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Preview: XCOM


Many longtime gamers, including me, were disappointed by the news that the new XCOM is a first-person shooter. Having witnessed a hands-off demo of the game at E3, I can tell you two things. One, it's definitely a first-person shooter. Guns, grenades, sprinting; you know the drill. Two, the game actually has much more in common with the original X-COM games than you may think.

Gallery: XCOM (E3 2010) | 5 Photos

The opening portion of my demonstration was given over entirely to assuaging fears that XCOM has abandoned its more strategic roots. Players assume the role of William Carter, a man whose discovery of an alien artifact led to the creation of XCOM, an organization tasked with defending us all from extraterrestrial threats. The demo, which was played entirely in first person, began in an airplane hangar. The hangar itself is only a facade however: Deep below is an underground facility that serves as the player's headquarters.

Almost everything that happens in the HQ should be familiar to X-COM vets. You research alien technology, try out repurposed alien weapons, monitor the US for alien activity and accept missions. Navigation of the XCOM HQ is done entirely in real time and in first-person. The game takes place in the 1950s, and the HQ is replete with old typewriters, computers, green-shaded desk lamps and checkerboard floors. The characters themselves have a stylized, angular look that evokes the feeling of old pulp comic books.

Players can visit the research lab -- filled with scurrying scientists and alien technology -- or try out new equipment obtained through research in the weapons lab. Missions are selected from a large map in the center of the facility. Rather than popping up a menu when a mission is selected, you are simply handed a dossier in first-person, similar to the map function in Far Cry 2. Mission selection is a strategic choice -- similar to X-COM games of yore -- tasking players with furthering their tech research, earning more Elerium (a useful alien substance), or rescuing civilians from an alien emergency. My demonstrator chose an emergency mission.

Armed with a trusty shotgun, an alien lightning gun and what I'll call goo grenades -- essentially alien napalm -- agent Carter piled into a car with two more agents and headed off to the mission. The mission itself took place in a typical, idyllic 1950s neighborhood -- picket fences and all -- thought it was immediately apparent that something was wrong. Porches and sidewalks were empty, cars were stopped in the middle of the street and it was quiet, too quiet. The pervasive eeriness -- laced with just a bit of terror -- should be all too familiar to X-COM fans.

From here, Carter and the two AI-controlled agents proceeded up the street, occasionally spotting (and shooting) amorphous, crawling blobs of black goo. Carter took a quick detour to investigate a scream and follow a trail of goo, which lead to a very sticky civilian collapsed in his own back yard. Carter pulled out a camera and snapped a picture for the XCOM research lab. I was told that many secondary objectives like this are littered throughout the missions.

Eventually, the sound of more screams led the team inside a house, where a few civilians were still alive and being mauled by the goo. It didn't take long before the situation got out of hand -- our demonstrator even shot one of the agents accidentally, killing him instantly -- so it was time to pull out the goo grenades, affectionately referred to as 'blobatovs.' The flames handily destroyed the goo, but the house wasn't clear yet: A woman was still screaming upstairs.

Venturing up the stairs, Carter entered a bedroom just in time to see a blob latch onto the woman's face. A carefully placed shotgun blast and she was saved. With the house cleared, it was time to leave, but the mission still wasn't over. An oppressive red light filled the air outside and a vortex opened in the sky, revealing a huge alien disintegration ray. It was clear Carter was outmatched -- even the lightning gun had no effect on it -- so it was time to run. Carter managed to make back to the car safely, though the same can't be said for his poor, disintegrated partner.

Agent Phil never stood a chance

While there are still some unanswered questions -- 2K Marin wouldn't say whether or not you can issue squad commands, for one -- I walked away from the demonstration fairly impressed. At the very least, 2K Marin has nailed the feeling of the old X-COM games, especially the feeling of otherworldly fear during missions. If the research progression manages to be as addicting as it was in the originals, XCOM just might surprise some die-hard fans. It certainly surprised me.

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