Hmmm. Look, you already know my position on X-COM. As of E3, you even knew what my feelings were about the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown, at least in video form. But now that I’ve been able to get my hands on with Firaxis’ reinvention of the nearly twenty year-old series, and not just a multiplayer skirmish thing, but the actual campaign I’ve been waiting years for, I… just don’t know. I just don’t. Let me reveal Enemy Unknown’s secrets to you and hopefully not get hung up on a slight demo.
In this new demo, you’re actually granted a vertical slice of the game’s action, both in the field (Battlescape) and managing your base top-side. The first mission sends you off to Munich just after the XCOM – the covert international alien fighting force you lead – is established and still learning how real the alien threat is. The missions are tutorialized, which enlists the very real fear that I’m going to have to play these exact missions yet again when the full release drops. The first mission holds your hand move by move as it teaches you how the game works, which worked well to introduce such a complex system quick, but as a series vet, it felt patronizing.
Believe it or not, XCOM’s turn-based battle gameplay is about as in-depth as it was in the first game. You’d think the opposite would apply since the game is being moved to consoles (where they’re always dumbed down, amirite?!?!), but it turns out that removing huge rows of buttons from the first games doesn’t seem to have any affect on the game’s complexity. Instead of managing individual time units, each soldier is granted two moves. If you decide to move with them, you’ll see a teal and orange batch of places where you can use one or both of your maneuvers in one jolt. If you seek placement in the teal realm, you can use your second move for series classics like using medkits or Overwatch, so your soldier can squeeze off a shot during the aliens’ turn. When you actually reach a point where you need to start firing guns or executing more specific maneuvers, the Spacebar (or whatever button on the controller) will put you in combat mode, where you can then select your gun and then select the alien or toss a grenade or whatever.
I had no qualms with the tactical game of moving soldiers and shooting aliens; Firaxis has this nailed. I don’t even really have an issue with the fact that your team will range between 4-6 soldiers tops as in latter year X-COM play, I found that I kept most of my troops in the Skyranger transport anyway. I do have an issue, and this won’t be the first time I mention it, with the game’s hand-holding. Firaxis is saying that the biggest lesson they’ve learned from modernizing X-COM and simultaneously making a game that hopefully lots of people buy, is that you have to restrict things. You can’t have a small army of troops wandering around a massive, empty level seeking out the last survivors of the UFO you shot down. Even free of the tutorial’s helping hand, the levels are all pre-built which means that even if you don’t see them all in a full playthrough, these are curated experiences. Both levels presented (and even the one from the E3 demo) are linear carnage tubes. Your soldiers hop from cover to cover and if you don’t make stupid mistakes, you’ll win. There’s little of that annoying, open-ended freedom, which means there’s also a greatly reduced scope of strategy as you’re making fewer decisions than ever before.
On top of that, the game will use the turn breaks to rain exposition on you. Obviously moreso with the tutorial missions, but being pulled through this rather rigid narrative is off-putting. X-COM was glorious because you lead the organization, it was your story because you made the decisions. Instead, you’re presented walled-off gardens of a story created for you, one that isn’t going to be nearly as intriguing or fulfilling as when I was ten years old dreaming of what my X-COM was like, the one I’d crafted with my own hands.
I still hate the look. Both missions presented dark, murky levels where it’s not always crystal clear what’s going on. That was an advantage of the previous games’ “Saturday morning cartoon” look is that you always knew what was going on, everything was discrete, and you knew where you stood and where the aliens were. The art direction washes too much of the environment out. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but I’m honestly not looking forward to scores of night missions hustling against cars, barrels, and stacks of pallets. Destructible environments were in, but not terribly testable because of the squads’ weaponry. My hopes are high!
When you do get back to your base, your decisions aren’t terribly liberating. Despite the fact that the ‘ant farm’ takes up most of the real estate, you can’t actually select your personnel or research by clicking on the rooms themselves – if you can remember what they are, they do look pretty similar – you have to click on the appropriate tab up top. (Strangely, the Mission Control tab that launches you into action is located on the other end of the screen from the rest of the facilities.) You’ll make basic research choices and you’ll manage your handful of soldiers, but you’re not going to be building bases or managing your finances or aircraft like you did before. The Geoscope is no longer much of a game by itself like it was back in the day, but rather a backdrop to facilitate your battles, which goes back to my ‘Firaxis telling the XCOM story with a palette of Grays and Grunt Grunt Marines’ point, which may totally ruin the game for me.
You can pick up the demo for PC on Steam at this very moment and the game will be out for us on October 9th. I’ll be there with final thoughts, but I wish 2K would’ve given us a little more time.