Time units and procedural levels are out, fog of war and permadeath stay in. So what else in new (and old) in Firaxis' XCOM reimagining?
Where the upcoming XCOM shooter caught the cold shoulder from fans of the PC classic, news of a strategy-based "reimagining" had a much warmer welcome. But by the same token, the weight of expectation is bigger--and when fans' goodwill comes of your game better resembling a revered original, how far from it can you successfully stray?
XCOM: Unknown Enemy at least began life as a prototype "very close to the original", says associate producer Pete Murray, from which it was cautiously evolved towards the reimagining Civilization studio Firaxis had in mind. The upshot is a (so far) familiar-feeling adaptation split between the traditional base-building strategy and turn-based, tactical action.
No more time units
On the one hand, isometric views and the battlefield-obscuring fog of war return; on the other, time units as the currency of a soldier's action per turn have gone, replaced with simpler options to move and perform an ability, or move further away.
At XCOM headquarters, research and engineering are as important they ever were, but the base itself is a kind of high-tech paramilitary dollhouse (Firaxis calls it an "ant farm"): an ever-growing network of chambers and laboratories with the front walls cut away, in which you can see your returned soldiers running on treadmills or propping up the rec room bar.
It doubles as a menu, too, zooming you from the ant farm view into the science labs for research options, for instance, or the engineering bay for investing in new tech, the barracks for customising and training your personnel, and the mission control room with its luminous hologlobe for jumping back into combat missions.
As in the original XCOM, your funding council payday comes once every 30 days, and you can supplement your income with selling scavenged alien technology on the grey market--though selling alien weapon fragments to shady buyers means your scientists won't be able to reverse engineer them for advanced tech.
The diorama style of the XCOM base jibes nicely with the look of your soldiers on the ground. Over in the combat layer, your four squad members are all clean lines and easy-to-read silhouettes--an "action figure" aesthetic, Firaxis calls it--meant to help with identifying your squaddies' classes at a distance.
"Action figure" styling
In our first look at the turn-based combat, we're walked through one nighttime mission at a US gas station, with one of each of the four classes (heavy weapons, assult, sniper, and support) dispatched to hunt down a small pack of spindly grey sectoids. Here we saw soldiers intelligently snapping into nearby cover (parked cars and pillars) when moved, while the sniper, in an engineered "skeleton suit", was sent grappling up onto the forecourt roof for a better view. The camera, usually hoisted up for an isometric view of the battlefield, also dips in close to individual units to show off their moves.
Against the sectoids clustered behind cars at the far side of the forecourt, the XCOM squaddies deployed class-specific abilities selected from the action menu such as suppressive fire and frag grenade attacks, with which the cars used by the enemy for cover can be blown up. The original PC title's overwatch ability remains in place, too, letting a squad member fire during the enemy's move, should an alien critter move through his or her line of sight.
We're told all Enemy Unknown's levels are handmade, unlike the original game's procedurally-generated environments, but that of these there are plenty; in two playthroughs you "won't see the same location twice". He also says levels are commonly multi-level--that this early gas station level, with just the forecourt canopy and nearby building roof to climb up onto, is one of the flattest in the game.
After flanking and obliterating the sectoids, the XCOM team moved on to the nearby diner building, pushing back the fog of war to reveal a party of the bulkier aliens, mutons, and a hulking new heavy enemy unit, the berserker. Unluckily for the support-class soldier, environmental damage plays a big part in Firaxis' XCOM--after he creeps up to the outside wall, the berserker smashes through it, and bashes the support trooper to death in a single enemy turn.
The assault-class trooper, at least, had clambered up onto the roof, in which the aliens' had already blown a serious hole. Between her long-range run-and-gun attack, the strategically placed sniper on the gas station canopy, and a rocket from the heavy weapons squaddie's launcher, the mutons and their berserker met a swift end in one more turn.
There was nothing to be done for support soldier Asher 'Angel' Friedman, though, since permadeath is still in full effect. To that end, there's also a memorial hall back at base, where you can pay your respects to all the XCOM fighters who've laid down their lives to protect the Earth (or blundered into a berserker killzone).
XCOM vs. XCOM
Associate producer Pete Murray calls XCOM: Enemy Unknown a reworking of strictly the first XCOM game, so don't hold your breath for elements introduced the sequels. But what of publisher 2K's other XCOM game, the first-person shooter from 2K Marin? With two XCOM titles due so close together (the shooter is coming in 2013, this strategy number this autumn), you might expect some canny--or cynical--crossover between the two, but Murray says they two games are standalone takes on the world of XCOM. "They're in their universe, we're in our universe," he says. "We do talk with [2K Marin], but thematically, they're separate."