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Hands-On: Forty Hours With XCOM

Death And The Alien

I've been playing a preview version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the past few days. I haven't really been doing anything else, except occasionally falling to sleep in front of my computer and dreaming about XCOM. I apologise in advance for the length and possible incoherence of what follows. I'm giddy, maybe I'm rambling, but I'm as excited about a game as I have been in a long time. No coy introduction here; XCOM is marvellous and now that I'm not playing it, all I want to do is talk about it, write about it, and jump up and down hollering about it.

Remakes, reboots, repetition and recall – welcome to the multiplex of today, where you might need to take out a mortgage on the sensationally priced barrel of popcorn that classes as ‘medium’, and may well have an unwanted and poorly implemented extra dimension forced into your eyes. I’m usually happy to visit the past rather than waiting for the old to be made new, perhaps even more so with games than with films. Despite that, from the moment I heard that Firaxis were making a new XCOM, an honest-to-goodness tactics and geoscape tale of alien invasion and defense against overwhelming odds, I had a good feeling. Spurred on by lead designer Jake Solomon’s enthusiasm, openness and understanding of the original game, encouraged by a promising but all too brief hands-on with the game, my excitement had become unmanageable.

It often happens that people innocently ask if there are any games I’m particularly looking forward to this year. Six hours later they’ve heard all my best stories, the ones where a squad survived the impossible, the ones where a lone survivor fled back to the Skyranger, her will shattered, and, of course, all the ones with the chrysalids. I’m talking about the past but I’m also talking about the future, because XCOM is coming back and I’m hoping for a new take on what I already know, all new stories with the same props and the same cast.

Preview code has been with me for a week now, allowing freedom of play up until a specific research-based cut-off point, and I’ve collected about forty hours of new stories. I want to tell you about the time my squad entered the burning ruins of a large UFO, searching the rooms slowly and methodically, travelling deeper into the interior, all smoke and the sinister glow of mysterious power sources. I want to tell you how they didn’t find a single living thing until they reached the very centre of the ship, how they heard the sound of movement and followed it.

Whatever was scurrying about in the wreck seemed to be on the run, perhaps the last survivor, an engineer or a pilot, not ready to face Earth’s best. Then I’d tell you how we lost track of whatever it was we were following and I’d gesticulate wildly as I told you how those men and women died, suddenly surrounded by noise as a trap was sprung, the broken ship now a tomb not for its crew but for us, for my people, for the poor bastards I failed.

It was chrysalids, you see, and they were coming out of not just the bloody walls but the bloody ceiling as well. It wasn't a set piece though, they'd been waiting to strike and if I'd been smarter, I wouldn't have sent my soldiers into that claustrophobic, smoke-filled labyrinth of twisted metal, I would have drawn whatever was inside out.

My sniper, who had been with XCOM since the very beginning, turned zombie on us and chewed the throat out of a young rookie. As the remaining members of the squad tried to blow a hole through the chitinous wave of death and devourance, one of them blew the ex-sniper’s infested guts out with a well-placed grenade. It didn’t feel right to leave her like that.

It feels so good to have new chrysalid stories, even if I’m still not entirely used to these scuttling insect incarnations of nineties nightmares. A terror mission turned from bug hunt to zombie horror when a pack of the blade-limbed monstrosities decided against peeling off our armour and instead darted down an alley to find softer, fleshier incubation chambers for their spawn. It didn’t take long for the civilians they discovered, the ones we were supposed to be protecting, to surround the grocery store in which we were taking cover, engaged in a deadly firefight with a gang of floaters. Then it was a case of cover-be-damned as eight hungry corpses bore down on our position. The dead don’t die easily and ammunition burned down quickly. The sound of each clip locking into place was like the cough that clears the throat at the beginning of a eulogy.

That’s two stories, both of which involve my squad being wiped out, the Skyranger returning with nothing but the stench of fear and scorched plasma. There are happier stories too: the unlikely shot that saves a squadmate’s life or the rare mission when the whole team comes home without so much as a scratch. The successful rescue, the necessary sacrifice, the old-fashioned, fist-bumping bout of xenocide.

Enough stories for now though. It’s time to pick through the details and to break down why XCOM works as splendidly as it does.

Before zooming back into the tactical level, here’s how base and squad management works. There’s just the one base, XCOM HQ, although you do get to choose which continent it’s located in. There’s a geographical bonus for the placement. These include Asia’s ‘Future War’ boost that reduces the cost of advanced weaponry and training, and South America’s efficient questioning and dissection techniques, which allow the player to complete autopsies and interrogations instantly.

Being based in one location doesn’t mean it’s not important to expand coverage though and this happens in two different ways. First of all, new satellites and uplink facilities must be constructed. The satellites can then be launched over different countries, which reduces the panic level in that part of the world and provides a bonus from the ruling government. Any UFOs in the nearby skies will also now be detected and this is where the second part of geographical coverage comes in to play. Detecting UFOs is all well and good, but to bring them down you’ll need to station Interceptors, or more advanced fighters, on that continent as well. They can be transferred or purchased, and to stop the world from turning its back on XCOM, it’s necessary to expand coverage frequently and intelligently.

The single base doesn’t dumb down the strategic side of the game and it has the advantage of looking utterly stunning, the side-on ant-farm design a perfect introduction to the game’s chunkily believable B-movie aesthetic. An alien containment chamber is instantly recognisable because it has a massive transparent chamber in the centre, with science bods prodding clipboards all around. Engineering workshops are full of automated machinery, robotic arms ready to build massive guns. And the guns really are massive – a heavy weapons squaddie can’t be mistaken for anything else because he is toting a bloody great machine gun, a rocket launcher strapped to his back.

Every animation is a big sell. People don’t reload carefully and daintily, they SLAM a clip into their weapon, and an angry muton doesn’t snarl, it ROARS AND BELLOWS AND PUNCHES ITS CHEST AND THEN EVERYBODY PANICS AND WHIMPERS, CRYING AND PEEING IN THEIR FANCYPANTS ARMOUR. There’s not a great deal of subtlety in the portrayal of the space bastards, although there’s a huge amount of character and variety. Sectoids are almost dog-like at times, fitting their role as advanced, expendable scouts perfectly. They scamper, crawl, snarl and flee when the going gets tough.

Adding to the characterisation are the comments of XCOM’s lead scientist, engineer and your own second-in-command. Encountering a new type of alien, technology or weapon for the first time leads to a description, usually shocked and awed, as the various higher-ups remain in contact. It could be grating but the execution makes it a wonderful touch, not only because it adds to the game’s atmosphere of panic and wonder, but because it also provides hints and a sort of ongoing guide to the world. “You probably want to avoid shooting that UFO power core”, science lady might say, to which you might well respond – “at this very moment, on the verge of total annihilation, I’ll shoot any damn thing I please as long as it’s guaranteed to vaporise every alien in the vicinity. Thanks for the tip.”


Sure, she’ll chew you out for destroying precious artifacts but, hey, I just saved the lives of four rookies who were in over their heads. I'm some kind of goddamn hero.

The interaction with XCOM staff also helps to avoid some of the problems of the original (yes, there were problems; I usually try to deny them as well). It’s no longer possible to miss vital research and you won’t have to consult a FAQ to work out how to reach the next point in the game’s narrative. That narrative was always there, it was the link between one piece of research and the next, the escalation occurred in stages as did the player’s progression toward understanding and destroying the alien threat. The difference in Firaxis’ XCOM is that the narrative has found a voice, so objectives are set during discussions between the various members of the organisation. It starts with the construction of a containment chamber, and the research, construction and action necessary to fill that chamber with a living specimen.

There’s no requirement to follow these tasks but it’s all delivered sensibly, as part of the fiction, and it’s not as if the objectives are the only thing to concentrate on; the world is still falling apart around your ears, don’t worry about that. A great deal of Firaxis’ work, beyond the brilliance of the actual tactical systems, has gone into the setting, and the world, its inhabitants and its visitors are all recognisable to players of the original, but with so much more detail to them. There are still page-long textual descriptions when research is completed, but there are also cutscenes showing the joy that becomes fear when a UFO is shot down, only for movement to be detected inside the wreck.

Nowhere more so than on a terror mission is the effort that has gone into creating a living and dying world evident. There’s a real sense of activity beyond the pockets of activity that the player sees, with an ordinary mission area often surrounded by a perimeter of police vehicles, their occupants now encased in green gunk, their Pompeii-like poses suggestive of particularly unpleasant endings. One UFO crash site that I saw had a truck parked nearby, a dead stag dumped in the back. A hunter had seen the flaming saucer crash and curiosity had made him pull over and take a look. His body was a little further down the trail.

That’s one more, tiny story. On terror missions the stories are painted in broader strokes and there’s a suitably apocalyptic feeling. Air raid and ambulance sirens wail, blockades have been set up, tanks burn in the streets. The battle has already been lost, XCOM are just there to minimise casualties and to hit back as hard as they can, to let the invaders know that there are consequences, no matter how slight they might seem.

Maps aren’t randomised, which distressed me a little, but although I’ve seen a bit of repetition enemy placement and types don’t repeat, and no two missions have been quite the same. The detail and variety are excellent, and there are some sizeable locations. The alien AI takes advantage of the space too, with separate groups occupying different areas and then flanking, surrounding and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Cover is hugely important, with a normal turn being a quick jog to the best position available and then a shot fired, overlook engaged or an item used. The aliens know this too and the easiest way to see your squad decimated is to trade shots without moving, like a tennis player in a baseline rally not willing to take a risk. You're always outnumbered, so in a straightforward slugging match, you’ll eventually lose. This is a game that rewards intelligence, learning and brave decisions as much as planning, prepration and positioning.

The special abilities, probably the most discussed change from the original game, are essential tools to tip the balance. You’ll need every trick your soldiers have learned and every piece of equipment you’ve researched. Choosing a loadout is simple; gun, armour, sidearm and auxiliary item. The latter can be a medikit, a flak jacket, a grenade, an ARC thrower (stun baton), or whatever else you’ve researched and constructed. That item is an ability or stat boost available in addition to whatever class-specific abilities your soldiers has. The classes are sniper, assault, support and heavy, and they all have strengths as well as a choice of abilities at each promotion after the first.

A sniper, for example, could have the ‘squad sight’ ability, which allows him/her to shoot at anything that a member of the team can see, even if it’s outside normal range. This kind of sniper is best placed on a rooftop, away from the action and with a height advantage adding to accuracy. But there’s another type of sniper, one with the ‘snap shot’ ability that allows him to move and shoot in the same turn, normally impossible with a scoped rifle. The sniper with that skill is better able to react but less accurate, less of a ghost. Brilliantly, long-serving soldiers are given nicknames that fit their class type, so a sniper might well become 'Ghost', although my personal favourite was a heavy weapons guy called 'Stacks'.

Over a hundred missions in, I’m a happy convert to the class and ability system. It means there are more tactical decisions on each turn and more quandaries in squad selection, particularly given that there are only four-to-six soldiers allowed in the Skyranger. Do you take all of your elite soldiers or stick in an untrained rookie or two? They’re not as much of a loss if they die, plus on an easier mission they might pick up a few kills and become more useful in the process. That's not to say it's ever easy letting someone die, no matter how green they are. They might have silly gung-ho soundbites (can be turned off), but I've even found myself warming to that aspect of the game; it's all part of the world's oddball military sci-fi texture and, besides, bravado swiftly becomes fear. Further to that, when everything is going to hell, I sometimes yell daft things myself every time one of the 'orrible things goes down screaming.

To counter your soldiers' skills, every species of alien has a special ability too, none of which I’ll spoil here. Suffice to say, they fit the character of each type and often subvert the tactics already taught, making the battlefield even more problematic with yet more issues to take into account during every phase.

There’s so much more to say. I want to share everything that’s happened, want to talk at length about how critically wounded soldiers can be accidentally killed by a grenade even as a medic is closing in, about the special council missions that offer great rewards at great risk. We’re talking disarming bombs in a power station or rescuing a UN official, pinned down and under fire on a huge concrete bridge that looks like Godzilla just stomped on it.

I’ll finish by saying that my biggest concern has completely evaporated. I wasn’t sure how different the game would feel on each playthrough, whether it would be as replayable as the original. I’ll need to answer that when I’ve got the full game and spent almost two decades with it, but I’ve started from scratch at least ten times in the last week, and it’s felt like a different experience every time.

When I wrote about Crusader Kings II back near the beginning of the year, I said this: “If it doesn’t wind up being among my very favourite games of the year, spectacular things will occur in the next ten months.” Well, CK II will still be up there, but XCOM really is something spectacular. With all the burden of expectation and doubt, it manages to be both a hugely respectful reimagining and, all ties ignored, one of the best turn-based tactical games I’ve played in, well, forever.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.