E3 2011 Preview: XCOM

When 2K Marin was approached to create a reboot based off a classic strategy video game series — whose last title launched in 2001 — they were both overjoyed and terrified. Overjoyed to be working on a series with as much a following as XCOM, and terrified because, as producer Morgan Gray put it, they don’t want to “fuck it up.” In point of fact, XCOM is sticking a lot closer to its roots than you might think, adding in new strategy and tactical elements nonexistent in last year’s showing.

Starting up our demo, we were brought to the in-game XCOM Headquarters, where protagonist and special agent William Carter was reviewing footage of a possible alien invasion terrorizing a small neighborhood. In the footage, citizens were being transformed into the alien creatures, known only in the game as Outsiders, whom feature blocky textures as skin. It’s just the case for XCOM, who handles these types of situations, leaving the military at bay. XCOM, as a title, cuts the soldier and war game. This is personal neighborhood invasion, or an invasion in your backyard, as the team put it.

Upgrade your agents

More XCOM screenshots

The XCOM headquarters is a hub to the player, where you can recruit and train new agents and select missions to take on via the campaign map. Adding for role-playing game elements in a first-person shooter reboot, each recruited agent can be customized and upgraded. Over time, you’ll obtain different upgrades and abilities for your agents, such as “Disrupt,” which negates the effects of alien technology, or “Defensive Shield,” which puts up a barrier to block enemy attacks. The campaign map adds for more choice, as its filled with both primary and secondary missions. If you’re looking to gain more experience for your crew or obtain a certain object, you can take on a secondary mission. To further advance in the campaign, you would take on a primary mission.

Speaking to Angela, the chief of operations at XCOM, Carter took on a mission in a small town to locate and rescue a Dr. Weir. As one of America’s best minds, he is essential to XCOM operations. Of course, landing in town at the meetup point, the contact was missing and something didn’t seem right. Dropped from the helicopter, Carter and his two recruits proceeded towards a town military base where they found dead soldiers and provide us our first glimpse at the Infiltrator Outsider, who can disguise itself as a human at will. Following the encounter, the team went into battle on the streets of the suburban town, revealing Tactical Mode in the process.

Tactical Mode is the heart of the fight in XCOM. The first group of Outsiders we went up against had shields blocking our gunfire, so we had to think outside the box. Entering Tactical Mode, time slowed down as the screen grayed and a blue wheel of options were made available. Before doing anything, Carter ran left to a household porch where he, being the closest to the Outsiders, became their primary threat, shields up and facing him. Entering Tactical mode, one of the recruits was ordered to use his “Diversion” ability on the Outsiders, drawing attention to him. Shields facing the recruit, Carter was then able to take out the source powering the defense, resulting in easy kills for the rest of the group.

The Titan laser beam

Tactical Mode can also be used when capturing enemies. In XCOM, players will have to make a decision about whether to kill an enemy or to capture them. By capturing them, XCOM can research and manufacture weapons based on what they’ve learned. At this point, you can do two things with captured tech — use it and lose it, where you use your seized tech once in battle and it’s gone for good, or bring it back to headquarters for research and long-term benefits. In our demo, we saw a Titan — a big, read Outsider that floats in the sky and shoots lasers from its core — captured after taking a beating from the team. Called back into battle after its capture, the Titan now fought on XCOM’s side, annihilating all its enemies.

Terraformations is another area unique to XCOM. The Outsiders will spawn blocky textures similar to their “skin” on the earth and in the sky. Players can utilize these formations for cover, as we saw Carter take advantage of plenty during the demo.

At one point, one of the recruits was downed, and Carter quickly brought him back to health. This brought up the topic of whether or not an agent can permanently die. According to Gray, there’s an ongoing debate in the office in regards death, and a final output has not yet been decided.

The demo ended with the discovery of Weir, who was sucked into a blue portal, with agent Carter jumping through after him. Opening his eyes, Carter ended up in a space-like environment, full of the rectangular terraformations the Outsiders are known for. There, the XCOM logo flashed.

I enjoyed XCOM when I saw it last year and I enjoyed it more so when I saw it this year. I’m admittedly not to keen on the classics of the franchise, but for those looking for a 60-70s era, Twilight Zone-esque tactical shooter, this is the game to look out for. It felt like a sleeper hit at the show, but hopefully that won’t be the case next March.

XCOM is out on March 9, 2012 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.

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