XCOM was at last year's E3 and promptly vanished for about a year. That's because it's been getting rebuilt, according to Jordan Thomas, its narrative director. He was at this year's E3 in the 2K booth, providing demos of a new version of XCOM with a stronger sense of what he calls "tactical identity."
The game is set in 1962, right as the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, Cuban Missile Crisis and women's movement are all starting up; the nation's on that thin wobbly line between the 1950s and the rest of the century. In order to make things just that much weirder, Earth is also invaded by a race of aliens known as the Outsiders, who want to terraform our world and kick us off of it.
You play XCOM as William Carter, the "first man on the ground" at the beginning of the invasion, and the commanding field officer of the U.S.'s counteralien activities. Your goal isn't so much elimination or counterinsurgency as it's scientific; you want to understand the aliens and use their technology against them, which requires research, resource gathering, and recruiting specific individuals.
Thomas refers to Carter's team as their "love letter" to the RPG genre, where you can recruit, train and slowly augment team members in a similar way to Final Fantasy Tactics. In the demo, Carter brought a commando and a master of arms with him into the field; between them, they can provide diversions, generate a short-lived but impenetrable force field, drop more ammunition for the team, or disrupt alien technology.
The game's hub is back at the office, where you can pick teammates, decide on missions, have conversations with your staff, and begin research projects. Some missions will further the game's main plot, while others have other goals, such as gathering more resources for weapons research.
(It's worth mentioning that XCOM includes, in what's otherwise a relatively realistically depicted 1962, a black guy who keeps your team's dossiers and a woman who runs your office. I did ask about that. Jordan Thomas made a point of discussing the civil rights movement and the "tectonic cultural shift" of the '60s, so I thought it was weird — and apparently, while a full answer's a spoiler for the main plot, the organization is funded by an individual who considers competence before sex or race. If you're asking yourself the same question, there you go.)
The mission we were shown was a retrieval operation, set in a suburb surrounding an American university. The Outsiders had targeted the university due to the presence of a Doctor Weir, a suspected communist who is nonetheless an expert on the aliens' technology. Carter's team touches down in an ominously silent military encampment on the outskirts of town, just in time to discover an alien infiltrator has depopulated their forward base.
The general idea behind combat in XCOM is that "every enemy is an opportunity." The Outsiders' shock troops are human-sized biomechanical drones that fall down relatively easily when shot with conventional weapons, but they've got a lot of backup. By the time Carter and his team get through their first line of defense, they've set up an automated turret and have started terraforming the area to their planet's standards.
To get past the turret, there are several options. The one employed in the demo was to use your squadmates' abilities to create a distraction. Using squadmates' powers is done with a radial menu, which vaguely resembles the biotic powers menu from Mass Effect 2. You have a limited pool of "Time Points" to spend on those powers, as opposed to the powers having any kind of associated cooldown.
In this instance, one squadmate created a force field for cover while another caused a diversion, forcing all of the Outsiders to concentrate fire on him. That let Carter flank them so he could take out several of the Outsiders; this is followed up by using one of the squad to capture the turret.
At this point, he can choose to deploy the turret himself as a short-lived but powerful ally or hold on to it until the end of the mission to provide a significant boost to the government's weapons research. The latter's important, as anything you can salvage increases your understanding of the Outsiders' tech, and that eventually means you can tote around things like disintegrator rays.
The XCOM from last year got a lot of bad press and deserved criticism, because at the end of the day, 2K was attempting to bolt an old, well-remembered game's name onto a generally unexciting period shooter. It came off as an attempt at a cynical cash grab.
The new XCOM, on the other hand, has a lot more going for it, particularly for RPG fans, and I'm actually interested in this version. That Mass Effect 2 comparison I made earlier might be the most apt thing I can think of, and I'm looking forward to playing a version of it.
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