XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

Graham Smith at

X-com preview

Get this close and someone is about to die.

Now, imagine that soldier was Popeye Doyle, the recruit you developed over the last 20 hours of play.

If only you’d done things differently. If only you hadn’t rushed through the door of the petrol station, but opened it quietly to avoid alerting the Mutons. If only you hadn’t gone inside at all, but had your Heavy blow apart the wall with a rocket launcher. If only you’d left Popeye back at base for this one, and brought a team of robots instead.

You made decisions – from what to research, to what to carry, to who to bring, to how to develop those people – and every one of those decisions impacted down a long chain so that now Gene Hackman is dead.

That wasn’t the actual name of Jake’s dead soldier, of course, and now I can’t even remember what it was. His name will feature in the memorial room back at base, though, alongside the name of everyone else you get killed.

X-com preview

With a grapple, soldiers can move on to rooftops.

“The only way I can say to a player, ‘Yeah, I know you love that guy and you worked hard on that guy, but now I’m going to snatch him from you,’ is by giving the player complete control,” says Jake. “I will give you complete control of this soldier, and all you have to do is make the right decisions and you can protect him. I think that creates real tension and drama, and I think that defines X-COM.”

To take down the Mutons, Jake goes down the Heavy-blows-a-hole-in-theside- of-the-building-with-the-rocketlauncher route, and that gives his Sniper on the roof line of sight with those inside. She quickly finishes the job. Mission successful. This was an easy one, but success is still a relief.

The missions will get much harder later in the game, when more aliens will appear. A lot of those will be familiar from the original series, including the creepy Cyberdisc. At least one will be new, as Jake showed me artwork for the Man in Black, a skinny, acrobatic alien that can pass for human in a crowd.

After watching Jake play the game, a lot of my fears about it have been put to rest. It looks like XCOM. Still, I’m nervous. Everything I saw was running on a PC, but it was played with an Xbox 360 controller (hence the icons in the screenshots). I asked Jake afterwards if the user interface would be the same across PC and console. He laughed. “No, no, no. Nooo. Oh man, no.”

X-Com preview

Your base’s shiny new Geoscape.

So that’s a no? “I wouldn’t do that to you, are you kidding me? No. We have a team that’s doing the PC UI, and our tactical UI is a standalone PC tactical UI.” It’s still a work in progress, that’s all.

Jake keeps going before I even get the chance to ask about mods. “Because it’s on Unreal Engine 3 too, the idea is that there is the ability for modability. It won’t be anything that we’re committing to for release, but it’s very, very easy using Unreal titles to then give people access to the scripts.”

I’d bet on mod tools three months after release. And mods to increase the battlefield soldier count and remove those incredibly brief cutscenes, oh, about twelve seconds after that.

There was one other thing everyone wanted to clear up: 2K Games didn’t listen to you. As tempting as it is to think that the announcement of a new, turn-based XCOM comes as a response to the tweeted fanscreams over the first-person shooter, that’s not the case. Firaxis have been working on Enemy Unknown since spring 2007.

When they saw people clamouring for the very game they were making, they were desperate to be able to tell them. They waited until it was ready.

X-Com preview

You can move and perform a single action each turn.

“Maybe this is corny, but you like to make people happy. I think the kick we get as game developers is giving people this experience that makes them happy, and so when you think you have something that will make people happy, you want to share that.”

Although what I was shown was a relatively thin slice of the full game, that doesn’t mean that’s all they’ve made. “You can play all the way through,” says Jake. “Over Christmas break, I actually did a Let’s Play XCOM for our team.”

Let’s Plays are diaries of game experiences, often using names of friends for characters, and told on forums or YouTube. “Everybody on the team signed up, and people would send their name and their customisation stats, like Head 3, Skin 4, nickname, and they’re all terrible nicknames. And I played through and narrated the whole way.” It’s rare to meet a developer who is having so much fun playing his own game, never mind writing about it.

Jake Solomon really does love X-COM. Firaxis are desperate to make sure that you know that, but it’s not bullshit. They want you to know how much they care. They want you to know they’re aware how much you care, and as corny as it sounds, how hard they’re working to make you happy.