by Ryan Sandrey
previewed on PC
Gamers of a certain age, prepare for NOSTALGIA
In the 1990s, PC Gamers were enamoured with Julian Gollop's extraterrestrial strategy series X-Com, as seen by the fact that the first title in the series, UFO: Enemy Unknown (Later released under the title X-Com: UFO Defense), is regularly applauded as one of the greatest games to have ever graced the PC. However, after 4 sequels, the series was put on hold in 2001 when Hasbro Interactive was closed down. Nothing was heard of the series for 9 years.
At E3 2010, that changed. 2K Marin, the California-based developing arm that spun off from Irrational Games, announced the development of a game that was no longer linked to the Bioshock series. That game was XCOM. A reboot of the iconic series, Gollop is no longer involved, and that's not the only thing that has changed as the series rears its head once more.
We're going through changes
Whilst the original series was almost purely isometric strategy, XCOM has abandoned this because, according to 2K Games President Christoph Hartmann, 'pure strategy games are just not contemporary'. However, rather than being a linear FPS experience, XCOM is a strategic shooter, in the mould of the original games with only the viewpoint and setting being different. Playing as FBI Agent William Carter, you have been assigned to XCOM, the secret government organisation located somewhere in the United States. Through interactions with several NPC agents within the confines of the XCOM walls, such as Leon Burnes and Angela, you have complete control over what happens. Through conversation with Burnes, you are able to select a team of the best agents that the world has to offer, offering multiple class types and, with them, multiple approaches to a mission. Through Angela, you are able to select which of the available missions to select. Why is XCOM so secretive yet so busy? Because the Earth is being invaded by Aliens. With a rich backdrop of changing social conflicts, XCOM is set in a rich time for an invasion. With the aliens, or 'Outsiders', being able to morph into human form, the Cold War paranoia of the 1960s has been adapted to Aliens rather than 'commies'.
With the agents taking the form of a party such as in an RPG, the character development is varied enough to allow you to tackle XCOM the way you want to, with the 'case files' of emergency phone calls reporting Outsider presences providing you and your developing team with missions to tackle all over the country. With this free-form non-linear mission structure, and squad-based tactical combat, those who are worried the game would simply be 'Bioshock with Aliens' can be appeased with the freedom the game presents them. Whilst it hasn't got the same structure as the original titles, it has a strategic mix of RPG and tactics that draw more healthy comparisons with the BioWare title Mass Effect 2 than it does Bioshock. Whilst some fans of the older series will still be outright dismayed by this change, a fair few will be intrigued.
A Blast From the Past
The combat in the game is evocative of Mass Effect 2 as well. With the ability of Carter and his team to use the technology of the Outsiders against them, and fighting in large set-pieces that require tactical usage of everything in their arsenal, XCOM isn't a walk in the park for the gamer who isn't prepared to take a step back and decide the best tactic. With the usage of the Tactical view, you are able to position your squad of agents in the best possible positions in order to counter the threat the Outsiders pose to you. Nothing is straight-forward in XCOM, with everything requiring due thought and attention in order to get the best possible outcome. This doesn't just apply to combat, with the capture of the Outsiders' technology also being a key use of XCOM's 'Tactical Mode' and an example of the effects of choice. If you encounter alien technology, you have 3 options; destroy it, capture it using Tactical Mode and use it in its current form, or capture it and send it back to XCOM to research and provide bountiful future upgrades.
With tactics allowing you to use every enemy as an opportunity for destruction in your favour, it's clear that the strategic nuances of the series hasn't been lost in the transition to a new developer, setting and viewpoint. It's simply up to your decisions how the game evolves and what happens is entirely down to your actions. 2K Marin have risked the outcry of thousands of gamers with their bold new attempt on a dormant but much-loved franchise, and they're not going down without a fight. Whilst much of their brief since they first announced it at E3 2010 has undoubtedly been 'Show people it isn't Bioshock', XCOM will be able to show that for itself upon release. With a strange but endearing mix of the 1960s backdrop with Mass Effect 2-style gameplay and a first-person perspective, XCOM has enough about it to begin to lure back the sceptics, and will certainly be an interesting game to play when it finally arrives.