The XCOM series is better known as a quasi-real-time strategy game. It is also better known as a futuristic series, when space has been explored and aliens have tried to defeat the human race. Few may remember that the series has also tried its hand at other genres, and the upcoming XCOM title is also taking this path. It's surprising how much of the original game that the team wanted to incorporate and where the game is set.
The game takes place in the U.S. during the 1950s. During this time, your character finds an alien artifact and reports it to government officials. Interest soon piques around the artifact, and questions come up about its origin and potential threats. Thus, XCOM is born, a division developed specifically to combat the threat of the unknown. As the one who found the artifact, you become the division's leader and are tasked with keeping the division alive while uncovering more of the truth. In a way, this game is acting as the prequel to the series, as it is showing how the division began.
The hands-off demo focused on two different aspects of the game: strategy and combat. To present the strategy element, the producers showed us the XCOM base, an abandoned airfield with a hangar housing the rest of the facility. Going into the briefing room, we were shown a map of the country and a few symbols signifying the available missions. We were told that there are primarily three mission types. A rescue mission has you rescuing civilians or other humans from an alien attack. Research missions have you investigating an artifact to gather new information about the aliens and get new weaponry from that research. Then there are other missions designed to help with the funding to keep the XCOM division going.
Every mission has a set time limit of availability, so taking on one mission could close the window on one of the other missions. For demo purposes, the producers picked a rescue mission in California, and one of the other XCOM heads warned us that the mission would get the division lots of good will from the people but won't solve the department's issue of low funding. Once the mission is confirmed and after hearing the police call about the incident, the producers walk us over to the R&D division, where the research has develop a black goo grenade that acts like a Molotov cocktail once it's exposed to air. After picking up the new weapon, a shotgun and an electric Tesla gun made from prior research, we walk back to the car to start the mission.
The second part of the demo highlights XCOM's combat system. The location is now the suburban neighborhood in California from which the distress call came. The producers point out that you have two other agents with you for this mission, though it they seem to act independently without any input from you about where they should go or what they should do. The producers also mention that it would be ideal if you made sure your partners stayed alive at the end of the mission, but they don't tell us the ramifications of failing to do so. As we progress through the level, they point out things of interest, such as a civilian being attacked. The producers go to the location and find the civilian already dead and the assailant gone. The player takes out a camera and snaps a photo of the victim because taking pictures of enemies and victims will lead to a better understanding of the enemy and more research for experimental weaponry.
After the photos are taken, the team follows the slime trail and encounters the first alien creature of the game, a black ball of goo that is fairly agile despite leaving behind a trail everywhere it goes. Although the foe is small, it takes a good amount of shotgun blasts from the player and his partners before the enemy is dispatched. Then a woman's scream comes from a nearby house, causing the team to rush in and investigate. Inside, more blobs are present, and the team struggles to get rid of the ones on the lower floor. Rushing upstairs, we find the blob attacking the woman, and we use a combination of shotgun blasts and jolts from the Tesla gun to eliminate the threat. At the end of the fight, the woman is saved but a fellow agent fell in battle. With the mission over, we go outside to find a large fragmented circle forming in the air and powering up for a blast. The NPC tries shooting it but gets caught in the blast and is incinerated, causing the player to run for the car. Unfortunately, the demo ends earlier than anticipated due to a glitch that gets the player stuck in the environment.
From a technical standpoint, XCOM already feels like a winner. The graphics do a good job of evoking the style of 1950s America. Everything has a muted brightness, but it still looks colorful instead of washed out. The characters are also affected by this color palette change, giving them a look between realism and the cartoon style of Team Fortress 2. The environments contain plenty of detail in all the right places, and even in this early stage of the game, shadows and swaying of trees are looking good. The same can be said for particle effects, like the fire coming from your blob bombs or the black matter permeating from the blobs. The score sounds foreboding but does a good job of evoking the sense that the picturesque settings are hiding something sinister, and the sound effects and voices are also pretty top-notch stuff.
There's still plenty of time for the development team to tweak and add to XCOM, but it is certainly turning out to be interesting. After the presentation, we overheard that the game felt like it was going to be like BioShock but above water, and that certainly jives with our impressions, especially after seeing the ability to improve things with photography. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since BioShock was so good, but XCOM could play out as a more open-ended version of 2K Games' hit. Aside from choosing missions and weaponry, the lack of strategic elements will turn off fans who are interested in the strategic aspects. However, we didn't get any hints about whether the title will take on elements of a tactical shooter or if strategy will be incorporated into a multiplayer component, so it remains to be seen if the developers plan to cater to more tactically minded fans.
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