Last week, I finally got to see XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis' X-COM remake, with my own failing eyes. I have various things to post about it over the coming days, but let's start with a break down of what made my little belly flutter with excitement and what made my weak jaw clench with anxiety. It's X-COM, but... not. Here's why.
I AM EXCITED ABOUT:
1. The base, or the ‘ant farm’ as Firaxis refer to it. A cross-section view of your (gradually tailored and expanded) facility with a side-on view into every room, it looks alive and busy, something beavering away to combat an enormous threat, something far more engaging than the static Lego of the original X-COM. The infirmary contains your wounded soldiers, the healthy ones are exercising in the gym or shooting pool in the recroom, the scientists and engineers are doing their things in their respective parts of the base. This is the world that you have built and staffed. I also dug hearing the intercom intone ‘commander to mission control, commander to mission control’ – a reminder that you’re there with a job to do.
2. The Skeleton Suit, which grants a grapple special ability. I’m still in two minds about the emphasis on special powers rather than straight combat (see below), but this is one that makes sense – it can get a Sniper to a rooftop location so he has a better line of sight. For instance, he can take out a lurking Sectoid that’s in Overwatch, so one of your assault or support soldiers are able to move closer to a building or alien without immediately getting their buzzcutted heads blown off. In other words, it’s genuinely expanding the game’s tactical elements, rather than being a posturing gimmick.
3. The little details. The way Sectoids cower when shot at, or crash through windows to escape, the way car windows shatter, the horrible crunching noises when new alien the Berserker beats a soldier to death, the way planned movement is shown as a fluid, flowing line, the way the dramatic music fades out when no enemies are visible. It seems crafted.
4. The new-look aliens. They seem an awful lot more alien now, whereas most of the originals were overtly humanoid and very 90s comicky. The Sectoids scuttle and snarl, the Mutons look like murderous monsters rather than muscly guys in catsuits… New, helmet-faced monster The Berserker I’m not too keen on the look of (see below), but I think the point is to have a palpably big threat on the battlefield, and one that you want to steer well clear of because it’ll beat your guys to death if they get within arm’s range.
5. The cover system. Well, provisionally – I need to try it for myself. It seems like a smart way of bringing in more military-like tactical thinking, of making the environment more than just a destructible maze, and of how you direct your soldiers around the battlefield as opposed to fanning them out in the relative open and hoping to see before you’re seen. Then again, it does risk losing some of the tension of never being quite sure whether you’re hidden or not.
6. The soldier customisation. There’s loads of it – name, nickname, country, race voice, head, skin colour, hair, hair colour, a range of beards…It’s a chance to build the team you want. On the other hand, there was something wonderful about growing attached to the random strangers you recruited in the original – but that appears to be in the new game too. It’s up to you whether you want to tailor your guys or not.
7. The destructible environments. This is not token destruction, trust me. When a rocket launcher guy fires at a diner, it takes out most of the front wall, part of the roof and leaves flaming wreckage all over the place. It also opens up a line of sight for the sniper on a nearby rooftop, so he can pick off one of the Mutons inside the diner rather than have to send another soldier in to its Overwatch range. This sort of casual, natural combo appears to be at the heart of XCOM’s missions. Also, explosions are fun!
8. The Geoscape. It looks great. Earth appears titanic, vulnerable, mysterious, too large to possibly defend and yet so evidently precious that you feel compelled to. It conveys the scale of what you're involved in.
So that's the good. What follows is not the bad as such, but the stuff that I need to see more of before I am confident that it is also good.
I AM WORRIED ABOUT:
1. The soldiers’ barks. ‘Eat this!’ ‘Set ‘em up, knock ‘em down!’ They’re cheesestastic, and will likely become irritating almost immediately. I’m not convinced these guys need to have audible personalities in the first place, let alone posturing action hero personalities.
2. The Fallout 3-style slo-mo kill shots. Yes, they lend a moment of celebration to a good kill, but I worry they can spoil the flow of your tactical thinking and will just get in the way of keeping a wide-eye on everything that’s going on. I do hope there’s an option to turn them off for players who just want to get on with things.
3. The camera as a whole seems a bit too free. This is obviously the intractable purist in me speaking, but being able to manoeuvre the view all over the place seems a little at odds with what your role as commander is. It means the player is not the guy watching and ordering from on high and afar, but a nebulous floating eye on the ground. That said, given the amount of little visual details it would be a shame to not have a way to admire them.
4. The focus on special abilities. Again, all judgement must be reserved until I’ve played it, but I’m somewhat concerned missions will partly become a matter of waiting for cooldowns rather than out-thinking and out-manoeuvring your enemy. There’s no denying, though, that some of these abilities increase the tactical thinking – for instance, Suppression pins down a foe or two so that you can move another soldier in safely. The question for me is whether this could be seen to be almost a cheat, a way of getting around a desperate, dangerous situation instead of having to deal with it as best you can and face the consequences.
5. Searching for threats on the Geoscape rather than being alerted when they happen. I can see why it’s been changed, as God only knows there were enough times in the original that I just sat there with the fast-forward button on waiting for a UFO to appear, but it seems to me as though this change makes you the an active doer rather than a desperate defender.
6. The Berserker, the hulking new alien on show. While the masked, clawed brute was certainly imposing, he seemed a bit generi-monster to me, rather than doing the X-COM thing of evoking all manner of B-movie staples. I appreciate that big, ugly bruiser presents a very different sort of threat to the psychic Sectoids and the gun-wielding Mutons, but it seems a bit too unsubtle, not something that's going to scuttle in the darkness and put the frighteners on you.
All told? Excited. Very excited. I'm a little worried about some of the tonal stuff in the missions, but very much reassured that this is not a slapdash affair that doesn't get X-COM. It gets XCOM. It is, I think, a true sequel to X-COM - one that uses the major concepts as a foundation then evolves them in new ways, rather than being a slavish retread or a soulless IP-grab. Whether all those ways are successful I won't know until I've tried them for myself. And I am aching to play this for myself, both for my own edification's sake and to get a better sense of the balance between straight-up turn-based combat and those special abilities.