Let the case of old-school X-Com fans versus 2K’s XCOM revival now commence. The prosecution immediately presents its evidence: a simple copy of the original X-Com. “The evidence,” those gamers say, “will speak for itself.” And it does. Strategy, tactics, base management, research. Tiny gray men! If looks could kill, the entire jury would be in the defendant’s seat at this point. And 2K, of course, would be in a body bag.
2K, however – unfazed by an army of gamers and, in all likelihood, a small stack of death threats – presents its evidence. “We, too, believe our evidence will speak for itself.” It’s XCOM’s E3 demo. And it’s… still a first-person shooter. Things aren’t looking good for 2K. The jury grows restless and a chorus of dissatisfied grumbles echoes through the courtroom. But wait. Suddenly, an “OBJECTION!” so powerful it’d put Phoenix Wright out of a job.
“Just watch,” 2K insists, still shockingly composed, given the situation. And so we did.
Read the rest after the break!
The above story may be mostly imagined, but our skepticism of 2K’s XCOM revival was – like that of many other longtime gamers -- very real. After sitting down and actually seeing the game in action, however, we’re happy to report that 2K hasn’t totally lost it. As it turns out, if you peel back the first-person shooting and fish through the blob aliens, you’ll find that X-Com’s heart is still beating away deep inside. See, three core tenants power the new XCOM: base-building, research, and fear of the unknown. Sound familiar? They should.
The first area we were shown was the home base. It’s a hangar-type area populated by all sorts of scrappy 1950’s alien hunters. Here, you’re free to walk around and take a gander at what all your extraterrestrial exterminating buddies are up to. This, of course, includes research and item development, which occurs as a result of photographs (think BioShock’s camera) you take out in the field. In the demo we saw, researchers presented the main character with a fire bomb made from the repurposed remains of one of the gooey black blob aliens you might have seen in the game’s early trailers. There’s a certain grim satisfaction to be taken in offing a particularly annoying baddy, but – as we later saw – doing so with the remains of said enemy’s cousin is all kinds of messed up. In a good way.
You’ll also find a few of your comrades in arms taking a load off around the hangar, waiting to follow you into battle at the drop of a slick, suit-matching 1950’s hat. Our presenter didn’t go into much detail about how much you’ll be able to customize your helpers, but they will grow and change over time, and if they find themselves on the receiving end of an alien super laser or similarly deadly implement, they’re gone for good. No “your ally has been rendered unconscious” nonsense. 2K’s ultimate goal, of course, is that you care about your little squad as you did your army in the original X-Com.
Once you’ve got all your ducks (or blob bombs and Tesla Coils, as it were) in a row at the base, you can choose from a number of missions – some of which are available at the same time, most of which are extremely urgent. In these cases, it’s up to you to pick where you’ll go, who you’ll save, and who’ll get to fend for themselves against an alien menace that even humanity’s most bleeding-edge weapons tech can barely fend off – let alone a rolling pin swung by a panicked woman who’s counting on you saddling up and riding to her rescue. Obviously, your choices will affect the game’s overarching plot, but again, 2K’s keeping exactly how under wraps for now.
Our presenter chose to rush out to an idyllic-looking neighborhood – replete with white picket fences and a soothing sunset – to answer the call of its troubled denizens. One goo-covered corpse and a few screams later, and we were fairly sure something was amiss. Shotgun at the ready, our presenter crept into a nearby house. There, he found them: a horde of shiny black blob aliens. And by “found,” we mean “nearly ate.” The creatures immediately began trying to force-feed themselves to our presenter and his NPC buddies, while they attempted to force feed the aliens some lead.
And while XCOM’s atmosphere is – from what we saw – fantastic, we can’t say we were quite as impressed with the actual shooting. From where we were sitting, it felt weightless and floaty. Moreover, the blob aliens’ strength-in-numbers approach required very little strategy to overcome. Just brute force. Well, that and the aforementioned blob alien fire bomb. In theory, then, the game’s research element could add a much-needed layer of strategy to the game. Certain aliens are impervious to certain weapons and weak against others. It’s up to you to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
And 2K isn’t just blowing smoke about that “impervious” bit either. After our presenter finished scrubbing the house clean of its gooey intruders, he attempted to escort the house’s owner – an incredibly confused housewife – back to his car so that she wouldn’t become alien chow at a later date. Then, out of nowhere, some kind of colossal floating alien monolith rose up and proceeded to blast our heroes with an energy beam so large that retreat was the only option.
This bit was terrifying in all the right ways, and basically knocked 2K’s “fear of the unknown” goal out of the park. After all, this alien wasn’t some tiny gray person with whom a one-on-one battle might have quite literally resembled taking candy from a baby. It was a big, faceless monolith. What did it want? Why’d it come to earth? Was it even a living, sentient being? Who knows? All we knew at the time was that it wanted to kill the main character and his group, and was more than capable of following through with that goal.
A major part of XCOM’s appeal, then, lies in uncovering what these wildly diverse aliens (blobs and monoliths are only the tip of the icerberg) are up to, and – more fundamentally – what they are. It’s a mystery that’s composed of one part fear and one part fascination, and we can’t wait to get to the bottom of it.
The Bottom Line: On the whole, what we saw of XCOM looked pretty excellent. Is it X-Com as you oh-so-fondly remember it? Definitely not. But it is an incredibly interesting-looking shooter from the ridiculously talented folks behind BioShock 2 that – against all odds -- retains much of X-Com’s spirit. Do we still wish there was another X-Com strategy game on the way? Of course. But after seeing XCOM in action, it’s hard to deny that 2K’s onto something here. 2011 can’t come soon enough.