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.