E3 2011: XCOM's many changes

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After last year's E3, XCOM went completely dark. Between then and last week, no trailers, screens or information for the game were released. Rumors began to fester earlier this year that the FPS reboot was undergoing a major rethink. Returning to 2K's booth a year later for a second look, I can report that that's absolutely the case. Thematically it's the same game, but mechanically, big changes - some worrying, some not - have been made to XCOM.

1. The enemy

Begone, blobs! The amorphous, wall-crawling oil splats shown at last year's E3 were nowhere to be seen in this demo. Most of the enemies were humanoid--two legs, and two arms with hands holding a laser rifle. On paper, humanoid enemies are an upgrade: these aren't the eggheaded, Roswellian Sectoids of the original X-COM, but they're a more readable, familiar enemy. 2K described one of these humanoid invaders as an “infiltrator class”--the one seen in the recent trailer impersonating a human, coveting some documents. After he died, his body sent up a spectral flash--an alarm to send in reinforcements.

Other than these ground troops, the player fought an alien turret (that he then captured), a terrifying geometric laser-ring, and a scripted, half-alien serpent, half ghost thing (also shown in last week's trailer) that snatched up the scientist that our XCOM agents were sent to rescue and hovered off. 2K also mentioned one of the aliens' (now known as The Outsiders) motivations: terraforming Earth.

2. Combat, cover

At least half of the focus of last year's XCOM demo was on suburban detective work--hunting an unknown enemy through the backyards and idyllic kitchens of an American town, creeping along at a modest pace until the black, liquid enemies revealed themselves. Today's demo was nothing like that.

As it was shown to me, XCOM's combat now deeply resembles Mass Effect 2 from a first-person perspective. Our first moment of a firefight against some of the humanoid aliens was a generous slide-lock into cover behind some sandbags, after which our demonstrator paused* the combat, which brought up arcs of buttons representing the abilities of our fellow, AI-controlled agents. We could also move a cursor to plot out potential positions for them to take cover. Returning fire from cover, the demonstrator activated an ability on his allies that distracted the aliens, allowing us to gun a few down from the side.

*Worth noting: XCOM's combat never seems to fully pause. Instead, it slows down significantly--bullets still streak through the air at a slow pace. I like this more than actual pausing--it doesn't let players fully mitigate any tension they're dealing with.

3. Incapacitation

It seems like a minor, familiar mechanic, but a striking aspect of last year's XCOM demo was the quick, harsh death of one of our comrades in the field. And of course, losing a character that you covet is fundamental straight of the original version of the game. Today, however, when a teammate took a hit from the floating alien laser ring (analogized as an “alien B-52” by 2K), he didn't die--he dropped to his back, and we had to run back to his body (the demonstrator used a shield ability to protect us while we helped him up) and get him back on his feet. Insta-death may still be present in the game--maybe it's an option in a “hardcore” mode, or maybe 2K simply scripted this situation to create the type of scenario they wanted to show. Unfortunately, I wasn't given an opportunity to follow-up and ask.

4. Mid-mission use of captured tech

One of our AI agents had an ability that allowed him to bottle up big pieces of alien weaponry into a metallic sphere, and bring 'em back home. Returning to base with each weapon would net us some kind of research reward, though 2K didn't reveal exactly how this operates. Alternately, we could spend the captured tech in the middle of the mission by redeploying it. When a squad of eight Outsiders spilled from around a corner and took cover behind some sandbags, the player threw out the metal sphere and popped out the turret we'd captured earlier, annihilating the enemies. 2K made it clear that redeploying captured tech wouldn't allow you to bring it back home. At the end of the mission, we snatched up the giant, laser-spitting metal donut and turned it against our enemy.

Want more XCOM? Go read Graham's first impressions and watch the latest trailer .

Evan Lahti
Global Editor-in-Chief

Evan's a hardcore FPS enthusiast who joined PC Gamer in 2008. After an era spent publishing reviews, news, and cover features, he now oversees editorial operations for PC Gamer worldwide, including setting policy, training, and editing stories written by the wider team. His most-played FPSes are CS:GO, Team Fortress 2, Team Fortress Classic, Rainbow Six Siege, and Arma 2. His first multiplayer FPS was Quake 2, played on serial LAN in his uncle's basement, the ideal conditions for instilling a lifelong fondness for fragging. Evan also leads production of the PC Gaming Show, the annual E3 showcase event dedicated to PC gaming.