At last year's E3 XCOM was announced, and stirred up quite a bit of bile in the stomachs of fans. The classic tactical gameplay had been replaced by an utterly generic first-person shooter. We haven't heard much from the game since then, and after seeing the game in motion at E3, it's clear why. The developers have been working hard at revamping XCOM into something that comes closer to living up to the series' tactical legacy.
Before the demo, the developers helped set the stage for the game's setting. Taking place in the 60's, XCOM's story tells an alternate history where an alien invasion interrupts the Cold War right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy is still the president, and civil rights movements are in full swing. Keep that last point in mind as you continue reading.
The demo began at XCOM headquarters, which acts as the game's hub between missions akin to the Normandy in the Mass Effect series. And just like the Normandy, exploring the base allows players to talk with their squad members and NPCs to learn more of the game's backstory, research alien technology, and level up their squad members' skills. It seems from the demo that the player's character doesn't actually level up, making your choice of squad mates all the more important.
The headquarters also has a large map of the United States from which you can select missions. The map shows hot zones of alien activity, some of which are story missions and others side missions. The missions aren't time-sensitive, so there's no risk of one hot zone getting closed off if you leave it for last, but some missions will provide new squad members or technology that will change how the other missions play out. For the E3 demo, the developers chose a story mission to rescue the brilliant scientist Dr. Weir who "was discriminated in the 60's for his politics and his sexuality." Remember the whole civil rights angle? Well it looks like the treatment of homosexuality in the 60's will play an integral role in XCOM's plot. Suddenly, the E3 demo became a lot more interesting.
While the XCOM headquarters reminded me of Mass Effect, the actual gameplay during a mission was an even closer analog. From a first-person perspective, the player can crouch behind cover and issue commands to their squad members using a familiar looking ability wheel. An example was shown where the one squad member used a distraction ability to draw alien attention, allowing the player to circle around and flank the aliens from behind to destroy a shield generator. Unlike Mass Effect though, issuing squad commands doesn't pause the action, or at least not entirely. The action slowed down significantly when the squad ability wheel was on-screen, but both aliens and squad members were still exchanging fire, forcing tactical decision to be made quickly.
One of the more unique features of XCOM is the ability to capture alien technology. During the demo we came across a powerful alien turret. Capturing technology uses your "tactical time" the same recharging meter that allows you to issue squad commands. Technology at full health requires more tactical time to capture than weakened technology, so there's a bit of a Pokemon element at work as the turret's health whittled away before capture. Once technology has been captured it can be used at any time during the mission, or saved to provide unique research upgrades back at headquarters. The developers claim that literally every piece of alien technology can be captured and as if to prove it managed to capture a Titan, a giant Death Star-like boss, after a long fight to bring its health down. I feel like there must be some extra caveat to capturing technology that the developers didn't highlight, because it seems to be fairly overpowered in its current form, usable as an easy win button against powerful individual enemies. Sure the enemy needs to be weakened first, but it seems that some technology can be captured with as much as half of its health remaining. Perhaps, like catching Pokemon, capturing can fail from time to time, something which wasn't shown in the E3 demonstration.
After the Titan boss fight, a swarm of enemies surrounded the squad. For the demonstration the developers unleashed the newly acquired Titan, which could be given commands and targets like any other squad member. Using technology in a mission restores it to full health under your control, but it only lasts for a limited time, and cannot be recaptured. With the alien swarm distracted by the Titan, we ran to a nearby building and finally encountered Dr. Weir... just as an alien grabbed him and carried him through a portal. We ran through the portal after him, and the demo ended just as we saw the twisting blue insides of what appeared to be an alien spacecraft.
XCOM may not be faithful to its namesake in terms of gameplay, but it's shaping up to be a quality game in its own right. Had it gone by any other name I'm sure there would be a lot more buzz around XCOM. The tactical first-person gameplay, capturing alien technology, and apparently deep, character-driven story are enough to earn XCOM a high spot on my anticipated games list for the year. Whether you're a longtime X-Com fan reading this preview to confirm your rage, or an innocent bystander curious what all the fuss is about, I urge you to give XCOM a chance. If taken on its own gameplay merits rather than the expectations from its title, you might just be pleasantly surprised.