A promising first encounter with XCOM: Enemy Unknown
2K Marin's first-person XCOM reboot has struggled to find an identity over the past two years, and now appears to have disappeared from view entirely. By contrast, Firaxis' newly-announced strategy title has been largely met with enthusiastic optimism. There was a palpable sense of excitement at the game's first UK showcase, a rare commodity among the oft-cynical members of the gaming press.
It certainly helps that the Firaxis team, for their part, seem bullishly confident in their approach. The presentation given by lead designer Jake Solomon may have been brief, but it offered a tantalising glimpse of a game that acknowledges its progenitor while bravely altering a few of the key elements. Make no mistake, it requires guts to tamper with a license as beloved as XCOM – as 2K Marin has already discovered to its peril.
The core fundamentals remain unchanged. An advanced alien civilisation has started to attack the Earth, and you're the lucky sod who has to defend the planet. Your organisation is funded by an international council, and this means you'll have to protect human settlements all over the globe. In turn this requires you to manage the day-to-day running of XCOM's Bond-villain-like base, as well as overseeing your troops as they embark on potentially disastrous missions in the field.
The latter bears promising resemblance to the tense confrontations of 1993's original UFO: Enemy Unknown, developed by Mythos Games. The action still unfolds in a turn-based format, with the player moving their operatives and then tensely awaiting a response from the alien hostiles. However, the Time Unit system of old has been ditched in favour of a simplified format that allows your operatives to either move and then perform an action, or else sprint to cover a further distance.
While that may sound like the kind of change that's sure to earn the wrath of fans (and to be fair, it still might be), it seems to be a prudent switch-up. For starters, the in-game world is a lot more complicated than the one we dealt with 17 years ago; combat success is determined by things like cover and movement speed, among other things, so there's enough to think about without the added stress of a currency lying behind your every action.
And while you now have fewer individuals out under your command – there was just four team members in demo – they're each far more complex than their '90s predecessors. There's a class system in place that determines the role each operative plays, with their skills developing as they gain experience – providing, that is, that they don't get killed. Permadeath remains a prominent aspect of play, so once your favourite assault specialist kicks the bucket, they're not coming back. There's a broad set of options for customising each member of your team – Solomon recommends naming them after friends and loved ones – and hopefully this will result in war stories that the old games used to generate so readily. Enemy Unknown was famously adept at decimating your best-laid plans, and Terror From The Deep was even harder. Firaxis know this is one of X-COM's main draws, and they promise that the new hyphen-less XCOM will offer a similarly gruelling challenge.
Provided that you can keep your troops alive, successful sorties seem to rely upon sensible combinations of class talents. 2K's demo re-used the petrol station scenario we've heard about in coverage from overseas, with the demonstrator using suppressing fire to pin down Sectoids – the classic, Alien Greys – while other troopers shifted into better positions; the team's sniper, for example, gained a bonus from using his grappling hook to climb to the station's roof. Lines of sight are still a staple ingredient of the action, as are risky runs that draw reaction fire from the enemy. In one of Firaxis' more unusual twists, there's a cinematic quality to the combat animations, to the extent that the game occasionally recalls Fallout 3.
Less was shown of the management side of proceedings, though this will no doubt be equally as important in the long run. The iconic world map view returns, presenting the player with a strangely vulnerable-looking Earth, surrounded by the cold-but-elegant twinkles and mists of our solar system. We were also shown a brief glimpse of the new "ant farm" view of the central XCOM base – a new addition that presents your subterranean headquarters as a vertical cross-section. This has proved to be one of the more controversial revelations thus far, but my first impressions are very positive. It's a visually striking way to lay out the player's hub, with shadowy chambers stretching ever-deeper underground as your HQ expands. As I say, the demo only briefly touched upon this side of the game, but supposedly you'll be able to watch your ill-fated subordinates as they go about their business – whether they're researching new technology, relaxing in the bar, or visiting wounded comrades in the infirmary.
As first appearances go, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has certainly left me hungry for further details, and that's an encouraging sign. Firaxis has a tough act to follow, even after all this time, but it's already clear that this will be no half-hearted re-hash.
In the near future we'll be making a more direct comparison between the new project and its predecessor, so keep your eyes peeled for further details soon.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be released this autumn on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360