XCOM – E3 Impressions

The upcoming XCOM game is a reboot for the series whose intended to tell the origin of the story line through a tactical first person shooter style of gameplay. Our behind the scenes viewing of a live demo revealed quite a bit about what we can expect from the next game in the extremely long-running franchise.

Fans of previous games in the series may be upset about the new XCOM departing yet again from the franchises roots in turn based strategy. However, not all is lost, and the new gameplay style offers a fresh perspective on the turmoil caused by Earth’s deadly invaders. The story is set in America, as the aliens first begin to invade Earth on American soil. The entire game will take place within the country, in a pseudo 1950’s setting, where the X-Com (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) has been formed to fight off the invaders, as well as study and use their technology to do so. Taking on the role Special Agent William Carter we are tasked with gathering a specialized team, training them to their fullest potential, and strategically picking our battles to win the war.

The preview demo starts off in the X-Com base, where we’re able to walk around and discuss current situations with other team members, check on various weaponry, technology, and upgrades, as well as train team members. During discussions with other NPCs a dialogue box pops up, giving us several choices for responses in a similar fashion to games like Fallout: New Vegas. However, at the moment it is unknown if your choices will have actual repercussions in the story line, or if it is merely an aesthetic choice. When ready to embark on a mission a large map of the US can be consulted, which depicts the current situation in the war. It appears that the eastern third of the US has been taken over, and four different missions in that territory is available, each with their own reasoning for selection and strategic outcome. The southernmost location gets picked in the demo, since there is a scientist in the region requiring rescue, and he could help us immensely for developing new ways to fight the enemy. Before we load out though we need to pick two team members, and review their skills, where one receives a special shielding upgrade that will come in handy later.

So far everything has stuck to the 1950’s US theme fairly well, and it’s hard not to think of Resistance when looking at how our old era tech is mixed in with the newly discovered alien technologies. However, upon jumping into the actual missions and encountering the alien threat, all thoughts of Resistance go out the window. We start off encountering a quiet camp, with dead bodies of soldiers strewn about. As our characters wonder aloud about what’s happened here, we encounter a soldier hastily rummaging through files on the table, while surrounded by more dead bodies. Needless to say, he’s immediately suspicious ands cary when he jumps at our character while screaming and transforming into a insane looking blue alien menace. Our teammates help us out and dispatch the threat, who appears to be made of cubes, but still has a humanoid shape as the inform us it was an ‘intruder’. There isn’t much time to examine the body though, and our team moves on to find the scientist.

Throughout these scenes it’s obvious that XCOM is still in pre-alpha state, meaning the game is still being built and not all of the assets are ready yet. As a result some of the textures look bland and some character models still need finishing, but the artistic direction itself is still cool looking. The blue cubes look of the aliens and their technology shows in everything they’re associated with, whether it’s their weapons, turrets, shields, ships, or simply themselves. There’s plenty of time to put polish on this, and so far it looks like a good direction to go.

It isn’t long before we get into an actual skirmish with the invaders, as they pour out of a dropship and lay out a shield which extends the height of their cover. Firing at the shield is useless, it simply blocks everything thrown at it, so the only option is to flank the aliens and take out the device emitting the force field. So far everything plays like a standard first person shooter, but when our previewers show us the tactical mode it looks extremely similar to Mass Effect. Tapping a button will send either of one of your two squad mates to specific points to take cover, and holding another button brings up tactical mode. While in tactical mode everything moves in super slow motion, giving an opportunity to assess the battlefield and give orders. The radial wheel that appears shows several abilities, with the ones on the left belonging to one squad mate, and the abilities on the right belonging to the other. Placing our allies into cover, we move up to flank the left side, but the aliens are smart enough to realize our character is the leader, and rearrange their shield and firing to face us. One of our allies as a distraction ability however, and when they turn to face him it leaves us in the perfect position to destroy their shield, and then the rest of the foes.

As we continue move towards the objective it’s hard not to notice the terraforming which the aliens are imposing upon the land. What their purpose for doing this is unclear at the moment, but it provides ample cover in different scenarios, as well as giving a real sci-fi look to the lay of the land. While battling more enemies we eventually encounter an incredibly powerful turret. Here we use tactics once again to flank the turret, but this time only disable the device, instead of completely destroying it. This introduces a major feature of XCOM, capturing alien technology. Capturing is a unique ability one of our allies possesses, and upon being used it compresses the turret into a giant shiny orb, which looks like a sci-fi poké ball. The similarities don’t end there either. Now that we’ve captured the turret, we can later redeploy it in the field for a one time use against our enemies. If used smartly, this can turn the tide of a particularly difficult battle as is demonstrated shortly afterward. Alternatively we could complete the mission and take the tech back to our base, where it can be studied and used to unlock more upgrades to our various assets.

The demo continues with a few more battles, until we come upon a particularly nasty piece of technology, towering several stories high and firing a huge energy beam at anything that comes near it. While dodging that more aliens are trying to fight us, use of more tactical maneuvers and shielding powers overcomes the infantry threat. However, that still leaves the huge oscillating Titan in the sky, which basically looks like a giant orb surrounding by a bunch of floating sheets of blue metal. After unloading a ton of fire power at it the hue turns to a reddish color, seemingly indicating that the device is weakened, and ready to be captured. Yes, even this enormous several story high object can be not only captured, but turned and used against the enemy. While stating he would normally take this to the base for strategic research, our demonstrator releases it against huge waves of incoming enemies. This opens up a new temporary ability that allows the player to direct the Titan weapon’s fire where they please, and making short work of what would have been a difficult battle.

Soon after the battle we rush into the objective complex to rescue the scientist we’re after, but a rift portal opens up sucking him in, and we run in chasing afterward. Our character finds himself in the middle of an enormous platform, and upon looking around sees immense ships of indescribable size flying overhead, underneath, and all around. If Agent Carter didn’t know it before, surely this demonstrates the scope of the threat he faces, and just how slim Earth’s chances of surviving are.

Overall, XCOM looks like a potentially fun campaign shooter, that borrows elements from well established franchises while mixing it seamlessly with the XCOM‘s lore. The ability to capture alien tech is especially interesting, and is sure to bring us more tech to capture as the game rides the tagline of “every enemy is an opportunity.” XCOM is currently planned to release in March of 2012, leaving plenty of time to clean up the game and deliver a thrilling campaign. Let’s hope that fans of the real time strategy elements aren’t too terribly upset by the genre jump the franchise has made, because it still looks like it’ll be enjoyable.