This lengthy preview feature by Alec Meer first appeared in our print edition. The online embargo is finally up, and we have a batch of ridiculously exciting new screenshots to show you. We've sprinkled them throughout, and present them with our full preview for your reading pleasure.
You can start believing. It's true. Oh God, it's true.
XCOM, (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in the UK) the 1994 sci-fi strategy/action/ roleplaying hybrid that is often considered the PC's finest hour, is back. But it's no longer a turn-based squad game set in the near future. You don't fly aeroplanes, you don't seek out new threats underwater. Nor do you order 12 little pixellated men into the dark recesses of a crashed alien spaceship. No.
XCOM is a first-person shooter, set in the 1950s.
Deep breath. This is not a time to panic. This alien invasion is an occasion to celebrate. Consider what those original strategy games were about. An implacable alien menace threatened the world. You were in charge of an agency that investigated these otherworldly horrors, engaged them in direct combat when it could find them, and poured vast funds and research into developing and improving countermeasures.
That's exactly what XCOM does. You step into the shiny shoes of FBI agent William Carter, who heads a secret taskforce that is Earth's last and only line of defence against the scum of the universe. From its underground base, this newlyformed XCOM monitors reports of alien sightings, and dispatches agents to snoop around, gather evidence and, if necessary, clean up.
This isn't a linear shooter, either. Your base's phonetappers and policeradio scanners present you with choices as to where to go next and what to do, picked from a large map of the US. Rumours of animal attacks and strange weather patterns in a certain state? Sounds like Blobs are on the rampage. Saddle up, Agent Carter. Grab the wheel of your hulking fedmobile, take two of your best men with you, and go see what's going on.
You can't hide
Welcome to suburbia. Clean lines, pastel colours, immaculate lawns, polite neighbours and tranquillity. This is the 1950s as America pretended it was, not the real-life era of recession and division.
“It's a world where people feel comfortable and everything is optimistic,” says XCOM's design director Jonathan Pelling. “They feel that there is a great future ahead.”
It's the '50s as depicted in the advertising of the time, by such artists as Norman Rockwell. He was a key inspiration for Team Fortress 2's art style – so should we expect something similarly exaggerated? “We definitely did a lot of exploring with how far we could push that stylisation, but I guess we're making an FPS, and there's a certain kind of level of frugality that that genre requires.” A more recent touchstone is Mad Men, the TV drama based around the American advertising industry of the early 1960s. Here, as in that show, the tranquillity is only skin deep. This place is perfect for a family. So... where are the families?
Well, how about that guy on the lawn? Oh, don't worry about his nightmarishly contorted features, the way his clothes are gently smouldering and that circle of black ichor around him. Look, he was taking a lovely photo with his delightful period camera! Or at least he was before something covered him in a thick, oily substance and choked him to death. Or what about that fresh-faced young couple over there? They're just back from buying groceries. Groceries that are now scattered all over the driveway, while they lie slumped across the dashboard of their car.