The classic PC series X-COM began life in 1994 as a turn-based strategy game pitting humans vs. alien invaders. Now, 2K Games and developer Firaxis are working diligently to remove the hyphen and return X-COM to its turn-based roots with XCOM: Enemy Unknown—and returning XCOM to its roots may build a new future for the series.
XCOM is enjoying both a rebirth and a re-incarnation in two genres. The first is 2K Games XCOM, an FPS (first person shooter) with some added tactical and strategic elements. And despite some of the initial, jaded grumblings heard ‘round the Internet when an FPS version of XCOM was announced, I thought the FPS XCOM was looking good when I previewed it at E3. Maybe I’m just progressive.
But even the most jaded fans of ‘X-COM Classic’ should appreciate XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the big budget, AAA treatment it’s getting courtesy of 2K Games and a development studio well-versed in the ways of turn-based games i.e. Firaxis, the makers of the Civilization games.
Sid Meier saves the day
The first part of our demo was a video largely designed just to show off some of the cool weapons, aliens, and tech that will be available in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It opened with a squad of human soldiers fighting a desperate battle amid ruined city streets with the invading Sectoid aliens.
First, a vicious Chrysaliid—nasty, spiky, spidery like aliens that are fast and deadly in melee combat—jump from a rooftop and gruesomely rip apart a couple soldiers. A Sectoid Commander—the ‘little guys’ that look like sinister versions of the ‘Grey’ aliens of UFO folklore, shows up and uses mind control powers to make another soldier eat a grenade—literally. He blows up real good.
And then a legless, brutish, tank-like alien called a ‘ Floater’ uses an energy weapon to inelegantly blow the crap out of some poor slob crouched behind cover. In all honesty, in the glamorous big-screen spectacle of it all I don’t quite remember if it was a Floater or a Muton—and my hastily-scribbled-in-the-dark notes aren’t much help. Suffice to say some big, cool alien shot a shiny ray gun, something exploded, and someone died.
With our hapless squad of soldiers brutally slain, it’s up to the big guns to step in and save the day. In this part of the demo, none other than (virtual) Sid Meier himself—in all his power-armored, 3D glory—steps in with a squad of soldiers equipped with highly advanced weaponry—the kind you get by studying captured Sectoid technology and artifacts.
Virtual Sid uses mind control on the Floater, makes him (her?) eat a grenade, and demonstrates that aliens blow up just as good as the humans. Another squad mate uses a jet pack to soar into the air and takes out two Chryssalids with a sniper rifle that fires a high-powered energy beam. And finally, a third team mate uses stealth armor to turn invisible, fire a grappling hook to scale a wall, and get up close and personal to a Sectoid Commander for a nasty melee kill.
Our team triumphant, a new threat—courtesy of a cut-scene—emerges from the ruins of the city: a massive, spider-like robot/ship/creature that no doubt represents a ‘boss’ of some kind in the game…
Back to its roots—on consoles
Inspired by the action led by virtual Sid Meier in the demo, the folks at 2K Games cut us all loose to play the reborn, venerable PC classic—on an Xbox 360.
Although this might almost inspire a #facepalm (and maybe some #irony) for a PC gamer, XCOM: Enemy Unknown actually plays quite well with a modern game controller once you sort out the controls. It’s also an interesting anecdote as to ‘how times have changed’ when you’re playing a turn-based PC classic on a console. (It almost felt ‘sacrilegious’ in some sense.) The game looked great and played well—and will almost assuredly look better and play better on a PC.
I first played through what comprises the early tutorial, which starts by dropping a 4-person squad of XCOM soldiers into ravaged city streets—the location where XCOM lost contact with a previous squad. Controlling, selecting, and moving team mates is quite intuitive with thumbsticks, and there is plenty of built-in artificial intelligence to make commanding units easy.
For example, if there’s a door in the way, your soldier kicks it in. You can also smash and jump through windows, scale walls and more. All you need to do is tell your soldiers where to go—you don’t have to manage ‘movement points’ or provide explicit commands.
The early levels emphasize the basics and do a good job of explaining the fundamentals, if a bit dryly. The commander giving orders during the tutorial is awfully calm (almost deadpan) despite the fact that you just entered a hostile zone, found the dead, eviscerated bodies of your comrades, and then encountered hostile alien invaders.
For my first mission I enter a warehouse, moving from cover position to cover position before kicking in a door and a later a window to get in. A squad member from the team I’m looking for stands in the middle of the warehouse, but something isn’t right…
Sure enough, he’s being mind-controlled and my team catches sight of the Sectoid weasel pulling the strings. A short scripted mission follows that basically teaches you the importance of cover and flanking.
The next mission in the tutorial is similar, but gives you the freedom to try out your own tactics and teaches you some new tricks. This battle is fought in a shipyard, and again emphasizes the importance of cover and flanking.
This mission also introduces grenades, so you get to blow stuff up—including aliens and objects/terrain. I move on squad mate to a rooftop, and slowly advance the other three to cover positions. One of them I place in “Overwatch” mode which means he’ll provide cover fire and shoot at enemies within his line of site when it’s their turn to move.
I ultimately advance forward and drive the Sectoids into a shack. With nowhere to run I have them pinned down. Advancing a squad mate into a cover position, I toss a grenade into the shack to finish them off. Hopefully there’s enough left of their bodies for some Xenobiology research.
‘All your base’
After clearing some missions of basic Sectoid invaders (I didn’t get to see any of the tougher units—i.e. Chryssalids, Mutons, etc.), you return to base, where the strategy elements of the game really kick into gear. Back at base you can recruit and upgrade soldiers, select which alien research projects to fund, build new gear, monitor world events, and decide which mission to take next. There are more than 70 missions total in the game.
The base consists of 5 key areas: Research, Engineering, Barracks, Hangar, and the Situation Room—and during the course of the game you will be able to add and expand to the base (somewhat similar in some respects to RTS games).
- The Barracks are where you view, hire, and train soldiers that have leveled up through combat experience.
- Research is where you select which technology tree to pursue, such as Xenobiology, Alien artifacts, weaponry, and the like. Different research will give you different toys and/or tactical advantages you can use once research is complete.
- Engineering is where you go to produce stuff. For example, after completing research on a new weapon, you go to Engineering, drop some cash, and choose how many of the weapons to produce.
- The Situation Room is lets you survey the globe for alien activity, launch satellites, and more or less assess your current status and plot your next course of action. You can also scan for new requests for help.
Part of the strategy in the game lies in selecting which missions to pursue and managing the global panic that has gripped the planet. You can’t be everywhere at once. Countries that you help successfully will reward you—for example, you might get a large sum of cash you can use to purchase new tech in Engineering—while others may view you unfavorably. And if you ignore them entirely, they could fall to the Sectoids—which may have longer term implications in the game.
However, it’s also possible to lose a battle (i.e. fail a mission) without losing the war. While the loss will certainly impact your resources and may impact later missions, it won’t by itself signal an end game situation. Fail too many missions, however, and you will lose. (I suspect this is unlikely to be a major issue in a turn-based game where you can save your game at any time.)
Bring on the invasion
It’s rare for a turn-based strategy game these days to get a big budget treatment like 2K Games and Firaxis are giving to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Gone are the days of the old school, static ‘walls of text’ and pixelated graphics to tell the story and/or celebrate your victories. XCOM: Enemy Unknown treats you to action-packed cinematic sequences, fully voiced, 3D characters, and all the glitz and glamour typically reserved for the latest FPS title with a budget larger than the GNP of some countries.
And regardless of platform (PC or console), XCOM: Enemy Unknown clearly demonstrates that a turn-based strategy game can have a deep game AND an intuitive interface that makes learning the ropes and playing the game easy—something many developers still struggle with.
But peel away the glitz and glamour and peek under the hood, you’ll see the beating heart of the same old-school, turn-based tactical strategy game that defined the XCOM (or X-COM) series. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is true to its roots, and maybe this rebirth/re-incarnation will breathe some new life into a genre that rarely gets treated so well in an era dominated by FPS, RTS (real time strategy), and MMO games.
We can probably forgive (but never forget!) 2K Games for removing that hyphen.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown arrives for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 on October 9th, 2012.