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XCOM Preview: Mass affect

2K Marin creative director Jordan Thomas wasted little time in addressing XCOM's year-long absence after E3 2010. "We're here to pull back the curtain on what we've been up to for a year," Jordan told us during a demo last week. "We've kind of been flying under the radar for a long time, and I wanted to start by talking about why that was."

The studio was comprised of plenty of talent from Irrational who had worked on BioShock (including Thomas) and then developed BioShock 2 at 2K Marin. In other words, BioShock was their comfort zone, Thomas said. "Our first crack at XCOM kind of had a run-and-gun feel. It was very BioShock. It was contiguous first-person, it had a creepier, splicer-like alien enemy, and so on," Thomas said. Over the last year, they've tried to get away from that, making "several key alterations" to the XCOM reimagining we first saw last year.

XCOM was a strategy game, the new XCOM is a first-person shooter, and that incongruity seems to be responsible for much of 2K Marin's second draft. "The main reason for that is that we are strong fans of the original XCOM series," Thomas said. "Basically, XCOM was about being the best of humanity repelling an alien invasion through cleverness and dynamism. Through taking the enemy technology and subverting it, to remove their strategic edge." Lucky for you, the "best of humanity" are on your team.

Gallery: XCOM (E3 2011) | 9 Photos

You play as special agent William Carter, working for the secretive XCOM unit, tasked with building a team "of the absolute finest minds in asymetrical warfare to take on this threat, which has the technical advantage and the numerical advantage." XCOM assembles case files from emergency calls all over the country; those case files become your missions, which you'll select, RPG-style, from the Operations Floor where XCOM division chief Angella fills you in. So far, this all sounds like what we saw last year. It wasn't until we headed out for a mission that we began to see what's been changed.

Before you head out, you'll need to pick a team of field agents. Like you, your agents will gain field experience the more they're used and that experience can be invested into their abilities. In our demo, one agent is given the "defensive shield" ability, which is an energy bubble that offers cover for whoever's inside it. "Just like an adventuring party in an RPG, or in some cases more of a tactical game like Final Fantasy Tactics, you've got this broad stable of agents to groom and shape," Thomas explained.

With a team in place, we begin our first mission, to find Dr. Allen Weir who's been busy "analyzing the alien technology and subverting it to help humanity fight back." This is a "main spinal mission" but there are still various outcomes. Thomas said if you "can bring Dr. Weir home alive, then XCOM as an organization is going to be a lot smarter and a lot faster at taking that tech." And taking that alien technology and repurposing it is at the heart of the most important changes to XCOM.

Our team flies over 1962 Rosemont, Georgia – an idyllic small town, dotted with farms – in a Skyranger, a "state-of-the-art deployment vessel" we're told. The 1962 setting is a new addition to the series; the original strategy classic took place in 1998. The "politically contested time" of the sixties provides a rich backdrop for the story. In addition to alien invasion, we have civil rights, the Cuban missile crisis, and fears of communism. Thomas alludes that Weir has been persecuted himself, whether for his politics or his sexuality, it isn't clear.

Approaching an apparently unmanned military checkpoint in downtown Rosemont reveals that something is wrong. Inside, dead soldiers remove any doubt. In the next room, a soldier is found rifling through paperwork; he's told to present some ID and, instead of doing that, he transforms into an alien. This, naturally, is a bad sign. "That's the face of the alien enemy," Thomas explained. "The face of our own people. They're collectively known as the Outsiders." The Outsiders are made of a "kind of living technology" that allows them to take on the appearance of humans (why hello, Cold War paranoia!).

After taking down the alien interloper, we discover that the Outsiders were looking for Weir as well. With our presence now known, the rest of the level is combat but, as promised, a run-and-gun approach won't work. Introducing: Tactical Mode. "This is our real-time take on the turn-based play that was so critical to the original XCOM," Thomas said. "Everything has a cost there in time units." Players can enter Tactical Mode, which pulls the camera away from Carter, and brings up an action wheel, which provides "more granular" commands for Carter's team, and even helps identify tactical opportunities on the battlefield.

In this first combat scenario, we're presented with a large group of Outsiders. Behind cover, it's difficult to make a dent past the enemy's shield. Instead, we take out a smaller group on the left with "Disrupt," an ability which will cause a feedback loop in the Outsider's body, causing him to drop his guard. Now, we can flank the main group from the left, taking cover on a farmhouse porch. The shield accounts for our new position, since it considers the officer (that's us!) the primary threat. One strategy would include using an ability to turn one of your fellow agents, still holding down the original line, into an officer. The enemy, in turn, focuses its attention there leaving it vulnerable to your attack. With the shield generator destroyed, it's a simple matter of killing the remaining enemies.

Coming from the self-professed "big RPG nerds" at 2K Marin, the comparison is perhaps obvious: Mass Effect 2. Just like BioWare's space opera married shooter mechanics with an RPG party system and some tactical party control, 2K Marin sees XCOM's Tactical Mode as a key "differentiating feature" of the game. In other words, this isn't a BioShock clone and here's why.

Outside of combat, another use of Tactical Mode is in capturing alien technology. The next encounter includes a turret which is making progress difficult. While Thomas said we could use grenades to remove the threat, there's "a smarter way." Here, we use defensive shield plus distraction on the team to command the attention of that turret, while we sneak up behind it. But instead of destroying it, one of the agents "folds it up" and we take the turret with us. We can either take it back to XCOM base for "long-term rewards" using the Research system or we can use it in combat.

We proceed into the university looking for Weir and quickly find an opportunity to deploy that turret. After being reconstituted, it has a limited lifespan so we leave it behind to cover our backs. Outside in the courtyard, we encounter a massive floating alien ship called a Titan. "It's like a massive alien B52," Thomas told us. The Titan is terraforming the world and attempts to "bottle it" aren't successful; it costs too many time units since the Titan is at full health. In order to lower that health, we use disrupt and lay down some fire. An agent is downed so, instead of leaving him and suffering the challenge of finishing the battle without the support, we revive him during combat and finally bottle the Titan.

"In XCOM, every enemy is an opportunity," Thomas said, obviously having used that line before. The Titan is a valuable snag, to be sure, but just seconds later it's put to great use as an aerial weapon; we can even guide its airstrikes. The demo ends when Carter is sucked into a portal while chasing after Weir, only to find himself floating in an alien ship far above the surface.

With a release date that's still nearly a year off, we'll have a lot more time to get a better feel for XCOM's combat ... and get our actual hands on the controller ourselves. For now, the goal was simple: Show the gaming press that XCOM isn't just a BioShock clone. And sure enough, it's not. Instead, it's a pastiche of influences, from BioShock to Mass Effect to the original XCOM, all rendered in a Mad Men-infused veneer of 1960s America. 2K Marin, you've got our attention.

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