America Is Not The World: XCOM Preview

By Dan Grill on July 1st, 2011 at 1:58 pm.


We’ve seen XCOM. Want to know what it’s truly all about? Read on below for the best XCOM preview on this or any other internet. Really, it’s got Giant Doom Lasers Of Doom, a bit about that squad-management stuff, reports on alien super-powers, themes of 1960s political incorrectness, correct art-history references, and everything else it could possibly need.

Go have a read.

2K Marin’s Jordan Thomas, he of the Cradle (Thief 3) and Fort Frolic (Bioshock) fame, is explaining why his team have changed XCOM so much since last year’s reveal. “Our first crack at XCOM was a little too much in our comfort zone, to be honest. We’ve made several key changes to the design in pursuit of the feeling we had when we played the original games…In XCOM, we are a new origin story, a reimagining along the lines of Battlestar Galactica or Batman Begins, in its own timeline.”

What this means, functionally, is that the game won’t link in to the original games. Heart-breaking for us True Fans, yes, but I think we have to accept that the game we loved is now the preserve of (the surprisingly good) UFO Afterlight, Frozen Synapse, and the upcoming Xenonauts.

Anyway, this “XCOM” starts, not in the 1980s but in 1962, the era of Kennedy and Krushchev. You play special agent William Carter, the head of XCOM’s Field Team. “We wanted that feeling of being that first man on the ground” says Thomas, “what it would be like to be this one person who finds his home under siege and must repel the alien invasion knowing so little about it.”


Our demo starts with a case-file that Carter is reviewing from the suburban United States; it features a classic hometown scene, captured by an amateur cameraman on grainy film, silent but for the loud clacking of the projector in the background; birds flying, people cycling, cars going by. The cameraman, maybe a kid, goes into a house, still recording; but the person he greets, looks strange, then her face starts to break up, folding apart into a structure (which the comments on the last XCOM article tell me is not merely cubist, but specifically El Lissitzky). He runs and the camera falls.

Outside, as Carter leaves the briefing room of XCOM’s top secret underground base, it’s Mad Men time. The era when lots of white men with short back n sides and white shirts with rolled up sleeves thought being serious consisted of frowning and leaning on a boardroom table. These are the analysts, who provide you with the mission files, and the glass-windowed boardrooms are full of them, answering emergency calls from all over the country as the alien invasion takes hold.

The base is your social hub – the equivalent of the subway in The Darkness or your campsite in Dragon Age. Here you get to chatter with your fellow intelligence operatives, get their side of the story, and doubtless have to play Hunt The T1000. (If this really is an XCOM game, then it won’t be complete without a bloody base invasion, like Crusader: No Remorse.) In the next room, researchers are playing with captured alien tech, seemingly using just white lab coats as protection.

Then it’s round the corner to meet the rest of the field team; even they’re wandering around in short sleeved shirts, horn-rimmed glasses and the latest in alien technology. Their task is to go into the field, capture The Outsiders’ machinery of war and turn it against them.


It’s an RPG-like squad, introduced by the rumble-throated Agent Leon Barnes. We meet two character classes; the Master-At-Arms, “an ammo dump on legs; makes his own rounds” and the Commando “If you’re looking for a bruiser, you’ve found the guy. Don’t let the suit fool you; his other suit’s made of dead Russkies.” One of our commandos is already a veteran, so we get to see them unlock his experience tree – very familiar to Mass Effect. He has a Disrupt power, to weaken enemies, and a Defensive Shield power, that can be placed anywhere in line of sight, and which can also be used to trap enemies.

Angela, the ex-CIA XCOM division chief, assigns Carter his first mission; it pops up on a giant projected map behind her, with a variety of missions available on it; as an example, there’s an Elerium capture mission, to acquire the heavy element that powers the alien tech and which can be spent on upgrades, powers, and agent tech. Notably, Carter can dispatch agents on missions without him, to gain experience; however, you have to be careful with them as agents who take too many injuries on a mission, might get benched and have to miss missions. “We’re also looking at ways to incentivize you to keep the agents alive”, says Jordan “additional experience or long-term growth, maybe .”

One of the missions is the key story mission Angela wants you to handle. “Dr Alan Weir was working with DoD, analysing the alien tech and subverting it to help humanity fight back. Short time ago we lost contact with him; head to his last known location, find him and bring him home…. And remember, there’s no-one like Weir; try not to break him.” Thomas explains that bringing Dr Weir back means that he’ll join the core cast in the base and comment on your missions, as well as a quantum leap forward in research.

To get an inkling of the mission, parts of it are shown, in hyperbollocks vision, in this trailer:

The classic Skyranger has been converted into a twin-prop helicopter, and it drops off the squad at the deserted National Guard quarantine posts around the town of Rosemont, Georgia. An agent coughs “this isn’t right, I can feel it” as Carter searches for the Guard captain you’re supposed to be meeting. The checkpoints sealed, so you have to cut through a painstakingly recreated diner, complete with jukebox wailing. Leaving that, we cross the street and find the command post, complete with neatly-killed piles of soldiers… A single soldier is alive, as in the video; Carter says “Federal agents; let’s see some ID pal” and he attacks, the Outsider Infiltrator’s skin splintering into fragments showing something black beneath, his eyes glowing, his voice separating into several dissonant frequencies. The agents shoot him, lots, until he collapses screaming, and check what he was looking at; worryingly, a dossier on Dr Weir.

The infiltrator’s death has set off an alarm and, as they head up-street towards the main University buildings, the squad runs straight into combat. The huge success of Mass Effect 2 has heavily influenced this. At the time of writing, it’s not quite as polished as the iterated design of the Mass Effect games, but all those familiar elements are in there; your squad has been cut back from eight to three, each of whom has special abilities, controllable through a slowed-time menu. Let’s be generous and call it a tribute.

The squad encounters a couple of national guardsmen as they run up the street; their role is very much red-shirt, to die for spectacle. A thrown bus crushes one, as we encounter our first aliens; disappointingly humanoid, they do come from the Star Trek alien design school of “we can make an alien by sticking some mirrors on a mime”. Despite this, they prove tricky to kill as they throw up a big directional force field. Meanwhile, nearby vehicles are getting grown over by the living tech as it xenoforms the world to their specifications.


What’s nearer to Space Hulk than Mass Effect is the use of time units to determine what actions you can take; for example, the relatively cheap Disrupt causes feedback in an outsider’s body causing him to drop his guard, allowing Carter to take him down and flank them. However, the Outsider’s tech identifies him as an officer and hence the main threat, so shield shifts to defend against his position. The Master-At-Arms uses his “Diversion” power to identify himself as the officer, and the shield shifts back, allowing Carter to take its revealed generator down.

Getting near to the main university building, the squad runs into another threat; an alien turret and some more death-mimes. There are two options here; spam it with grenades or try to capture it; obviously the challenges and rewards are greater with the latter. This time to draw its attention, Carter gets the Master-At-Arms to use both Defensive Shield and Diversion, to draw all the fire while Carter flanks the defenders. (The combat isn’t particularly original, but it’s functional.)

The turret folds up into a tiny ball, for Carter to either redeploy or take back to base for research bonuses. Similarly, in the next area, Carter comes across an alien laser rifle – it’s not yet adapted for human use, but if he takes it back to the base, they may be able to reverse-engineer it. Then Carter pulls out one of the end-game guns, the D-Ray, basically a giant laser of doom.

He does this because he’s encountered a Titan; a floating monolith that rains cosmic energy on its surroundings before shifting into a death ray. As it costs 20 time units to capture, Carter is forced to disrupt it and D-Ray it several times before it can be captured; all these enemy AIs are potential tools. Then he redeploys it, just to show how much damage it does to the enemy; a lot.


Finally entering the university proper, we see a weird lamprey-like alien grabbing a researcher and dragging him partially through a wall, leaving him embedded and twitching, like some Havok physics glitch. Carter chases it down, only to see it grabbing Dr Weir and dragging him through a swirling portal. Carter follows him, foolishly, into a void full of floating chunks of buildings and ships and a totally strange universe that the Outsiders must come from…

Thomas concludes the demo; “For me, falling in love with XCOM came with the shift to the 60s. This country had an inner discord, the rise of the new America grappling with the old. It’s a wonderful way to talk about xenophobia.” He does, to be fair, also talk about the “intrinsic hunger to understand the enemy inside out is core to what it means to be an Xcom gamer” but I can’t be a bit worried by the focus on American suburbia again. Even the most retrograde Republican out there must be bored by this locale by now.

My response to all this? Well, this isn’t XCOM as XCOM fans understand it; it’s a Guns ‘n’ Conversationgame, and the XCOM joy of base-building, squad management (and the threat of permadeath), and the slow, difficult grind to superior firepower is absent. Mass Effect isn’t a bad model for a game, of course – especially a multiformat game – but the story in this one is going to have to be really, truly special to make it work. Here’s hoping.

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217 Comments »

  1. Jason Moyer says:

    I’m sick of all these games based on 60′s Americana. Like, uh…NOLF?. Wait, no Cate is British. GTA Lond…er, no. Evil Geni…nope. Still, though, a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh? Er, wait.

  2. Very Real Talker says:

    so uninteresting! Looks like a cover based shooter with plenty of cover and plenty of slow action, and overly long conversations.

  3. Dave L. says:

    So am I the only one who was more interested in the game they showed last year than this one? I got the impression that the older version had a more sandbox-y, go at your own pace approach to the missions, with ‘shit’ getting more ‘real’ the longer you were in the field.

    This one looks like the missions are heavily scripted affairs, with the only differences being who you bring with you. They could have just folded the squad selection/command stuff into the older mission designs and had a much more interesting game.

  4. Bilbo says:

    “Surprisingly good UFO Afterlight”

    …Guess you didn’t play it, then

  5. rollermint says:

    2k Marin should make a new rendition of CHESS.

    Except it’ll be a hack and slash game with some platforming puzzles like God of War! Wouldn’t that be AWESOME!? You can level up and gain new combo moves! Fight boss monsters! Your hero character will be a perpetually angry bald guy who look more like a WWE reject! Even talks like one! There are dialogues, some trivial choices to be made AND ALOT MORE SCRIPTED SEQUENCES! You know, like when you pay 8 bucks to watch a movie except this time, you pay 60 BUCKS! WOW!

    Now, we will all know the Origin story of CHESS! Except it has fuck all to do with Chess!!!

    I’m sure that sounds like its going to be a decent game on its own but its still a retarded move. Apparently, its now ok for business entities to piss on fans but calling them out on it will label you as “elitists”.

    I honestly think 2k Marin “Xcom” will be a decent game but yes, its still retarded as shit.

  6. jalf says:

    Now, we will all know the Origin story of CHESS! Except it has fuck all to do with Chess!!!

    Wow. I guess it says it all when you’re able to get that furious at the thought of someone making a new version of f’ing CHESS.

    Just wow…

    I’m really glad I wasn’t reading computer mags when Battle Chess came out.

    • MD says:

      Wasn’t Battle Chess just chess with a graphics & animation makeover? If so, an analogous X-COM remake would probably be really well-received by the people you’re getting annoyed at.

    • Antsy says:

      ” Wow. I guess it says it all when you’re able to get that furious at the thought of someone making a new version of f’ing CHESS.”

      Way to ignore his point entirely.

    • jalf says:

      Wasn’t Battle Chess just chess with a graphics & animation makeover</blockquote<
      Yes, and as such, not a perfect analogy. But apparently, the point isn't so much what the changes are, but simply the fact that *it's been changed*.

      Battle Chess was a pretty fundamental change to Chess too, wasn't it? Not in terms of gameplay, but in the expression of the game. It is traditionally an abstract game, and Battle Chess changed that to very concrete acts of violence.

      Way to ignore his point entirely.

      Way to miss my point entirely. You think I ignored his point by accident, or because I didn’t understand it?

      Try again.

      It could just be because the analogy he chose, and his attitude towards it, was more interesting than his rants about “what if someone changed a 3000 year old board game”, which, to be honest, I find it hard to get upset about.

      What if someone changed Chess? Then we’d have a different chess in addition to the traditional one. Is that a problem? Would it be “retarded as shit” to do that?

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      But if you’re changing everything in this Chess 2.0 – how the pieces look, how the pieces play, how the rules apply, make it a real time (?) boardgame – oh wait, it’s no longer a boardgame – why would you call it chess again?

    • rollermint says:

      “Battle Chess was a pretty fundamental change to Chess too, wasn’t it? Not in terms of gameplay, but in the expression of the game. It is traditionally an abstract game, and Battle Chess changed that to very concrete acts of violence.”

      Battlechess only adds in animation and graphics changes, the gameplay remains entirely intact as with Chess. There is no fundamental difference, as what you are trying to weasel your point across.
      As such, your analogy fails hard, just as your entire post. lol.

      P.S Feel free to reread my original post a few times, maybe you get a clue or two on how to use correct analogies to bring your point across. With a little crude humour too! :)

  7. Jerykk says:

    It’s perfectly reasonable to carry certain expectations when something uses an established name. If we didn’t carry such expectations, I don’t know how we’d be able to function. When I buy a Coke, I expect it to be a carbonated drink that tastes like Coke. If I instead get something that tastes like tomato juice, I’ll be pretty irritated. Similarly, if a game uses the name of an established franchise, I expect it to actually have something to do with said franchise. Going from a turn-based strategy game to an FPS is a pretty significant change, particularly for those who don’t like shooters. That’s not to say XCOM will be a bad game in and of itself but it will definitely be a bad XCOM game and that’s what people are angry about. XCOM fans don’t want an FPS, they want a modern successor that retains the core values of the original games while improving and expanding upon them. One of the core values pf the X-COM series is turn-based, strategic gameplay.

    If you don’t care about names, all the more power to you. However, it’s pretty silly to criticize people who get upset when their reasonable expectations aren’t met.

    • jalf says:

      Really? what expectations do you have for an X-COM game?

      How does Interceptor fulfill those expectations?
      How did Enforcer fulfill them?

      They didn’t. Whatever sacred spot you feel X-COM holds, it fell off that pedestal more than a decade ago.

      Your reaction would have been understandable (but still disproportionate and hysterical) if you’d made it when Apocalypse or Interceptor came out.

      Now? It’d be like complaining that The Old Republic is ruining what Star Wars is all about. Years after the prequel movies, SWG or KOTOR. Years after whatever you’re angry about happened for the first time.

      Apart from this, what expectations are “reasonable”, exactly?
      Would it be “reasonable” to expect a Warcraft game to be a RTS?
      Is it “reasonable” to expect Romeo and Juliet to take place between a man and a woman, or in Shakespeare’s time? (Because both those factors have been changed in various “reimaginings”)
      Is it “reasonable” to expect a Super Mario game to be a platformer? How about expecting a Sonic game to be 2d?

      Yes, a game using the X-COM name (with or without the dash) can be reasonably expected to have something to do with the previous games using the same name. But who says it is the *genre* specifically that must stay unchanged? How about saying “the story must stay unchanged”? Or “the premise (alien invasion, Earth caught by surprise, secret organization scrambling to catch up and fight off the aliens), that must stay the same?

      For heaven’s sake, we live in a world with Sonic RPG’s, Super Mario racing games, Star Wars games taking place in the wrong era, Indiana Jones movies that are about his goddamn son.

      James Bond must have been played by a dozen different actors by now.

      BSG was reimagined, completely changing the origin of the Cylons!

      Is the XCOM game really worse than all of those changes

      Hell, X-COM was turned into a shooter a decade ago. And that was after it was turned into a flight sim!

      Really.

  8. dopefish says:

    “but the story in this one is going to have to be really, truly special to make it work”, exactly !
    mass effect games gameplay isn’t the best thing around but it’s the sum of the parts that makes it work, especially the story. here’s hoping they will make it work !
    p.s
    it does seem to make sense for them to make it a FPS if the direction of the game is towards a kind of a linear story with round characters that you as a gamer are supposed to care about. would be hard to make anyone care about characters that you watch from an isometric point of view, cant get into the details needed to do that or the intensity of the scripted events.

  9. thebluemonkey81 says:

    @BooleanBob

    What he said, so eloquently.

    The point of a sequel is to continue a storey(or game) in much the same way it has been before.
    Re-Imagen it, sure, but totally turning on what it was is frustrating for the former fans.

    Presumably they decided to take an old game name and make a new version so that from the start they had a large player based wanting to get the game. That sets the presumption that the game will follow suit with the others.

    To then turn around and declare it’s a much more watered down version is disappointing and given some have been waiting 15 years for a new release of an x-com game it’s understandable that there’ll be emotional words.

    It’s like if they released a “meet the fockers 5″ and instead of being a comedy based jaunt it was a gritty world war 2 film but they only showed the “comedy moments” in the trailer……..

    Or like Marly and Me…. that films not a comedy ¬¬