This article originally appeared in issue 243 of PC Gamer UK.
The internet has been quite clear about what kind of game an XCOM game should be. Ideally, it should be an unforgiving turnbased tactics game with global strategic scope in which you desperately flail to fend off alien aggressors and, through extensive research, eventually use their own weapons against them – or otherwise consign the entire Earth to death by ET. In other words, an XCOM game should be a bit like the original X-COM. Unlike 2K Marin's shooter reboot – which has recently scurried to a 2014 release – Firaxis's XCOM: Enemy Unknown is pitching itself as the game to resurrect the original X-COM. The unforgiving turn-based tactics, the global scope... it's all there.
But the gaming landscape has not only changed since the debut of the series in 1993, it has been thoroughly dug up and returfed. Even with Civilization devs Firaxis helming the process, will we see an authentic recreation that honours the series' notorious ruthlessness?
If my hands-on is anything to go by, then yes. Your first tutorial mission murders all but one of your soldiers. Then you're on your own, with a global extraterrestrial invasion happening in real time as you struggle to fund, grow and manage the secretive paramilitary organisation XCOM. Different nations clamour for XCOM's help throughout the game, and juggling them depends on which resources you covet, and how beleaguered each nation is. But let them stew for too long and things can start to go very wrong indeed – in fact, that's probably inevitable.
“You can't respond to every threat,” explains associate producer Pete Murray. “That's where the choice come in: what missions are you going to go in for? If the United States has a really high panic level but you really want the reward from another mission – that would be a tough choice. If panic gets too high then [the nation in question] drops out of the funding council for XCOM. XCOM has 16 nations on the funding council; if you lose eight of them, you lose the game.”
It's by no means the only way to fail. “There's a final mission, and if you don't succeed there things go badly,” Murray says. “But mostly losses come from not being able to stop the alien invasion in the first place. And that alien invasion happens on a timetable, so you're not just going to be able to ignore things.”
A terror alert in Beijing instigates my second foray into the field, deploying a trio of green recruits. They're joined by the traumatised survivor from the tutorial mission who specialises in heavy weapons. At first, things go well. With deft use of altitude, cover and flanking, my soldiers make quick work of a couple of Sectoids, the big-brained grey aliens of Roswell lore. Emboldened and quietly humming the Beastie Boys' Intergalactic, I move each unit up past the gory remains, pressing on into the unknown.
As with the original game, the world is shrouded in darkness, only revealing itself and its horrors as you inch forward. But instead of portioning up an allotment of time units among your desired actions, you are now given a movement phase and an action phase to fill with the assortment of expected battlefield behaviours: shoot, reload, toss a grenade or set up overwatch. This last proves especially useful, allowing your soldier to interrupt the enemy's movement phase with a volley of fire, taking down any emerging threats before they can attack.
Alternatively, you can spend both phases to dash a little further: a blue boundary indicates your movement limit, with a yellow line beyond that showing the additional mileage you get if you forfeit an action. I opt to move slowly, however, sweeping the team forwards with the three noobs at the front, and my demolitions expert at the rear, skittering between crates and walls to find spots that offer cover from as many sides as possible. The aliens have their turn and one of my crew, set to overwatch, spots movement in the warehouse ahead and lets off a shot. It does little but graze one of the two Sectoids lurking inside the doorway, and they rattle off some laser fire in return, demolishing a cover position in the midground.
Since the demolitions expert hasn't moved yet, I decide to spend his two phases to ready and shoot his bazooka – one of the more time-consuming weapons. Targeting a Sectoid, I can see it has a 70 per cent chance of killing, and I'm told by my Firaxis chaperone that in all likelihood it will bring the building down, too. I like those odds. But the odds don't like me and my rocket spirals off-target, burying itself up the arse of an XCOM team member, who promptly expires. Luckily, a grenade from my guy on the left flank bounces through the doorway and does for our interstellar visitors. The mission is complete, and I am awarded a 'good' rating for my 25% casualty rate.
Pete Murray is rather apologetic for this turn of events – presumably some members of the press don't react well to blue-on-blue bloodshed. “Ah gawd,” he says, cringing as my guy receives a rocket-propelled friendly-fire enema. “Jake is going to kill me.”
But neither Pete, nor lead designer Jake Solomon, should worry – that you can, on only the second mission, murder your own crew on a single bad die roll is exactly what makes XCOM such a tense and enthralling experience. That brave soldier, whose name I never thought to learn, is dead and gone forever, along with whatever expertise he'd accrued and upgrades he'd received. The stakes are – and should be – that high. “There are lots of different ways you can die,” says Murray. “We really haven't cranked back on the fatality very much.”
He suggests that losing a quarter of your team in a given mission is a comparable bodycount to that of the original game. But, if anything, it's now more critical than ever, since the number of agents you can field is far fewer.
“Because you only have four to six guys, losing any one soldier on a particular mission has pretty serious consequences,” explains Murray. “If you lose two men out of a four-man squad, that's serious business – especially [if you lose] some of those experienced soldiers. Your veterans have very useful skills and perks and are the cornerstone of your tactical game, and if you lose those guys that's pretty serious.”
With smaller team sizes comes greater emphasis on the interoperation of their different classes, too. “You've got four different classes of soldier in XCOM. You've got a heavy weapons specialist: he's got a machine gun and a rocket launcher. He's going to solve big problems with big tools. You've got a sniper: he can sit up on a mountaintop like Zeus and hurl thunderbolts at people or bushwhack through the weeds and get in position for that perfect shot. You've also got assault soldiers, who are the masters of closequarters combat; they can take a tonne of damage and they can dish a tonne out at close range. And the last class is the support soldier – he's a guy who can fill a whole bunch of roles on the battlefield, from medic to jack-of-all-trades.”
Needless to say, with their roles so defined, just one dead teammate means a gigantic hole in your tactical operation. With your range of expertise weakened, it's very easy to then lose control of a situation entirely – at least, it is on the harder difficulty settings. XCOM has made some concessions to the broader gaming audience: lower difficulties come with lower lethality, additional telemetry and tool-tips. Classic difficulty, meanwhile, aims to recreate the austere challenge of the original game.
“On classic difficulty, we make it very hard for you,” says Murray. “On some of the easier difficulty levels, we want you to succeed. On normal difficulty – I will admit, that's plenty of challenge for me.”
While it is disheartening to see Earth's elite soldiers getting melted into sticky puddles by a single shot of plasma, Murray says that there's always hope on the horizon. As long as you can keep things in check, science will eventually come to your rescue, as your boffins reverse-engineer the alien technology.
“Like in the original game, at some point the tide turns and suddenly you are more awesome than the aliens. As the invasion continues you come across more and more powerful aliens and different technologies. So you want to be careful with the highexplosives, especially around sensitive alien equipment, as a fragmented something-orother is probably not as useful as an intact one for your scientists to work on.”
Firaxis have also made this research less opaque than in the original game. “There aren't a lot of blind alleys you can go down,” says Murray. “At the beginning of the game we direct you in a couple of different ways, and then that web of possibilities of what you can research starts to explode – but pretty much anything you bring back [from the missions] will have some use later on in the game. We want players to know not only what they are working for in the short term but how that will affect their decisions later on.”
To give us a sense of where all this is heading, Murray boots up a mission from much further into the campaign. Our crew are engaged in a particularly fraught terror mission. Beaten up and low on ammo, they make easy pickings for the amassed alien horde. A hulking Berserker quickly flattens one of our team, while a Chrysalid scuttles from the shadows to messily devour another in a flail of pointy insectoid limbs. A third teammate finds himself swallowing his own grenade thanks to seditious Sectoid mind-control. “Things are not going well,” deadpans Murray.
Our fourth team member wisely calls for backup. As the dropship's ramp lowers, we finally see where all those research dollars have gone. None other than Firaxis boss Sid Meier himself steps forth, his digital likeness clad in shiny silver armour. He's a psychic powerhouse apparently, and proves it by forcing the Sectoid to swill down his own mind-control medicine, along with a fistful of grenades. The A-team's sniper, meanwhile, uses her archangel armour to hover above the battlefield, making the Chrysalid's deadly movement speed something of an irrelevance. She also has a perk that allows her to fire again if her first shot crits – so within a turn, two more aliens lie dead. Then there's the assault soldier, whose armour enables total invisibility. She scampers unseen up a drainpipe, positions herself behind the witless mass of the Berserker and crits it to pieces.
But even with such powers at your disposal, it's likely that something will emerge from the shadows to puncture your pride – then possibly lay eggs in it, and turn it into a horrid, swollen glob of incubatory pus, swimming with chitinous offspring. Firaxis promise surprises, and not especially pleasant ones either. But while they're willing to upturn some expectations, they clearly also take their curatorship of a much-loved game extremely seriously.
“There are some things you have to keep in XCOM in order for it to be XCOM,” says Murray. “You have to have the ability to take alien technology and turn it against the aliens. You need to have a strategy game that progresses based on the result of your tactical campaign. And the tactical game really has to be the heart of XCOM. I think when you have those elements, you can change the ways you go about different parts of it, and you still get a game that is recognisably XCOM but has a new feel.”
Purists may baulk at a thirdperson shooter reboot, but even they should agree that some change is essential to even this most loyal of remakes. Otherwise it would risk betraying XCOM's most important aspect of all: the unknown