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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you are an existing X-COM fan, the key concern you've probably got is the AI-controlled backup agents, who you'll notice didn't figure highly in the Blob/Titan skirmish. Yeah, it's a bit of a worry – in what I've seen so far, they were little more than silent drones who could suppress but not finish enemies, and required an awful lot of rescuing. It's a far cry from the large, entirely controllable squads of the original X-COM trilogy, but apparently there's a lot yet to be shown in that regard. “It's really important to us that you feel strongly about the agents as you're playing the game,” says Pelling. That's all he'll say for now, but it means that the deaths of your agents in the suburban encounter will not be without consequence. Somehow, you'll have developed these guys, equipped them, and thus have a vested interest in their survival. Whether you'll be able to control them to any degree remains to be seen, but hopefully we'll see some element of how you designated specialists in the original X-COM. Heavy weapons guy, psychic guy, heavily-armoured stunstick guy... Clearly, the squad structure would make for an awesome co-op mode. 2K refuse to be drawn on any multiplayer details, but at least they're not denying it won't happen.
So, is this XCOM really our beloved X-COM? “We're forging a new mythology, but what we're retaining is the core elements that made X-COM X-COM,” says Pelling. “The strategy, the base, the research, agents, being in charge, and dealing with this problem as you see fit. You are the one that's driving the investigation – those elements remain but we want to create a new world with a new set of enemies that's genuinely compelling for players to learn more about.”
While we're talking about Jonathan Pelling, project lead, let's deal with the question of exactly who's making this game. It's worth stating up front that the Gollop brothers, the fine fellows responsible for the original X-COM, are not involved – 2K bought the licence some years back. Instead, 2K Marin, the main team behind BioShock 2, are the people responsible, bolstered by 2K's Australian studio (confusingly now renamed 2K Marin, too). It's an impressive pedigree: Pelling was part of 2K Australia back when it was still Irrational Australia, and has worked on Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance and BioShock 1 as a result. The team also includes veterans of Total War and Fallout – honestly, XCOM is not a console shooter that happens to be on PC. It's a sprawling, tactical and clever thing and, if it gets it right, it could push big-budget shooters into the more open, freer realm we've always clamoured for.
“We're really good at making shooters” says Pelling. “We've got a lot of experience doing that, and I think that provides a unique opportunity to present XCOM in a much more immersive and intimate format. Putting it into the firstperson shooter is going to blow it up a little bit.”
The revised setting is going to be a sticking point for many XCOM fans, but makes a surprising amount of sense – the '50s were a time of a political paranoia, which the 'B' movies of the age reflected. It also means the world is attractively stylised rather than grimly, tediously realistic, and the homemade, early- 007 gadgets look like a hoot.
That said, it's hard not to notice that the BioShock guys are playing around in the early 20th century yet again. “The choice of the '50s was not about putting it into a specific time period – we don't have a set date for when the events of the game occurred,” says Pelling. “It's more that we wanted to create a beautiful, idealised world for players to explore, and create this contrast between the horror of these beings and what is at stake. This is what life could or should be, whereas the infiltration of the aliens really destroys that.”
Two locations and two aliens are all 2K have revealed so far, leaving the rest to speculation. As well as the game's mechanics – specifically, the NPC agents and the improvements to your base – the nature and intent of the aliens is the game's biggest secret. “We want to create a genuine mystery, one that players are compelled to find out more about, to unravel themselves.” Again, XCOM nods to X-COM, where your researchers gradually unlocked the aliens' origins, how to stop them and where they came from. Unlike X-COM, however, these aliens aren't a mix of random species. The Blobs and Titans may be very different, but they're both faceless shapes able to take on multiple forms. We can definitely expect more in that vein, says Pelling. “We can't talk too much about the specifics of each one, but for the overall approach we want to have consistency.”
Expect an agonising drip-feed of information ahead of XCOM's mooted 2011 release. It's going to be painful. But we've waited this long, dealing with grotesque sequels, disappointing remakes and fan projects. XCOM may not be X-COM verbatim, but it's someone throwing money at the concept, not leaving it stranded at the pointless poles of fanexploitation or slavish recreation.
X-COM was a game about investigating an alien invasion of Earth at your own speed, by your own means. So is XCOM. You can start believing.
Does XCOM make you happy? Sad? Thirsty for viscous blob-drink? Let us know in the comments.