It seems kind of odd that I walked out of yesterday’s hands-on session with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, held right here in Sydney, with almost more information on the game than I got from a hands-off game event in New York. I am in NO way begrudging that latter trip, though, but it does seem to show the massive difference in how cashed up some companies are compared to others.
And if flying two Australian journalists and a PR all the way to New York for an hour’s work seems extravagant, well... man, it’s totally extravagant! But having now gotten some time playing XCOM, I’d say that 2K can be pretty sure of making a good return on the investment.
Once again, the game preview was on PC - a welcome change - but, also once again, Xbox controllers were in use. Unlike our Far Cry 3 preview, though, this in no way diluted what is looking like an excellent re-imagining of XCOM. Sure, mouse and keyboard are going to be a lot easier, but as a proof of concept that the game can work on console, I’m now convinced. This game will be great on any platform.
And great it is. 2K gave us pretty much the entire first half hour of the game to play through, so we got a tutorial mission, some time in the totally cool cutaway base, and a couple of other missions which slowly eased out of tutorial mode and into actual, free-flowing gameplay.
So, the premise, in case you’ve been living under a rock all your life. Aliens inifiltrate/attack Earth and try to take our scientists/stuff/women/technology. You, as the Commander of the XCOM project, must manage the fightback, using a mix of tactical operations, research, construction, and team management, to the get the upper hand. You’ll also have to make some very tough decision as to who to save and what direction your strategy takes.
Impressively, these decisions start right away, and seem like they’ll have a pretty heavy impact on the game. After the tutorial - which pretty much wipes out a team in the name of teaching you how to move, breach doors and windows, and shoot up aliens - you get to choose the location of the main base - Europe or Continental USA. Given how important the different regions are, and the need to cover as many of them as possible, I can see this having a big impact later on in the game.
In the base, you meet some of your team - your suitably hot scientist, Dr Vahlen (which, for some reason, I keep reading as Dr Van Halen), your Engineer, as well as getting introduced to the various different functions of your control center. The dark humour of the original game is definitely present, and the action-figure style character design also keeps the mood light, but that same old mix of tension and impending doom still pervades the XCOM experience.
In the base, you can really lose yourself in the minutiae of researching alien tech, or building new gear for your team and then kitting them out with it. That team building, in fact, is going to be possibly the most rewarding part of the game.
Each of your soldiers has a class, and a unique set of skills that can advance through. Our one survivor from the first mission unlocked a missile launcher as his first upgrade, and most subsequent ones are either/or choices. Combine these abilities with different gear and weapon slots, for stuff like armour, or choosing between having some of your team take grenades, while others have medpacks, looks like it could eat whole days of gameplay.
The pace of alien invasion, however, prevents that.