E3 ‘10 PREVIEW: XCOM (PC/360)

E3 with haloWhen word hit that the classic X-Com: UFO Defense, aka UFO: Enemy Unknown, was being turned into a shooter, the outcry was loud and vociferous. The grumblings were not abated by the trailer which showed basic shooter action against black blobs, with simple cel-shaded graphics.

However, if there’s a reason to hope, the game is being developed by 2K Marin of BioShock PS3 and BioShock 2 fame. They have an understanding of how to shepherd a valuable IP and remain true to the spirit of the original.

According to the developers, the game is about “fear and strategy”, and is set appropriately in the 1950’s, which makes the game more of a prequel to the original game; it is the start of darkness, so to speak. The game is set in a world of ilkmen, lemonade stands, and the nuclear family – but something is corrupting the world. Something alien and sinister. Sound familiar? It should, since these were during the height of the Red Scare, so the game has that potent subtext working for it, just as Invasion of the Body Snatchers had.

Despite changing from a turn-based/real-time strategy hybrid to a shooter, XCOM is very much a game about strategic decisions as its predecessor. Like the original game, XCOM is about researching aliens, creating weapons and defenses from the findings, and having to choose between helping the individual and the greater good.

The player is Special Agent William Carter, who discovered a mysterious sinister alien artifact. and has become the Head of XCOM, an agency devoted to battling the otherworldly enemy. His base is set in an airplane hanger with a bunker hidden underneath it. This bunker is alive with chatter and discussions, and feels like a real place where a secret government agency would be.

In this bunker is the heart of the strategic game, in which crises pop up on a US map. These crises are divided into three categories: rescue missions, unknown missions, and monetary missions. That is, popularity, research and income. The player is basically asked to decide which mission to tackle and live with the consequences, because the unselected missions will usually vanish. Do you sacrifice valuable research to save a family of five? Complicating matters is that each state has a satisfaction level, and the higher the satisfaction, the more money missions in that state will award.

Speaking of research, Mauer is the game’s Brooklyn-accented “Q”. In the demo that was shown, he showed off the results of a previous research mission: “Blobotovs”. Blobotovs are derived from one of the early enemies, black blobs that encased glowing blue balls (insert dirty joke here). Blobotovs, when thrown, burst into flames that damage and kill blobs faster. Another alien-derived weapon was a lightning gun.

You have to pick your loadout from Earthly weapons like rifles and shotguns and researched weapons. For the demo, they picked a shotgun, a bevy of Blobotovs, and the lightning gun. You also receive AI companions who accompany the player on missions. They are talkative and helpful, and aren’t useless in combat – their chief job is to protect Carter. You receive bonuses for keeping them alive as well.

The mission that was shown off took place in a once-idyllic suburb, which is now a charnel-house. Even on a rescue or money mission, the opportunity for research is still there. Carter came upon a corpse in a backyard, with slick black goo covering him. Snapping a photo – similar to the mechanic in BioShock – earned research points.

Combat is visceral. To kill blobs, the player has to shoot off their black liquid exterior with some blasts, then finish off the job by destroying the glowing blue hearts of the creature. As mentioned earlier, the Blobotovs make this task easier, as does the lightning gun. Like BioShock, the shooting element is smooth.

After saving the lone surviving housewife, Carter sticks around to look for more clues. This is entirely up to the player, but the longer a player remains after a mission is over, the more danger they put themselves in, as a strange geometric rectangular shape arrived and blasted a car, before transforming into a pair of concentric circles that promptly vaporized Carter’s two henchmen, and proceeded to chase him down the suburban street, atomizing cars along the way, reminiscent of a strider’s multidimensional blasts from Half-Life 2. It was a truly nail-biting sequence.

It seems that XCOM is in good hands, and if people can accept an XCOM that isn’t a strategy game, there’s a good chance that this strategic shooter will win its own loyal fans.

Jonah Falcon is a blogger for TMRzoo and GameStooge.com and covers all gaming consoles and platforms including Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP and computer games designed for Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. Jonah provides his readers with reviews, previews and up to date gaming industry news and rumors.

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