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.