the actual quality of the game?

METACRITIC: Well, there was Crysis.

JUDGE: Sssh, you. But I agree. Let us look at the game in more detail. Perhaps someone would provide a little additional context here, just so that we’re clear.

PROSECUTION: With pleasure, your honour. X-COM Enforcer takes place during the First Alien War, in an alternate timeline. You play as a robot charged with keeping the world safe, and probably not a USB cable, on a mission to kill the franchise. Sorry, did I say franchise? I mean aliens. Your inventor and boss for the game is Professor Able Standard… not simply the most annoying Mission Control ever, but the only person in the entire history of the world to envy the vocal stylings of Wallace Shawn.

DEFENCE: Ah, yes, the Professor. I concede that his is a voice so grating, so annoying, that players spend the whole game hoping he gets murdered by the aliens. I would remind the court though that he actually does. Let it never be said that X-COM doesn’t give you what you want!

PROSECUTION: Unless you play on Easy mode, just to see what it’s got, in which case it throws in a blocker to stop you finishing the game. Which is not douchey of it at all .

DEFENCE: Fine. But this is still circumstantial, at best.

PROSECUTION: Indeed? I would say it is stunningly indicative of the game’s general bad attitude, demonstrating a contempt for the player from the very beginning to its last awful breath. Would, for example, my esteemed colleague care to remind us all of the first mission’s objective? The mission objective that sets the tone for the 35 or so wretched, soul-sucking stages of the accused’s accursed playtime?

DEFENCE: Actually, I’ve got a headache.

PROSECUTION: I’ve got aspirin, if that’ll help.

DEFENCE: Fine. You run around a big base and blow up alien teleporters.

PROSECUTION: How many teleporters?

DEFENCE: …twelve. Twelve alien teleporters.

PROSECUTION: Gosh, that does sound thrilling. Roll the clip!

PROSECUTION: Of course, your honour, that was merely the tutorial. I am sure that things are totally different after this, as the real game kicks in. Perhaps my colleague would tell us what wonders await on the first proper stage, once the game has had this opportunity to ‘warm up’.

DEFENCE: Um. Blowing up more teleporters. But not all the missions are like that! Sometimes you have to protect civilians, as they stand around oblivious to the aliens. Sometimes you just have to kill a lot of aliens. Occasionally, you ponder the role of humanity in a cruel existence, and decide that… philosophically… it’s to smash shit up until there is no more shit to smash. It may not be Escape From Castle Wittgenstein, but sometimes, I would argue, there is fun to be had in simplicity.

PROSECUTION: There, there, no need to cry. Now, your honour, don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not saying that the makers of this fine, fine piece of… fine entertainment took no enjoyment in their work. I merely query whether that limited enthusiasm would have been better spent on other things than, for example, perfecting the only real environment detail in this stage…

JUDGE: Gadzooks, as the kids like to say. That does seem an odd thing to actually expend effort on, and in a room you never need to visit to boot! I shall take copies of the young lady in the vines for careful study later. Before that though, perhaps someone could explain what supposedly makes this game a member of the illustrious X-COM family in the first place? Beyond the mere license, of course.

DEFENCE: Certainly. This is not a completely brainless shooter. It’s only perhaps 98% brainless shooter. As you kill enemies, they drop Data Points, because of course they do, why not? Between levels, these can be spent on upgrading the Enforcer and improving weapons.

PROSECUTION: Indeed, it is just like the research system of the actual game, only—with all due respect and deference—completely not, you fool . This is a simple unlock system that sits as uncomfortably as a man who realises he forgot his trousers in the middle of a church service. The closest this game comes to being remotely tactical is that you can only carry one gun at a time, and with new ones simply beaming in, it’s far too easy to lose something powerful in favour of something dreadful, like the freeze ray. Not that any of the weapons are much good, mind you.

DEFENCE: Not even the nuclear launcher?

PROSECUTION: OK, I’ll give you that one. Nuking stuff is pretty awesome.

DEFENCE: I would also put it to the court that while this is a shooter of… undeniably limited means… it does bring back almost all of the original game’s iconic aliens. Sectoids. Snakemen. Even the Chryssalids show up. You can’t say waiting to see if they do doesn’t add tension!

PROSECUTION: Though since you’re a robot, there’s not exactly a lot they can do to you. And they’re not the only classic X-COM race whose reputation is besmirched by this game. Play the ending clip, where we get to see the High Ethereal mistake his death for a Wizard Of Oz audition.

JUDGE: Was that a sequel hook at the end there?

PROSECUTION: I do believe it was, your honour.

JUDGE: Has there ever been any talk of such a sequel actually appearing?


PROSCIUTTO: I am a type of ham.

JUDGE: Enough of this foolishness. X-COM: Enforcer is hereby found innocent of being the worst game ever made, but guilty of being one of the worst spin-offs ever squirted out on the PC. It clearly exists only as a desperate attempt to get some money back from previous failed projects, regardless of what fans deserved after having their enthusiasm strung out for years without so much as a hint of new X-COM goodness. Had it been merely one of many, or its crapulence restricted to console owners who knew no better, that would be one thing. As the last official X-COM game prior to the remakes, it was little short of a tragedy—even for a series that had struggled to retain its original magic.

DEFENCE: So, what? Community service? A slap on the wrist?

JUDGE: Well, that was satisfying. Right. Who’s up for a proper X-COM game?

PROSECUTOR: Maybe later. I’m playing Dishonored first.

JUDGE: You sicken me.

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