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E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

Jonathan Lester
2K Marin, Aliens, E3 2011, FPS games, Non linear, Real time tactics, Xcom

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

Mere words cannot adequately describe how shocked, confused and disappointed the gaming community became when 2K Marin announced that they were interpreting the venerable X-COM franchise as a linear first person shooter with investigation and survival horror elements. What were they thinking? How could they get it so utterly and completely wrong? Why, 2K? Why?! The pre-E3 trailer did little to clear up the situation, instead intoducing some brightly-lit cover combat sections that seemed at odds with the moody visual style they were shooting for. With the burning need to know more throbbing at the front of my mind, I sat down in their lavishly-appointed demo theatre... where 2K Marin wasted no time in admitting that they'd made a huge mistake.

X-COM isn't about tight scripting and gunplay, they explained. The series hinged upon high strategy and non-linear decision making, and after stepping back and looking at the project objectively, they realised that they'd have to go back to the drawing board in order to do it justice. The first person perspective has remained, but now the action takes a back seat to clever tactical play and the ability to fight the campaign against the otherworldly Outsiders on your terms.

My cynicism and suspicion soon turned into cautious optimism and excitement after watching the demo, and I'll attempt to explain exactly why.

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

The demo started out in XCOM's secret base of operations, where the secret government team meets between missions to choose strategy, research new hardware and decide how to best combat the insidious alien menace that threatens the very fabric of 1960s American society. Players assume the role of Special Agent William Carter, and talking to NPCs around the installation activates accessible menus for designating research objectives, managing squad members, tweaking loadouts and recruiting new operatives. This is all well and good, but successfully accomplishing these goals will require a huge amount of resources as well as raw alien tech to study and subvert. This is where the new non-linear focus makes its first, and very welcome, appearance.

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

The base is dominated by a bustling operations centre, containing an enormous map screen that allows players to choose from a wide and varied selection of subquests as well as main mission objectives. These optional jaunts are time-sensitive, and revolve around collecting raw resources to power the war effort, meeting and enlisting new squaddies or acquiring advanced enemy technology ahead of time in order to bolster weapon research. Managing your time properly and deciding on a course of action will dictate the tactical options available to you in combat, and though it may seem attractive to blast through the story missions, taking on the extra work will pay dividends in the long run. It's currently unclear whether taking on these subquests will influence the story as well as the gameplay, but 2K are set to make a few announcements on the subject over the coming months.

Time was short, however, and 2K was keen to push on with the main story objective. Players will be able to take two team members into each mission, each of whom gains experience and skill points from previous sorties to invest in a selection of streamlined upgrades. After choosing a powerful shield and a diversionary light show for our two cohorts, it was time to take to the tilt-rotor Sky Ranger and investigate an abandoned military checkpoint in search of an influential scientist.

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

After getting boots on the ground and cautiously searching through the suspiciously silent checkpoint, our intrepid guide made first contact with an infiltrator alien disguised as a human soldier. Once rumbled, the monstrosity shape-shifted into a terrifying metallic construct that was soon put down with some brutal fire from our vigilant squad mates. The ability to blend in amongst normal humans should make facing off against these infiltrators a tense and refreshing experience.

We were then shown a couple of battles, which started out with the team taking cover against a group of aliens hiding behind an impenetrable shield. Tried-and-tested cover-based FPS mechanics should come as second nature to shooter junkies, but it soon became apparent that each encounter is more akin to a tactical puzzle game instead of a straight gunfight. Holding down the command interface button slows the action down to a crawl and brings up a radial command inferface (that's overtly reminiscent of Mass Effect's command wheel), from which individual squad powers and rules of engagement can be triggered on the fly. Commanding the team to deploy their power shield and attract attention using a firework display caused the alien invaders to focus their firepower (and shield) on their location; letting Carter circle around the periphery of the battlefield and destroy the generator with a few well-placed shots. Once the shield was down, the aliens dropped in short order. Naturally players will need to use their squad's unique abilities to find their own solution to the shield 'puzzle,' which should significantly enhance replayability.

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

Once the fight had concluded, 2K informed us that the otherworldly metallic crystals thrusting out of the ground is known as Corruption, and can be used by the Outsiders to dynamically alter the battlefield in terms of topography, choke points and cover. We'll need to wait for some more practical demonstrations, but I'm sure you get the gist of it.

The second battle was a lot more tense thanks to the aliens deploying an automatic turret. The developers noted that all-out firepower and clever use of cover would be effective at destroying the turret outright, but after flanking the automaton and neutralising its defenders, Carter was able to demonstrate his most important command ability. Alien technology can be captured if players keep them intact, resulting in a harder fight with a huge payoff at the end. This turret, 2K explained, could be picked apart by the R&D lab rats at the end of the mission for significant research bonuses... though as a massive squad of over a dozen interlopers joined the fray, we discovered that captured tech also provides a serious nerve-wracking quandary.

Rather than keeping the device for massive long-term research boosts, Carter can alternatively opt to deploy it straight away for short-term damage output. Redeploying alien weaponry is as simple as entering the command interface and selecting a drop point, and the turret soon teleported onto the battlefield and annihilated the surprised aggressors with surgical precision. Balancing long-term gain with immediate combat applications should provide a unique twist on the combat as well as a higher level decision rarely seen in the genre.

E3 2011 | XCOM Developer Walkthrough

Finally, we were introduced to the menacing Titan (not the Goliath, thanks Kevin). This enormous floating disc turns the battlefield into "electric death," forcing the squad to hide under cover and evade its devastating particle beam cannon. Taking down these floating fortresses will be a major challenge depending on your loadout, but once again, 2K Marin were keen to demonstrate XCOM's capture mechanics in action. Weakening the behemoth with power drain attacks and indirect fire is infinitely more dangerous than blowing it up outright, so after a couple of truly nail-biting minutes, the Titan was finally subdued enough to teleport it back to the labs. Sure, keeping it on ice would have yielded an veritable bounty of new weapon and armour technology at the end of the mission... but hey, we were here to "see stuff blow up", right? Carter redeployed the war machine against a huge phalanx of Outsiders, and any thoughts of the lost potential was soon forgotten thanks to the technicolour murder that poured onto the hopelessly panicking aliens. Job done.

2K Marin still have a lot to prove, and only time will tell whether they have what it takes to breathe new life into the classic franchise. All we know is that they're finally headed down the right track.

Add a comment10 comments
Ben  Jun. 14, 2011 at 16:13

It's not XCOM. Couldn't they make their game without ruining a beloved franchise?

No base building/management (the layout was important when aliens attacked)
No resource management.
You can only take two squad members on each mission.
Squad members cannot be permanently killed.

Jonathan Lester  Jun. 14, 2011 at 16:19

Sure, it isn't anything like the classic X-COM games (hence, I think, the removal of the traditional hyphen to distance it from the core franchise). However, that isn't to say that XCOM could be a decent tactical shooter in its own right.

2K Marin will certainly have their work out - but at least they're headed in the right direction.

Late  Jun. 14, 2011 at 16:39

Julian Gollop is my favourite game designer/programmer. The Xcom franchise is the culmination of a succession of some of my favourite ever games all written/designed by him, going back to the early Spectrum days including several Rebelstar, Chaos, and Laser Squad games. And every single one of them was a gem. (Okay, Rebelstar 2 wasn't as good as it's predecessor. But that was a minor blip... ;) )

I'm a big fan of FPS games, but XCOM shouldn't be FPS. It's roots are in isometric turn based action - and moving to FPS is sacrilege. I'm appalled at what 2k Marin are doing to one of the best series of games ever made.

That said... the game does sound pretty promising, from what you've reported there! Why couldn't they call it something else, and just acknowledge it's nodding respectfully toward XCOM instead? They're alienating a lot of people with what they're doing here.
I'm able to stay objective, so will probably buy it (so long as they don't screw the gameplay up as badly as they've screwed up the concept), but I feel I'm betraying Mr. Gollop in doing so...

Matt Gardner  Jun. 14, 2011 at 17:01

This ^

It's definitely looking better than it did last year and I'm sure it'll probably be a fairly good game when all is said and done, but they could have at least used a subtitle or a different name as Late points out.

Again, though, another demonstration that left me with more doubts, worries and questions than excitement necessarily. Rather than try and update the series, it just seems 2K Marin have gone 'We want to make another FPS' and shoehorned bits of XCOM into that mould.

These are the dangers of franchises and rebooting old IPs...we already have a fairly rigid idea in our minds of what XCOM is. This isn't it. It might still be good, indeed some of the mechanics looked very tidy indeed, but I wonder how many will fall to disappointed expectation. I'm not sure you can necessarily talk about 'own right' once you slap a game with a franchise sticker because for better or for worse that game then takes on a certain weight of legacy.

Let's hope 2K Marin can live up to it...

Jonathan Lester  Jun. 14, 2011 at 18:01

As a fellow fan of the franchise, I absolutely understand where you're coming from (hence my overlong introduction). However, I'm going to have to play devil's advocate for a second by explaining why, at this stage, we ought to give 2K Marin the benefit of the doubt.

Right off the bat: this isn't the first or even the second X-COM spinoff. A weak TPS and a lacklustre arcade flight sim have already taken the series' name in vain, and complaining about another company taking the universe in a new direction is a little like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Secondly, and much more importantly, turn-based strategy has become too big a risk for all but indie and mobile outfits to invest in. There's no escaping this sad fact. If successful, though, XCOM will get a new generation of gamers excited about the brand, who will then check out the original games on their own initiative. This support, in turn, could well provide the momentum for the core franchise to make a triumphant return.

Or it could be missed opportunity, at which point my rampant cynicism and disappointment will return with a vengeance.

Joseph  Jun. 14, 2011 at 22:29

I'm sorry Jonathan, but that logic is just absolutely false and it has been heard before with other "Dead franchises". For example, people excused a certain game called Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (yes, *THAT* game) with the logic that "If it does well, they'll make another fallout RPG, you’ll see!" Unfortunately that was not the case and Fallout ended up in the wilds until Interplay almost went under and had to sell the licenses it owned to stay afloat.

If the game is successful we will not get another TBS game. What we will end up getting is another derivative FPS with elements taken from every action game under the sun except for X-Com. Looking at what has been released; I see a game with a major identity crisis here. There are the glowing aliens of Crysis 2, with the fast paced shooting mechanics of that game (all the sliding around reminds me of it) and then you have a good dose of Mass Effect 2 thrown in for good measure.

Optimism based on the fact this is a *lot* better than the first trailer, should be tempered by remembering just how awful what they showed the first time actually was. In fact in some ways what we could get now might be a lot worse than the first trailer, because it now looks like the direction of the game is extremely confused. Personally I would like it to work out, but we’re not going to get a good X-Com game out of this and might only get a competent shooter.

What really baffles me about the whole thing is why didn’t they just name the game something else from the start? We wouldn’t even be having this discussion now if it wasn’t for that fact.

ExPresident  Jun. 15, 2011 at 03:28

I'm not excited about this all and I wish I could be. As much as they are going away from the whole idea of what X-Com was just can't be overlooked. Seriously, only 2 squad members in each mission? Nothing like having to control and move a whole squad into tactical positions. Where's the base building etc.


Jonathan Lester  Jun. 15, 2011 at 09:39

That's a devastatingly elegant response, Joseph, and one that I'm loathe to counter as I absolutely agree that 2K Marin should be launching this title as a new IP rather than inappropriately recycling the X-COM brand. However, we're down the rabbit hole now... and I'd like to keep the debate going.

I'm not convinced that *THAT game* is necessarily the right analogy. It failed due to its own merits (or lack thereof), and was made by Interplay themselves as a lazy cash-in rather than a reboot. If you're looking for a new change of direction, made by a new development team several years after the fact and boasting FPS mechanics rather than isometric rule sets, the closest analogy is probably Fallout 3. Which needs no introduction.

No, I'm not comparing XCOM to F3, and I can't see 2K Marin's shooter stacking up to Bethesda's epic (and respectful) RPG in any way. A more recent analogy might well be found in Gatling Gears: Vanguard Games' recent twinstick shooter based on their turn-based Greed Corp universe. Many fans were annoyed by the change in focus, but it's been critically successful and may well give them the focus and funds to run with a sequel to the original game. But, as you've said, I doubt that 2K have any intention of actually resurrecting the X-COM series.

As an objective journalist, I can't let my affection for the brand bleed into the preview (though I hope that the first and last paragraphs convey my personal stake in the matter), and though I feel that XCOM is still a risky proposition, what I saw at E3 was a competent title that relied on strategy over brute force in every one of its engagements. But there's a world of difference between devil's advocacy and blind support, and I'll watching this one like a hawk.

Kevin  Jun. 19, 2011 at 16:57

If we can for a moment stop being so sentimental about some average old game and just try to view this as a new exciting thing to try.. Oh noooo it says X-COM what a world ohhhh the humanity seriously it is a game calm down..

Also it is the Titan not Goliath..

Jonathan Lester  Jun. 19, 2011 at 17:13

Edited and credited, thanks Kevin.

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