XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview
Where better to learn about the reboot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown than the Royal Observatory in Greenwich? Home of the seventh largest refracting telescope on Earth, it would be the ideal place for spotting a real alien invasion but, under clear skies on a pitch black night in the middle of Greenwich Park, the only thing emerging from the void was a very modern reboot of one of gaming’s classic franchises.
Inside the huge domed ceiling of the planetarium, deep in leather chairs, the assembled journalists are treated to a show in the observatory’s planetarium. It is like worshipping in an atheist cathedral, science and star maps projected onto the vast brass ceiling that hangs over the room, preaching that their are eighty-eight constellations that fill the night sky and that there are more stars in the universe than there have been heartbeats in all of human history. It is a surprisingly spiritual moment, shocking the room and putting into context the fleeting nature of human existence. However, it is only the second biggest revelation of the night; the gasp of awe is audible when it is announced that the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown is coming up to twenty years old. Which, in gaming terms, puts its age onto the stellar timescale. It is Firaxis, home of the legendary Sid Meier and Civilization, who have decided that it is time to reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the current generation. Sectoids and Mutons are making a return, and a new generation of gamers are going to get a chance to cut their teeth on some near-future, turn-based strategy.
This might be obvious to some, but it is important to say that this turn-based game is not a design u-turn on the guns-out, balls-out, XCOM origin story shooter being developed by 2K Marin, previewed at E3 2011. That game is still in development and will tell a revised origin story of the extraterrestrial combat team that becomes the XCOM of the modern day. The XCOM on display in Greenwich is a turn based strategy game that will be instantly familiar to the fans of the original PC, PlayStation, and Amiga game. Players will control a squad of four soldiers, all of whom have different skills (which can be honed over the lifespan of the game), and move them around a series of maps, searching out aliens and other objectives with the overall mission of saving earth from extra terrestrial domination.
After the planetarium show, the XCOM: Enemy Unknown demo begins with the player’s squad grouped outside an abandoned petrol station. The team comprises a sniper, a heavy weapons soldier, and a couple of standard grunts called support soldiers. The camera snaps away and reveals the first targets; a group of little greys that the XCOM universe calls Sectoids. Movement is restricted, but fans of the series will notice that a player’s turn is no longer governed by “time units”, the movement currency of the original title. Rather than just a straight remake of the original game, Pete Murray (from the Firaxis marketing team) explains that the team at Firaxis believed there were better ways to “get at the key things that were cool about the [original] game, without going through some of the ways things were done back then”. Rather than time units, the player can now move to spots in open space or, more likely, one of the many ‘cover nodes’ highlighted on the scenery. Once a soldier is positioned, each has unique combat moves they can implement to really punish the invading hordes. An example of this is demonstrated in the player’s first turn. The sniper, using a new “grapple” skill to climb onto the petrol station roof, is positioned on the higher ground to get a clean shot on an enemy target, whilst the heavy weapon soldier lays down covering fire to trap an enemy and prevent a counter attack. Positioning in XCOM remains vital and the move list reflects that. In addition to the sniper grapple, we see support soldiers using a move called “run-and-gun” that allows them to fly up the outside of a battlefield and take shots at the enemy whilst flanking aggressively.
The alien invaders haven’t flown a thousand light years just to be shot to death by some puny humans, though. They have some tricks up their sleeve too. The little Sectoids were seen setting themselves in “Overwatch” position, which allowed them to take potshots at moving targets and protecting weak points from overzealous player assaults. Not all the enemies need this kind of trickery to protect themselves. Variants of the larger Muton, the Beserkers, are tough to take down without heavy explosives and if a player mistakenly gets too close they risk getting battered to death with a visceral, violent, instant-kill animation delivered by this new alien enforcer. These animations aren’t the only aspect of the game to receive beautiful polish and great production values. Mike McCann, the composer of Deus Ex Revolution’s excellent soundtrack is writing the music for Firaxis’ game. The score is even more impressive under the imposing brass roof of the planetarium, with its tense and rousing tones emphasising the do-or-die nature of the mission for earth.
Do or die, in this case, is not just a lazy cliche. Death in XCOM is nothing to be sniffed at. Death is permanent. It is perfectly possible to train a soldier, put time into developing their skills, only to lose them in a fractional error of judgement on the battlefield. It is all part of the XCOM experience and one that, in a gaming culture of infinitely recharging health bars and declining difficulty, Firaxis were eager to preserve. As Murray explains; “Perma-death is one of those things you have to have in XCOM, and XCOM is one of those rare games that lets you get away with it…you make a decision and then have to live by that decision or die by that decision. Perma-death is what builds that attraction to your soldier, and makes you want to defend them.” The team at Firaxis are focussed on creating a game that is fair, citing Dark Souls as an example of a game which is hard, but fair, warning the player that a section is tricky and the repercussions of their actions. For players who really embrace this type of experience Murray also mentioned an Iron Man mode, where players have to deal with the hand they are dealt, and can’t go back to previous saves in order to resurrect fallen soldiers.
An affinity for the team is a vital part of the XCOM experience and wisely Firaxis have remembered that bonds with soldiers are not just built on the battlefield. XCOM’s underground base is the home for the player’s team when not out on missions, and has been nicknamed “Ant Farm”. Because it looks like one. Buried deep under ground, and resembling Blofeld’s underground lair from You Only Live Twice, the Ant Farm adds another layer to the strategy, a place where soldier’s are trained, skills refined and new technology developed for future missions. Resources are restricted and will have to be carefully managed if the player is to stay ahead in the technological arms race. We only got a brief look at the Ant Farm during the demonstration, but what was on show looked like an excellent re-imagining of a core component of the XCOM experience.
So, XCOM hadn’t disappeared into the vastness of space. Like a good alien army, it was waiting just out of view for the right moment to attack again, and clearly that moment is now. The energy of Pete Murray during his interview highlighted his passion for the project. He espoused the attitude and vision of lead designer Jake Solomon (Murray claimed that XCOM was “the reason [Jake] became a computer scientist”) and this love for the franchise is clear in the vivid re-imagining of Microprose’s mid-nineties classic. Firaxis aren’t just resting on the strengths of the original; they are clearly confident enough to update core play mechanics for modern audiences, whilst their track record shows that they have the skills to leave the heart of the game intact. When XCOM finally makes its return to Earth, there is a chance it will be too strong for any of us to resist.