E3 2011: XCOM impressions

Graham Smith

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When XCom was revealed last year, there were two dominant reactions. One, awesome, XCom's back! Two, THIS ISN'T THE XCOM I KNOW WHAT THE.

Then the game disappeared for a year, and we heard nothing. E3 2011 is the game's second coming out party, and the first thing Jordan Thomas, the lead designer, says in his presentation is about why they went dark for a year. "We just felt it wasn't X-COM enough".

It's a good line, albeit one deliberately tailored for people like me to hear and write a news story about. But is it really true that this first-person shooter is now more like X-COM? Sort of.

Let's round-up the key points first, and then we'll get into specifics about what they showed in the demo.

  • You have a squad of agents that you take with you on missions. You can command them, almost like squads in Brothers in Arms.
  • Your base is a much bigger part of the game. It's where you select missions, decide what to research, recruit agents, and talk to your team.
  • The trailer released last week made the game look graphically behind the times, and having seen the actual game in motion, I can't quite understand why. It looks great. Stylised, but it has so much character in the suburban streets, the characters, the use of colour.
  • The aliens are attempting to terraform the world, and their efforts cover everything in an crystalline, oily goo, if that makes sense. There are setpieces that show this stuff bursting from buildings, and it looks cool.
  • When it comes down to combat against the humanoid alien minions, it does seem to regress into a cover shooter. You slide behind low walls, pop out to shoot, all in first-person. The enemies, aside from being aliens and using tech like shields or turrets, mostly stay where they are and just pop up from behind the walls. This is made more interesting in that you then command your squad to flank, and that you have interesting alien weaponry too, but this is the thing that most people are going to point at and say: "That ain't X-COM."

As the presentation starts, we're watching an old silent 1950s home movie. We see footage of aliens attacking a suburban street. Cars are vaporised. Oily cuboid aliens float in the sky. People are vaporised.

The camera pulls back, and we're in our headquarters, watching the film on a projector. This is where you can select agents, spend money on research, etc. There are even dialogue trees in the conversations you have here.

We speak to Agent Leon Barnes by a projector, as he runs through the various agents we can choose for this mission. Each has a class and levels up with experience.

Once we're ready to go into the field, we meet Angela - acting division chief, former CIA. She maintains the wall map on which we choose where to deploy. Capturing certain points on the map gets you resources to fuel research economy. We have five or six choices of where to go, spread out across the USA.

The mission we pick is to find a Dr. Weir. We board the Sky Ranger, a state of the art deployment vehicle, with the two agents we picked earlier - both of them kitted out with alien gear.

The view out of the window as we fly in is beautiful: pastel coloured trees, red and orange and yellow, and a little suurban village. As we land, we get a view of a little cinema house. This is Back to the Future.

We arrive at a National Guard command post - it's empty. We head inside, and there are people littered around the tents, dead, covered in wounds. One guy is just reading a book, so we confront him. He goes nuts, attacks, and turns into the glitchy TRON man seen in the trailer.

When he dies, he collapses and a beam shoots out of him, then disperses. That was an Infiltrator class alien.

The next section is a cover shooter: ducking behind sandbags, sliding between cover, shooting alien dudes, and ordering your agents to do similarly.

The aliens put up a shield. We switch into a special third-person tactical mode in which the world goes black and white, except for the agents. You can see tactical opportunities, like where to move your agents to, create a shield around them, and look for ways to flank.

The aliens know the player is the primary threat, so as we flank, they move round to attack us, and their shield adapts. We eventually manage to destroy the generator, the shield goes down, and we kill the faceless things.

The aliens are infecting our world with a sort of geometric rocky black sludge, like a bee hive made of oil. It's an aggressive tool that's turning our world into theirs.

Once we've defeated them, we're able to capture an alien turret device. This can either be melted down for longterm rewards through research, or used in the field as a weapon for your own side.

We keep it as a weapon, and the very next fight gives us a good oppourtunity to use it. City hall is coated in a crystallised black sludge, and a strange ghost serpent thing is loose. It picks up a bystander and smashes them halfway through a wall, then twists and dives throught he ground.

We deploy the turret and take it out. That's when things get sticky.

A huge cuboid anomaly appears in the air, formed of smaller cubes, and it opens some kind of gate. A storm kicks up, spins, and pelts the ground with projectiles. We run for cover, but the world around is being terraformed. Vast towers burst fromt he ground, ripping through the earth and buildings.

One of our agents, John Lee, falls, but the player is able to revive him. In the chaos that follows, we find Dr. Weir being dragged away by the ghost serpents. We give chase through the building, arrive at a beam of energy, and leap in.

Everthing dilates as we're sucked through. On the other side, and we're floating in an abyss, huge rocks embedded with cuboid technology floating in space. It's enormous, and strongly reminiscent of Half-Life's Xen. And that's where the demonstration ends.

Overall, I'm looking forward to the game much more than I was a year ago or even after last week's trailer.

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