XCOM E3 2011 Preview -- Close Encounters of the Retooled, Revamped, and Refreshed KindBy Kevin Kelly - Posted Jun 14, 2011
2K''s upcoming X-COM reboot loses the dash and simply retitles the series XCOM, although the series was initially launched as UFO: Enemy Unknown back in 1994. That title went on to spawn four X-COM sequels, and the original was later renamed X-COM: UFO Defense. While the first two X-COM games were also on the PlayStation, the series hasn't appeared on a console since 1995, and 2K hopes to change that with this title bound for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, as well as the PC.
Developed by 2K Marin, the game has infamously been delayed and reworked, and the developers were quick to admit that what they first showed us back when the game was announced a year ago was "too much in our content zone." They read the reactions, reassessed things, and decided to start over. The game "needed new mechanics and design changes," and that's what they presented to us at E3.
The game features an all-new storyline that takes place in its own timeline, meaning it's not connected to the other games' continuity. It opens with an 8mm film showing scenes of 1960s utopian suburbia, with jittery film cuts and jumps as someone explores an apple pie America. It's eerie, because you know something bad is bound to happen, and the fact that there's no sound makes it even creepier.
As the camera enters the kitchen of one of the homes, the June Cleaver-esque mom turns around... and her segmented, cube-like face begins to dissolve. The camera falls to the ground, and you see a young kid flee the scene while some sort of event in the sky begins sucking up automobiles and people. Then, the film is switched off, and you realize it's part of a case file being reviewed by Agent William Carter, who you play throughout the game.
Carter is a former FBI agent now assigned to XCOM, an agency designed to deal with an unknown extraterrestrial invasion by assembling the "finest minds in asymmetrical warfare." You'll deploy from the XCOM headquarters, where you're able to choose two agents to make up your squad in the field. You can review their service jackets and decide who would make the best choice, and we end up heading out with two seemingly qualified agents, one who can serve as a master at arms, and the other as a commando. While the game is set in 1962 or thereabouts, the agents all have a 1950s Cold War meets atomic era weaponry look about them. Disintergrator rays, neckties, and fedoras.
Carter will be able to recruit his own teams and groom them in the field, and you'll be able to assign upgrades to them as you progress throughout the game. I asked 2K Marin if it's possible to lose an agent in the field, and they said someone can be downed during a mission, but they won't be out for good. Otherwise, you'd have to constantly be filling up your teams with fresh meat. Instead, they're focusing on the mechanic of the small squad with Carter as the leader.
At XCOM Operations, you can look at an overall map and see that most of the attention is focused on the eastern seaboard, where there are plenty of missions to choose from. While it's not a completely open world, there are plenty of options to select. We choose one where we have to find and field extract a certain Dr. Weir. He's a scientist who has learned how to use and adapt the alien technology. From there, our team deploys into the field via helicopter, blades whipping across the waning American dream.
Setting down near a military checkpoint, it's clear that something has gone extremely wrong. No one living is in sight, and there's a proliferation of dead soldiers lying everywhere. Heading through the buildings, you find a lone soldier pawing through some files, and when you address him, he charges you. Game on! This is one of "The Outsiders," which is not a group of greasers run by Ponyboy. It's the invading alien force, and this is their Infiltrator type, who is able to disguise himself as a human.
Since this guy has blown your cover, you'll quickly move into the main portion of the game, which is issuing commands to your squad while moving up and taking control of different situations. Here, a group of Outsiders have holed up behind some sandbags, and they've erected a force shield of some sort. Since the aliens can identify you as the commander of your unit, they focus the shield on you, making it impossible for you to fire on them. You'll do this via a Tactical View that is a nod to the older games in the series, and it gives you an overview of the battlefield, allowing you to plant a diversion.
That's where you issue a command to your squad to flank the aliens, and once their fire is divided, you can take out their shield generator. Moving forward, you'll continue to encounter groups of aliens that require your attention, and you'll capture brief glimpses of other types, including one that looks a bit like that water tentacle from The Abyss. One thing is very clear, however: none of them are friendly.
As our unit battled through the alien fray, we found out that we could do things like take over an alien turret. When you capture alien technology, you have the option of keeping it to take back to base for research (where it will boost your upgrades and other abilities), or you can redeploy it in the field in modified form. We took over that turret and kept it with us, but later found ourselves in a pinch and decided to use it against the aliens. That came in handy.
Near the end of the demo, an enormous Titan alien weapon began obliterating the area around us, and we were able to capture that as well. It will be interesting to see how tempting they make the choice to use or keep the technology. These captured items can be deployed like agents, and they'll fight for you until they are destroyed, or there's nothing left to shoot at. Before we knew it, we were traveling through a wormhole, and the demo was over.
While I'm always skeptical when a game gets a nearly complete overhaul, I'm extremely impressed by what we've seen so far. 2K Marin has described what they're doing as a Batman Begins/Battlestar Galactica reboot to the series, and if things continue on this course, XCOM will be an impressive title when it comes out next year.