PC gamers: XCOM is a very different prospect to X-COM, the revered strategy game. You'll probably dig it anyway.
Console gamers: XCOM is a re-imagining of X-COM, the revered PC strategy game. You'll probably dig it anyway.
There aren't many licences which would be quite as unwise to resurrect for the Xbox 360 crowd as 1994's UFO: Enemy Unknown, aka X-COM: UFO Defence. Many wise heads (myself included) regularly hail it as one of the finest electric videogames ever committed to pixel-paper. Even after 16 years of fan projects and unofficial sequels and really, truly awful official spin-offs, nothing has managed to recapture its remarkable blend of intensity, strategy, scares and b-movie silliness.
This has made X-COM into a precious thing. The reaction of PC old hands to April's revelation that 2K was bringing X-COM back and turning it into a first-person shooter was predictably and unhelpfully vicious, but it came from very genuine heartbreak. They had waited so very long for this, for the return of the king, but now it seemed like a betrayal.
They've not been betrayed though, at least not based on what I've seen of XCOM so far - although clearly promises and hints do not a finished product make, which is especially true when said promises and hints come from the folk behind the BioShock series. (Great games, but with eyes far bigger than their stomachs.) Even so, I am excited and I am convinced by what I've seen so far, despite being as die-hard and bitter an X-COM fan as the next 30-something myopic PC gonk.
Neither have people who didn't grow up squinting at tiny Crouch icons and worrying that they were short on plasma rifle clips been left in the cold. XCOM has abandoned its original genre, slipping instead and inevitably into first-person shooter trousers. It hasn't, however, abandoned its original ethos. This isn't a game about running down corridors, shooting aliens in the closest approximation they have to a face and then watching a climactic cut-scene. This is a game about making a plan, then trying your damnedest to stick to it even when the world whole goes to hell.
X-COM, the original, was a game about fending off a wide-scale alien invasion of Earth in two very different but interlocked ways. On the high level, you built bases, researched new technology and trained a high-tech army. On the low level, you dispatched a squad of armed operatives to the scene of an alien sighting and then oversaw the resulting shooty-bang-bang directly. Again, it's about coming up with a plan - and then seeing if that plan works, often in brutally unforgiving circumstances.
In XCOM (by the way, could you pay attention to the hyphenage? I'm getting bored of writing "the original" every time), you already have the base. The timeline moves from the near future to the 1950s, and specifically America. As FBI Agent Carter, you're heading up the new XCOM unit, a specialist and beyond-secret initiative to investigate and counteract suspected alien activity on Earth.
To do this, you need to come up with a plan in your subterranean base: research new technology, build new weapons, and monitor the airwaves and phone lines of America for signs of Otherness. If something dodgy is found, it appears on the map in your office. It's up to you to go investigate - or not. Much of the game will not be linear, instead allowing you to pick and choose missions based on how important you think they are. For instance, one report might tell of suspect animal attacks. Snap to, Agent. Time for a bit of role-playing.
You've been looking into this insidious business for long enough to know that mysterious animal attacks are telltale sign of something very particular, and something very frightening - Blobs. Decision time, Agent. You've fought these things before, so there won't necessarily be much new information to gather. On the other hand, having fought them before you're now well-equipped to take them down. Unlike last time. We don't talk about last time.
It's worth it. Thanks to the boys in the lab, you're now in possession of a nasty little surprise for these murderous goo-balls. It'll be a fair fight, and you'll have a decent chance of snagging some Elerium, the mysterious and infinitely precious off-world element that these alien dum-dums tend to drag around with them. Game on, Carter. Take two of your best agents, fire up the mighty fed wagon you call the Enforcer, and get over to suburbia sharpish.
Outside, you're in an America that's both real and fake. It's what America wanted to be in the 1950s, not what it really was. XCOM exists in a nearly-alternative universe, even before the aliens turn up; its suburbia is pastel-coloured houses, perfect lawns, every family beautiful and happy and wealthy.
And dead. That's why it's so quiet. You're too late to save any of these shiny-shoed city shmucks, or their pretty housewives. Best not to think of the children. Half this place's people are gone, to God only knows where, and half of them are smoking corpses, covered in a strange black goo.
It's Blobs, alright. You know that even before one bursts out of a hedgerow and clamps itself to the face of one of the two agents you brought with you. It's a shapeless mass, some unholy hybrid of orb and flailing tentacle, and bullets absolutely do not stop it. You found that out last time. This time... this time they're going to pay.
Go flame grenade! Thanks to the evidence you collected on prior missions, your scientists have been able to research the Blobs and then come up with a counter-measure. With the blueprints passed to your engineers, you can now order up as many flame grenades as you need - and they scorch a Blob into so much flat tar in seconds. Use 'em sparingly, mind. You can only take so many with you on each mission, and they cost a ton to manufacture. Money doesn't grow on trees; money grows from government funding, and that's something you need to earn.
Right now, though, your only concern is survival. Moving from an open lawn to a picture-perfect family home, you find yourself trapped and surrounded by spasming black tar-beasts. Letting off another flame grenade here results in carnage - burning walls, burning furniture, and burning agents.
Bruised, battered and covered in ichor, one of your men finally succumbs to this wounds. Just two of you now. (Out of character interlude - the nature of your control over your backup guys remains mysterious. Clearly it's a big deal for X-COM fans, accustomed as they are to controlling squads of a dozen-plus soldiers. 2K Marin/Australia have confirmed there will be reasons to care about the other Agents, so hopefully they won't be the mute drones of this demo, but for now it's guessing-game only.)
Keep moving, keeping fighting - all the while keeping an eye on your worryingly diminished reserves of ammunition. Once it's gone, it's gone, and you'll have no choice but to run. Don't go thinking you'll find a box of ammo lying helpfully in the street. This is the real world, sunshine.
Outside again and, at last, Elerium. The metallic substance looks geometrically impossible, and it's also covered by a revolving wall of Blobs. One more fight, then you can get out of here.
If only it was so simple. Once you grab that Elerium, the very sky changes. The whole world turns darker. Some thing drops slowly through the clouds, looking at once like a building, a craft and a creature. This hulking obelisk begins to transform, turning into a ring of diamond-shaped mega-beads.
You're not quite sure what happens next. Was that a death ray, or some kind of monstrous vacuum cleaner effect? In either case, it's enough to rip up the tarmac road and disintegrate your remaining backup agent. The thing turns to you. Pistol bullets, shotgun shells, flame grenades: they do nothing. You run.
You always run. That's how XCOM works - nothing so simple as fighting until the end, until every alien is dead. You fight for as long as you stay can stay alive, for as long as you have enough health and ammo to keep going. The longer you stay on a mission, though, the more the threat escalates. Blobs become Titans, Titans might become... Lord only knows. The most recent trailer hints at strange, cubist creatures disguised as housewives too, and perhaps there will be inspiration drawn from X-COM's later foes - mind-control weapons and creatures which can lay quick-hatching eggs inside live men.
XCOM isn't a strategy game, but it is a game about strategy. It's about preparing for a fight, dealing with a fight and then knowing when to cut your losses. Next time you'll have a weapon to take care of that strange obelisk, thanks to the evidence you've gathered and given to your researchers. Next time, you'll read the clues and tweak your load-out to reflect the threat you suspect you're up against. You'll still have to run eventually, though. You always run.
XCOM is due out for PC and Xbox 360.