For fifteen years, those who grew up with righteously revered 1993 PC strategy-management-roleplaying-everything game UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-Com) have been a faithful dog waiting by the door for their beloved master to come home. Every few years, that door has opened and the dog has jumped up excitedly. Is it him, is it him? No, it's an appalling first-person shooter. Smack! Bad dog!
Is it him, is it him? No, it's a series of scrappy Eastern European games that recreate some of the strategy mechanics but fail to capture the heart and soul of X-Com. Smack! Bad dog!
Is it him, it him? No, it's a lavish reboot as another first-person shooter that looks mightily ambitious but is only tangentially similar to the proud game whose name it bears. Bad dog! Your master's dead. You must love this other man instead.
And then, all of a sudden, XCOM Enemy Unknown strides manfully through the door. Firaxis' turn-based strategy game has asked 2K Marin's much-delayed shooter XCOM to leave for the time being, and it's here to take up residence instead. It smells sort of right, it appears to know what the dog wants, but it's got a tidy new haircut and speaks a little differently. Should the dog trust it with its love or not?
I am one of those dogs, and I make no bones about it. Sitting in an auditorium, waiting for the demo to start, seeing the new, hyphen-less logo scattered here and there, listening to a pulsing, never quite reaching crescendo soundtrack that could have been borrowed from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I was conflicted mess of excitement and anxiety. What if, what if?
Jazz music. A pan down to city streets, to a stationary car with its headlights blinking. The driver-side door is open. An arm is dangling from it. Traffic lights flicker nearby. Something scuttles into the pool of light.
The archetypal little grey man, but there's no way this loping, bug-eyed, snarling thing comes in peace. It's the classic X-Com monster, and even if it now looks a little more bestial, it's present and correct in this new XCOM.
In a cut-scene that evokes the beats of the original X-Com intro, we zoom to a CCTV camera, then to the XCOM base where agents watch the Sectoid on monitors, then to the hangar where an Interceptor attack ship fires up as melodramatic classical music sets the urgent tone. This enemy won't be unknown for long.
Time for a ground mission. A free camera immediately stands XCOM apart from X-Com's locked isometric perspective. The purist in me mutters bitterly, but given the attention to visual detail here, the little animations such as the way Sectoids pop in and out of cover to take wary shots and minor destructions such as car windows shattering when fired at, some scope to examine the scene is probably wise.
Purists are more likely to be irked by the occasional quick cut-scenes that play when new alien types wade into the fray, and the switch to an over-the-shoulder cam when you move one of your soldiers into cover, not to mention the jarringly cheesy unit barks such as "eat this!" and "set 'em up, knock 'em down". But, I remind myself, most of the other people in this room with me aren't here because they played a turn-based PC game in 1993; they're here because to write about an exciting new console sci-fi title, and I am quite sure it needs be presented as explosively as possible to batter its way past the console-strategy preconceptions. I have hope that many of the - oh, let's use marketing-speak for a second a - 'visceral' elements can be turned off by those who want to focus on the tactics rather than the gloss.
Camera changes aside, the scene is a broadly familiar one, both in terms of X-Com and in terms of being a 21st century human being - a small town, comprising a petrol station, a diner, a few houses, warehouses, parking lots. You know: Anywheresville. But the residents are dead or hiding, and alien invaders lurk in dark corners.
Your team of soldiers disembark from their landing craft, and visibly belong to different classes. Support soldier, heavy weapons, assault, sniper: again, this departs from X-Com, which saw soldiers organically specialise over time. The point, it appears, is that more clearly defined roles entail more forward planning about how you can tackle both the level as a whole and each conflict within it. Each soldier in each turn gets to move and take an action. That action might be taking a shot, it might be going into Overwatch so he or she will auto-shoot if an alien strays into their line of sight, it might be hunkering down to defend themselves, or it might be one of the various special abilities which are defined by class and gear.
A Sniper, clad in a Skeleton Suit, chooses one of said abilities - firing a grappling hook to mantle onto the roof of the petrol station in order to have a clear line of sight. Sectoids are weak alone, but can use psychic powers to become a severe threat en masse, so a quick headshot reduces their number by one. More importantly, it gets rid of an alien on Overwatch, which would have meant semi-certain semi-doom for any soldiers that strayed into its path. It's a special ability rather than the purist guns, grenades and crouching of the original X-Com, but it is a highly tactical special ability, one which rewards smart use of terrain rather than being a gimmicky super-power.
And tactical thinking is definitely required. With a safe line of sight thanks to the sniper, a rocket launcher guy lets off at a round at the front of a service station. One of X-Com's most prized features proves itself all present and correct as pretty much the entire wall explodes and crumbles, opening up the buildings' gently burning innards to your squad. Destructible environments aren't just cool power fantasies: they're a way to get at hidden enemies in a rather safer way than wandering down a cramped corridor or politely opening a door.
Unfortunately, inside the building lurk a few Mutons, a race of alien super-soldiers have ditched the lime green jumpsuit they wore back in 1993 (didn't we all?) for a rather more 21st century suit of power armour. They're a more direct and solid threat than the skittering Sectoids, but on top of that they've turned up to this suburban hell-party with a brand new alien in tow - a hulking Beserker, who's basically a wall of meat with a metal mask and massive claws. Any soldier that gets too close to him gets essentially beaten to death, accompanied by some of the more gruesome sound effects I've heard in a while. That soldier, or more accurately that slumped pile of blood and snapped bones, is now dead. Permanently dead. You'll need a new recruit. And a way to take down Beserkers safely. How? Well, guns, obviously. But better guns.
How to get better guns? Research them. Build them. Equip them. For that you need a base, and that means a glimpse at what looks to be XCOM's most visually impressive feature. Firaxis refer to it as 'the ant farm', which is a perfectly logical way to describe the side-on cross-section view of XCOM HQ - a hive of rooms both militaristic and recreational, filled with soldiers, researchers and engineers going about their business. In the original game, bases were a top-down, entirely static collection of squares, but the new look is supposed to look alive, a functioning habitat as well as a strategic hub.
It's a place to watch your troops kick back and play pool or drink beer, or see how the injured ones are recovering. Most usefully, it's also a place to chat with your scientists and engineers about what they've managed to do with the alien tech you've hauled back from missions. New guns, new guns for your attack and interception craft, new attack and interception craft and all manner of toys await. Whether research eventually results in a suicide mission to Mars to nobble the alien threat once and for all remains a mystery for now, though I am quite sure there'll be uproar if X-Com's classic climax is axed from this 21st century swing at the old dear.
With time units gone, bases restricted to one, special abilities introduced and console versions planned, it is, of course, all but an impossibility that XCOM will escape uproar as a result of having the temerity to change things. But, speaking as that worried old dog who's been let down time and again, from what I've seen I am firmly reassured that the core spirit of X-Com does indeed seem to live inside this remake, even if I might quibble about some of the details. A new X-Com, a new Wasteland, a new adventure from Schafer and Gilbert: what an impossible year 2012 is turning out to be.