XCOM preview and new screenshots

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Keep calm and carry on. Take out your camera and record all this – you need the evidence, because evidence means more funding and research. Silently snap a picture of every corpse you see, every demolished hedgerow, every slime trail. Bring out your Blob detector, a vial of black alien goo which chirrups and ticks whenever it senses the same substance nearby. Follow its lead. Bam! A shapeless, dark mass bursts out of nowhere and promptly wraps itself around the head of one of the two agents you’ve brought with you. As he flails desperately, this tiny cyclone of murderous oil tries to shove long tendrils of itself down his throat. Reach for your shotgun, aim carefully, fire. The thing falls to the ground, and the agent breathes again gratefully. The three of you turn to move on, but already the scattered gobbets of the Blob are crawling towards each other, a liquid nightmare reforming itself before your eyes, ready to kill again. Your shotgun is no good here. It’s not so much knife to a gunfight as teaspoon to a tank fight.

Treacle-shot: the modern peacekeeping shell.

Blobstruction

Fortunately, you’ve met these before. You don’t have to cut and run, not like last time. Thanks to the data you’ve given them after previous missions, your Researchers have constructed a special anti-Blob grenade. It’s a glass jar sloshing with oil and wired up with homemade circuitry – if Maplin sold Molotov cocktails, they’d look like this. Burn, alien Blobs, burn.

What now? Your goal here isn’t to kill every alien in the place. XCOM doesn’t work like that. It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll comb every area of one of its wide-open mission maps, as health, ammo and armour are strictly limited to whatever you brought in with you. If your bullets – or, more pertinently, those flame grenades – are in short supply, you won’t be able to hold out much longer. The alien presence grows and grows the longer you stay, so you need to make a judgement call between trying to gather more evidence and simply staying alive. Your car’s just down the road – you could leave right now, knowing the photos you’ve taken and notes you’ve scribbled will still be some use in establishing the nature of this enemy unknown. But that would make you a big wet wimp.

Run! It's an iPod commercial!

Also, there’s Elerium here somewhere. This incredibly rare alien element is crucial for the construction of new weapons, armour and gadgets, but seizing it involves enormous risk. Out in the back of one pretty suburban house you spy a block of it – a strange arrangement of cubes, hovering in mid air. Dark lines and shapes whip around it in a self-contained storm, meaning you can’t just grab the thing. More Blobs. You’ll need to take them down if you want this precious spacerock. Check health, check ammo, check grenades. Every shot counts.

By the time it’s over, both your agents are asphyxiated, smouldering corpses, and the formerly pristine house is a mess of scorched walls, shattered windows and broken furniture. You have your Elerium, but at what cost? It’s probably time to get out of here, but you know full well you’ve explored barely a third of this area. There’s always more evidence, more aliens, more Elerium. Maybe it’s worth persevering just a little longer... And that’s when the sky splits in two.

Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic nightmares are made flesh, as an enormous monolith shudders out of the horizon, the accompanying mist and lightning blocking out the daylight. Before your eyes, this cubist deathmachine – is it a creature, a spacecraft, a building, all of the above? – transforms. First, into a ring of smaller, diamond-shaped artefacts, and then into two concentric rings, like a gaping metal maw. The rings suck. All the furniture of the house you’re in is dragged towards it, smashing through what few windows remain. Run. Your guns have no effect here. <em>Run</em>.

Outside, reality seems to distort as the thing increases its power, carving a great furrow down the tarmac road. You’re pushed and bashed about horribly as you try to get away, besieged from all sides by newlyarrived Blobs as well as by this hulking Titan. Honestly, you can’t do anything about this. Not this time. You have to run, get to the Interceptor, get away while you still can. Maybe those eggheads back in the lab will be able to build you something, so next time you can bring this faceless horror down to Earth. But not this time. Run.

This terrifying geometric eye fires soothing bath salts and body butter.

Block buster

I notice I’ve scribbled the word ‘apocalyptic’ into my notepad while watching all this. It’s surprising how poorly the supplied screenshots convey the scale and devastation of the monolith’s arrival. Be assured that, in motion, it looks incredible. It also seems impossible that you could ever stop this thing – but you will. As in the original X-COM, your scientists and engineers will research and construct new technologies which, in time, will mean encounters with increasingly powerful alien foes won’t be suicide missions. Nor will they ever involve you looking for little green men. “One of the things that we wanted to move away from was the kitsch or the expected from these creatures,” says Pelling. “Creating a set of enemies loaded with preconceptions really undermines the game. Part of the impact of seeing our aliens is that they’re not bipedal things walking around, it’s something completely different. We want you to look at them, study and explore them.”

Well, for a little while. Again, you don’t take on these missions expecting to snoop around every corner and execute every alien you find, rather to gather as much evidence as you can before you have to leave. The better equipped you are, the longer you’ll be able to stay.

This stay-or-go structure is a recreation of the original X-COM’s missions. Yes, killing everything would mean success, but that wasn’t always possible. If half your team was dead and most of your ammo was spent, it was fruitless to hang around. Gather any alien tech and corpses you can, then get out of there. The difference here – and I think it’s an improvement – is that you’ll never end up in a situation where you know there’s one poxy Snakeman hanging around somewhere, and you’re in for hours of peering behind every door, into every alley, over every rooftop to find him. The constant, gradual escalation means every mission will end on a high. Unless you get killed in the process. Chin up, Agent.