XCOM E3 Preview: Bring in the Pros

 

The XCOM demo Game Front editor Ron Whitaker and I saw at PAX East focused on the basics. The Firaxis team were keen to establish the game’s old-school, turn-based-tactical bona fides, which they did in some style, showing off an early-game mission that introduced the basic mechanics.

At E3 2012, Associate Producer Peter Murray had a new demo on hand, which dispensed with the fundamentals in favor of XCOM’s sexy end-game elements. He introduced his rapt audience to a “Terror Mission,” in which XCOM forces are asked to protect a civilian population from alien attack. A short cutscene showed chaos in the streets of an unnamed city; an alien mothership vaporized screaming citizens and flung cars like an angry toddler tiring of his toys.

An initial response team of XCOM soldiers deployed in the center of a destroyed street. They were quickly overwhelmed by a collection of familiar aliens: a Berserker, a Heavy Floater, and a Sectoid Commander, which took psychic control of one of the soldiers. Gory death animations ensued — taking full advantage of the game’s stylized but still realistic look — and the outmatched squad began to panic, screaming futilely and ratcheting up the tension.

Thankfully, Murray had a plan: “Commander — permission to send in the Reaper squad.” As its name implies, this was the XCOM equivalent of special forces, and they were about to put on a show for the E3 crowd. Normally the result of hours upon hours of careful character customization, the Reapers are the nuclear option in an XCOM player’s arsenal, and to say they are extremely powerful is putting it mildly. “By the end of the game,” Murray explained, “your soldiers are more than human.”

 

One by one they filed out of the transport plane, sporting hi-tech equipment that presaged alien death. Before the last soldier emerged, we were promised a bit of humor, and it did not disappoint. The Firaxis team had created a soldier in the spitting image of Sid Meier! Seeing his kindly, balding head sticking out of a suit of futuristic power armor provoked a legitimate belly laugh, and amid a convention center full of lame jokes and corny PR stunts, I found myself giving Firaxis silent kudos.

Once the Reapers took the field, they waded into the fray, showing off advanced, end-game techniques and equipment. The sniper’s “Archangel Armor” enabled him to hover high above the ground — no need to climb a building when you can create your own jetpack-powered sniper’s nest. Another character used an ability called “In the Zone” to take another shot after scoring a critical hit. One Reaper, imbued with psychic powers, turned the tables on the Sectoids, possessing an alien and forcing it to attack its comrades. A soldier equipped with “Ghost Armor” turned invisible, slunk across the map, and used a grappling hook to ascend to the top of a nearby storefront. Just when the Reapers were gaining the upper hand, though, a Giant Sectopod showed up, and the demo ended.

Between the meticulous tactical basics, the modern graphical flourishes, and the enticing end-game abilities, Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown looks like a certain success. Despite the high-tech hijinks on display at E3, the game retained a pleasant wonkiness that exposed its turn-based roots, swaddling classic gameplay in modern graphics and a slick UI. On October 9th, 2012, returning fans will be able to relive past glories; new recruits will finally find out what they were missing.

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