I've never been so excited about being a government employee. Your job description as a member of XCOM, the secret arm of the FBI, includes dark science, shotgunning alien blobs, and saving pearl-wearing housewives from extraterrestrial death. XCOM is an "organization to fight the unknown," 2K Marin studio director Martin Slater says, as we begin our demo of the game on the E3 show floor.
That '50s aesthetic is immediately fresh; where fellow 2K game BioShock's beautiful art deco was dimmed by its dank setting, XCOM's "idyllic '50s America" is brilliant, pristine, and pastel. "It was a time of purity and innocence - 2.5 children, lemonade stands, rock and roll," says Slater.
In the demo I'm being shown, William Carter is responding to a distress call in a small neighborhood, a cul-de-sac smorgasboard of "Leave It To Beaver" homes. He exits his vehicle in the street with two fellow agents - AI-controlled comrades in ties and hats, each wielding a pump-action shotgun. It's perfectly silent. A children's bicycle lies toppled in the road.
He makes his way through a backyard - an idling lawnmower in half-cut grass is the first evidence of something amiss. A few feet away on the patio, there's a dead man smothered in blue-black oil, a grease that paints a trail into the house. "I've seen this before," says a nameless agent, kneeling to inspect the body. "But it doesn't get any easier." Carter snaps a photo of the body with his camera and moves inside.
No flash photography!
It takes only seconds for the aliens to detect him. One crawls along the wall between the kitchen and the living room he's standing in, bubbling and spasming along the surface. He's fighting the scariest flavor of Jello ever: they look like living puddles of pure, glossy black - more are lunging down the hallway as he fires away with our shotgun, bringing the barrel to eye-level for better aim. Fighting them is like trying to corral a rabid, amorphous cat. Killing one is more like capturing a ghost in Ghostbusters: you need to stun it with a buckshot blast or two, then finish it off as it clings to the ground.
Carter survives by hurling one of our first pieces of tech, the spherical "blobatov" cocktail crafted from samples of the same aliens we're fighting. Chucking one at the ground ignites the carpet and the walls, forming a firey barrier to keep the gang of amorphous death-Jellos at bay. They've downed one of his fellow agents - like the original X-COM, it seems these teammates will be pretty vulnerable - and the 2k Marin rep presenting the demonstration made no mention of the ability to revive them.
Carter saves the other agent with a timely shot as one of the alien blobs entangles around his chest and arms, and there's a sense that he had only a few seconds to liberate him.
He uses the same technique a moment later to free a housewife, the only soul left in the house. Saving one civilian and making it back to your vehicle is enough to complete a mission. You earn more bonuses back at our base for each rescue, and additional research options for any new evidence caught on camera. "Let's blow this joint," huffs the surviving agent.
Leaving proves difficult. Carter's feet hit the carpet of the living room, and there's an immediate high-pitched squeal that saturates the air. Everything turns red. Something is here. Something big. He runs toward the street - there's a black wind of distortion hanging in the air. A field that warps light around it. The mass manifests a strange rectangle-obelisk in the sky: it looks like a giant, textureless Jenga piece. Without warning, it rearranges itself into the shape of a ring and spits a beam of white-hot energy into the street, disintegrating a car. Then, it does the same to the remaining agent.
He runs, back-pedaling away from the ring as it hovers after him. A handful of the blobs slither along the concrete in pursuit - they're minions, on this stage, trying to distract Carter from the larger threat. He pulls out his heavy tech to dispatch them: a lightning gun. It charges for a half-second, parting a pair of coiled copper rings at its tip, then spills volts into the street. This isn't a precise weapon - it pours a web of watts down the boulevard, frying most of the globs within seconds. But he can't escape the ring: its laser-iris is the last thing we see as the demo ends.
I love the fact that XCOM is HUDless - there's no ammo counters, artificial radar, or health bars to clutter your perception. The art design is one of the game's strengths - in the secret, aeroplane hangar base earlier in the demo, we see a whole team of '50s agents milling about: scientiests slaving in labs and phone operators working behind vintage equipment. I'm holding out hope that we'll see humanoid enemies in the game. The blobs are admittedly expressive enemies - leaping, strangling, and ceiling-crawling is all very well, but you can't shake the feeling that a few Roswellian, eggheaded E.T.s would be incredibly fun to fight in this setting.
Our full XCOM preview feature, along with a batch of new shots, is up here .