By Alec Meer on September 25th, 2012 at 7:00 pm.
The XCOM demo arrived yesterday, and immediately, violently divided opinion. This game could only ever divide opinion, of course, being as it is a remake of one of the most revered PC games of all time, but in this instance I think it’s dividing opinion for the wrong reasons. For various reasons, mostly due to its very minute amount of content (one entirely scripted mission, one on-rails tour of the base and one more too short, too-easy mission), it gives an impression of the game that isn’t altogether accurate. As a result of this, comments about the demo are a warzone of disappointment. In some ways – both good and bad – the demo does tell a true story. In others, it’s suggesting a much smaller and far more shallow game than the preview code we’ve been engrossed in, and for that reason I think it may have been a bit of a gaffe. Let me explain, in the form of a list.
1) It’s tiny. Not filesize tiny, seeing as it’s six bloody gig, but content-tiny. It’s just the tutorial, which introduces the initial concepts of the game while offering a scripted, cutscene-littered half-hour that isn’t an accurate reflection of the game to come.
2) Going on from that, you won’t see many more cutscenes. That first mission is very heavy on them, from the talking military types to the horror movie-aping cinematic sequences and whatnot. That’s basically just an extended intro movie, and doesn’t carry on through to the game proper. Those cutscenes that you will encounter tend to involve the research and engineering heads explaining their findings when you’re back at base – in terms of in-mission or even pre-mission stuff, there’s almost nothing after the scripted, scene-setting stuff in the tutorial missions. In preview code, anyway: I’d guess at there being more when major events occur in the storyline. But my point is, no your turn-based strategising is not going to be constantly interrupted by cutscenes. Promise.
3) In a similar vein, the ‘glamcam’ – that third-person or cinematic view that occasionally kicks in for random shots or actions – can be turned off in options if you don’t like it. I’m torn between which I prefer – some sequences do repeat a little too often, but there’s a singular horror to suddenly being shown, say, three capering Thin Men arriving on the scene just when you think you’re in the control of the situation. Soldiers’ barks can also be turned off if you find ‘em too Action Movie.
4) Yes, squads of 4 soldiers feel too small. But it doesn’t take long to increase it to six (bought with cash at the Officer Training School), which feels a lot more like it – you can control the battlefield and you feel like you have a range of tactical options. I think, ideally, I’d like squads to go up to 8, but 6 doesn’t feel too small – XCOM is designed to have faster missions than X-COM, and that’s part of the overall design rather than 4/6 soldiers being a singular, pointless hobbling.
5) Yes, cover is basically mandatory for survival. At least until you get the flying suits. It is a cover game in a way that X-COM was not. If you can’t stomach the need to have everyone in cover, and that combat depends on being able to shoot ostensibly around corners once in cover, then you’re and this game aren’t going to be friends: it’s a big change and one of the major factors in this being a different take on XCOM rather than a remake. It’s about the tactical challenge of soldier positioning rather than being Gears of War. With each soldier unutterably precious, part of the puzzle of each mission is how to get close enough to the enemy to take them down effectively without getting killed first. And if a soldier ends their turn out of cover, don’t bank on them being alive come next turn.
6) Do not worry about linearity. This demo will barely let you breathe because it’s only the tutorial and some bonus cutscenes, and for that reason I think it might have been a huge mistake. It’s giving out the wrong impression entirely, and it doesn’t reflect the ongoing tension of the constant decision-making the game involves.
7) The keyboard and mouse interface. Yes, it doesn’t feel quite right, does it? The main issue for me is the need to confirm each action, thus meaning two-clicks is required whenever I want to take a shot, reload, suppress or whatever, which can be pretty annoying and mess up flow. But I developed some muscle memory actions pretty quick, learning which skills/actions my soldiers had on which number keys, so I’d hit the relevant numeral then press enter and it’d all happen pretty much immediately. That’s something that’ll come over time – and it will – but it’s impossible for it to happen in this miniscule demo. I’ve essentially been playing it on keyboard alone, with the mouse used purely to select a destination and target. Other than that confirm thing, I’m quite happy with that and have felt zero need to move to gamepad. But yeah, the PC UI is a slightly awkward hybrid of console and PC, and I really wish they’d pushed it further towards the latter.
8) That bland commander guy who speaks and apparently gives orders a) is not you, but some advisor figure and b) fades into the background once the tutorial’s stuff done, from thereon in largely just existing to give mission briefings on loading screens. I was really worried about him too to start with, but he’s just a crutch to introduce initial concepts and, later, to tremble as some alien concepts are introduced. The only characters you’ll hear much from in the game proper are the science and engineering heads, and the shadowy global council in your monthly performance/funding debriefs.
9) You might have noticed that the aliens’ weapons explode if they’re killed. That’s why it rapidly becomes important to take some enemies home alive, in almost every mission (both for extra gear and so you have stuff to sell for hard-to-come-by cash). It’s an entire extra layer of strategy that isn’t apparent from the blast ‘em and get outta there demo/tutorial levels. Similarly, explosives trash everything, so they become something to avoid using unless necessary rather than blow stuff up willy-nilly. This is even more of an issue when assaulting a UFO, whether crashed or landed, because every time the hull or the contents are damaged, by aliens or XCOM members, that’s more cash down the drain.
10) I agree the mission locations aren’t as memorable or characterful as the bright cornfields and sinister grocery stores of X-COM, and that isn’t something that changes in the full game. There’s a reasonable variety of them, and the outdoor ones especially look pretty gripping when they also house a crashed UFO, but I can’t say they strongly conveyed a real sense of place. (Adam, however, thinks they do convey a real sense of place, although the tutorial ones are far from the best.)
11) Abilities. They’re crucial to the game, but not as crucial as shooting aliens is: this is not a game of gimmicky, Warcraft-style powers but of using a small, focused set of actions to support that fundamental activity. Also, bear in mind that you get a choice of abilities whenever each of your soldiers ranks up, so you end up with a squad tailored to your needs (as you see them) rather than a pre-fab one. On Classic difficulty, a couple of hours in you’ll undoubtedly find yourself fielding a squad mostly, if not entirely, made up of rookies without abilities. Everyone else will be dead or injured, so you will have to cope without abilities as well as mastering them. There’s also the psychic stuff still to come, but I didn’t manage to reach that in the preview code.
Here’s what I think, a silly old theory of mine: if you weren’t already cynical towards this remake there’s a good chance the small amount of stuff that’s in the demo would have had you excited about the possibilites the full game might hold. If you’ve been bitterly expecting failure, the fact this demo is, quite frankly, a stinker that’s far too superficial and does a poor job of representing the obsessed, tense experience of the wider game is going to confirm your fears about it. It’s lovely, so lovely to see a pre-release demo of a big game, but that doesn’t mean this was the right demo. It needed to be bigger, and it needed to contain a good hour or two of playtime, but I guess that was deemed giving too much away. They should have given more. Maybe they will yet.
For a far more representative look at the game, this hour of in-game footage is a much better bet, even if it be a passive rather than active way to experience it. If you don’t like what you see there, fair enough.