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From an outside perspective, XCOM seems like a very respectful reimagining – that's the image that the team at Firaxis is eager to present, anyway. Our demonstrator must have said the word "faithful" about 35 times whilst guiding us through one of the game's opening missions. A squad of four soldiers is sent to investigate a petrol station where there has been suspected alien activity. At the end, only three come out alive. The visual style is colourful science-fiction, with shades of Halo and 1960s retro-futurism (it's set in the Sixties, now, not 1999 like the original was).
Even this first level shows XCOM to be a game rich in tactical diversity. Fog of war clouds the map; it's only when a unit draws close enough to put itself in danger that you can actually see what threatens you, so caution is a must. Moving behind vehicles and pillars for cover, the squad quickly exposes a group of Sectoids, which appear to be feasting on the corpse of a fallen human. Movement is key in XCOM; you have to both control enemy movements with suppressing fire and manage your squad's movement, either sending them far across the map in a single turn or moving them shorter distances so that they can fire once in position.
The three Sectoids are defeated in fairly short order, but another, more challenging alien menace awaits inside: Mutons. These are the deadly front-line soldiers of the invading armies. They're big, hulking, armor-wearing green brutes that come packing some heavy alien weaponry. In their midst is a Berserker, a melee-focused variant of the Muton that is capable of plowing straight through environment obstacles with a single charge.
The poor support soldier learns this firsthand when the demo's pilot directs him to line up alongside the diner's front door in an apparent attempt to storm the aliens waiting inside. The Berserker's not having it though. It charges straight through the wall that the human is hiding behind and beats him to a bloody pulp with its massive fist. This soldier is now dead for the rest of the game; death is permanent in Enemy Unknown.
While the loss is a devastating one for the XCOM squad, the mission is far from over. While the support soldier is getting pounded, the rest of the team takes up positions. The heavy gets a good line of sight on the front of the diner, but the Mutons inside immediately suppress him. The sniper takes an overwatch position looking down on the diner, but the front wall blocks his view of the aliens.
A soldier in the demo made use of an ability called “run and gun,” which allows you to move very far and shoot. This is another update to the X-COM formula. “When we started on this project,” said Solomon, “my first prototype was very similar to the original game.” However, he wanted to implement class specialization, and let players assign abilities to soldiers in addition to moving and shooting. RPG elements like these are meant to give players more options and build a greater connection between them and their soldiers.
Seeing your XCOM operatives as individuals fosters that connection; you can customize your male and female soldiers, editing their nicknames, nationalities, armor, weapons, and abilities. Another option Firaxis is discussing is an ‘attitude’ setting. “Maybe soldiers come in as rookies, and they’re very buttoned-up and they’re all straight military talk,” Solomon suggested. “But then you have the ability to [...] turn on attitude, so when they save lives, they use the more crazy, out-there lines.”
The dialogue in the demo featured a few clunkers, and Solomon acknowledged that the team is still deciding which lines they will keep. Soldiers spouted quips -- such as “dead as disco,” after a kill -- whose tone seemed at odds with the alien invasion/abduction scenario that Enemy Unknown presents. That’s intentional, said Solomon. “The darker you make your game, the more humor, I think, you have to have,” he told me, “because [...] if you take it too seriously, you really run the risk of losing touch.”
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.
Of course, permanent death doesn't mean you'll just run out of soldiers at some point and the game is over--at least, not unless you're literally just terrible at managing your resources. Soldiers, like all other resources in the game, are a commodity that must be purchased. Once you do have a squad together, you can name them whatever you want, outfit them how you like, and through an RPG-lite system new to Enemy Unknown, you'll be able to upgrade and up-level them as the game goes along. Instead of crafting gigantic back stories for every procedurally generated grunt, this is how you're meant to grow attached to your squad. When you're highly leveled sniper suddenly ends up dead, that's going to really suck, because (at least theoretically) you've spent time building that character into something both useful and personal.
Perma-death is typically viewed nowadays as a rather harsh punishment in games, but in the context of XCOM, it was never a question of if it would make it into Enemy Unknown, but rather a question of how.
Going out into the field and fighting the aliens is only half the battle though, and fans will be pleased to know that the deeper planning and management is here as well. Between missions you’ll be back at your base or, The Ant Farm, as the developers put it. You’ll see a wonderful cross-section of your underground base and you’re able to pull back and take in the whole thing or zoom right in to individual rooms. Seeing your soldiers, your actual soldiers from out in the field, working out on the treadmill, or grabbing a beer in the bar is such a cool addition and another way to instill a deeper connection with the player.
While in the base, you’ll visit the Research Labs, just like the original and allocate resources and scientists towards creating new weapons & gear or reverse engineering any captured alien technology. The Engineering section is here as well, allowing you to create the new equipment or excavate further and expand your base. Choices are at the heart of X-COM and every choice has consequences. You’ve always got limited funds which could grow smaller as Governments make secret deals with the aliens and cut off your funding. It’s a balancing act that you need to successfully navigate throughout the entire game to be successful which is another thing that made the original so good.
XCOM takes place on modern day Earth, where something is snatching people off the streets of major cities around the world. It's your job to find out what and stop them. Like the original X-Com, the game takes place in two modes: strategy and combat. During the former, you'll construct new facilities for your base which you view from a wide-angle 2D view reminiscent of an ant farm. You'll research new weapons or facilities at the research lab, but be careful because there's no way to cover everything in a single playthough. XCOM requires players to make difficult decisions as to how their forces will operate. Those choices get further compounded by what equipment you choose to purchase in your base's Engineering department. You'll find still harder choices when upgrading your soldiers or choosing the right aircraft for air missions. Lead designer Jake Solomon stressed the mutually exclusive nature of these choices -- saying that the team wants the new game to offer the same kind of repayable experience as the first X-Com.
Fans of the original will find combat that looks awfully familiar. Soldiers are even brought to the battlefield by the same VTOL aircraft featured in the original game. The mission begins just outside a gas station with the squad sitting in the middle of the street, and the fog of war obscuring enemy movement on the map. Each turn offers players a simple decision: They can move and then take an action like firing on an enemy, or they can move an extra-long distance. Throughout the demo, the developers display the importance of choosing the right option -- sometimes you will have to sacrifice a few shots at the enemy in order to get into position.
To get a better view of the battlefield, the sniper was positioned on the petrol station's roof. When atop buildings the upper most layers become see-through to allow you a constant view of the action. In this instance, during the enemy's turn, two sectoids performed their 'mind-merge' technique which makes them a much more formidable foe through enhanced combat and defensive techniques.
Like the original game, both friendlies and enemies can employ the 'overwatch' ability. This gives up that individual's current turn but puts them on high alert during the enemy's move, causing them to fire at anything they see and don't like. It seems to be very useful for funnelling foes down certain avenues by setting up camp and blocking off others, effectively limiting the battle space to the areas you want to concentrate on to give the greatest tactical advantage.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun on what they liked and disliked:
I AM EXCITED ABOUT:
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!
I AM WORRIED ABOUT:
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.
Metro has a write-up and an interview, an excerpt from the latter:
GC: Before coming here I meant to play the original again over the weekend, but it was my dad's birthday so I didn't get a chance. But I'm sure you know just as well what the Internet is going to complain about the most, so what are the major issues so far? Do you have any petitions yet?
JS: (laughs) I'm sure there are. I try and stay a little bit removed, just because I'm afraid of the effect if I get too involved with it. But I do know that there's trepidation over… time units was a big thing. I know I got rid of the time unit system from the original game. So instead of time units we have this move/action system, which I know there's some angst about.
But that's kind of why I'm happy to start showing the game off. Because again, and I've said this before, but the idea is that my first prototype for the game was basically a recreation of the original game: time units, big squads. But what happened was that as we continued to play we started making changes, and the changes were all based on the idea, 'We have this playable prototype, we're having fun with it - the only changes that we make are things that make it better, that improve the game'.
And so the squad size shrank, time units got unlimited, and another thing which actually surprised me was ammunition. There's still ammunition in the game, but I changed it because I was trying to make ammunition matter more. In the original it didn't really matter, laser weapons didn't use ammo, and your ammo clips are so big, they weighed so little that they had no real effect on the game.
And so I tried to make ammunition matter more by having your guns run out of ammo more. But you just didn't carry these small clips with you, and that was something I was surprised to hear people came and told me they don't like. But I'm positive that once they play it they'll get into it.
GameSpy has another interview:
GameSpy: It's obviously very heavily inspired by UFO Defense. Is there anything in there from Terror from the Deep or Apocalypse?
JS: No. For this one, I basically just stayed with Enemy Unknown [the original UK name for X-COM: UFO Defense is UFO: Enemy Unknown]. For me, I love Terror from the Deep for what it is. I love Apoc, actually a lot. But I drew all the inspiration for this game, and the team drew all their inspiration, from that original game. I think the special thing about that is the fact that it is the setting really resonates. Terror from the Deep was awesome, but that was fought, obviously, mostly underwater. Something like Enemy Unknown, you can look out the window and see the scene that we showed today. That, to me, is why it was always so special.
And so does Eurogamer, with which we conclude:
So, just an in depth an experience on console as on PC?
Jake Solomon: Yes, absolutely. We have not changed the feature set at all. There are some things with the PC interface we're not doing with the console, just because we have a little more freedom in terms of the depth of zoom and the ability to show different things tactically on PC. Certainly the interface will be different between the two. So we are doing some things on PC.
But in terms of core game elements and the way you interact, you can do everything on console you can do on PC.
So how is the camera perspective different on PC?
Jake Solomon: It's more you have more zoom. You have a longer zoom. So you can get out even further. On the console you can pull the left trigger to go out. But on PC, you could potentially play at a very high zoom level.