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Co-opinion: XCOM: Enemy Unknown


Jess Conditt: First, I have to paint a picture for everyone: Mike Schramm, tall dude extraordinare, so giddy with anticipation that he resembled a puppy in a canine candy store -- that's how he entered the XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview room. I, on the other hand, had no previous experience with the franchise, yet by the end, my tail was wagging a bit as well.
Mike Schramm: To be fair, I can look puppy-like at almost any time: Big ears, wet nose. But yes, I was excited to see XCOM, and as you may have already heard in all the hype from the show, the core turn-based gameplay did not disappoint. Turn-based strategy RPG scratches a core (flea-based?) itch in my soul, and between this game, Skulls of the Shogun, and iOS games like Outwitters and Hero Academy, this genre's on the cusp of a renaissance. XCOM's turns move easily and quickly, and the game's interface is great at getting out of the way and letting you make strong choices.

Gallery: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (E3 2012) | 8 Photos

The interface itself was extremely intriguing in a few ways. We played the Xbox version, which uses a perimeter system as opposed to a grid, which I hear is what the original used. The characters had launch paths and could dash longer distances using both turns, and the snap-to was just subtle enough to make each move feel unforced.

The PC version, however, will use a grid system, we found out from lead designer Jake Solomon. I'm interested to see the differences between PC and console editions, since it sounds like Firaxis is putting heavy emphasis on optimizing both versions for their specific platforms.
Playing the original X-COM had your imagination working hard to keep up with the game; because the graphics were so lo-fi, you had to put yourself inside the soldiers you commanded, and really think what they might have been seeing and feeling as they navigated that empty barn. With this new version, however, the camera actually moves down to the soldier's point of view whenever you reach a story point or a target, and shows a quick cinematic when there's new information, or lets you choose from a few abilities if you're ready to open fire.

For me, it was awesome to see the visions I had playing X-COM all those years ago come to console-rendered life. Jess, what did you think of those? Did they seem generic or slow? I could see how some of them (soldier comes across a body, or sees an alien sneak between boxes in a warehouse) might be formulaic if you didn't know what XCOM was like.
Completely. I questioned a few times whether the camera was only zooming in on the booties of the lady squad members, until I realized it followed significant plot points. In that sense the camera zooms felt a bit formulaic: I noticed them as a quasi-jarring feature and they detracted a bit from the game's immersion, but they were generally brief. Once I got used to them, however, I began to anticipate them and even came to -- dare I say it? -- love them.
I thought the interface in combat worked great. Out of combat, it's all about the mood. Firaxis has given you something called "the anthill" for your command center, portrayed from a Wes Anderson-style sideview, with little scientists and soldiers all running around doing your bidding.

You can set orders and start missions from a central hub, and then from there you can grow out your operations into research (powered by resources earned during missions), and even a bar in the basement, complete with memorials to fallen team members. It's all targeted to make you believe the game's central premise: That you're in charge, your decisions have meaning, and the way you as commander (you, on the couch there, not an avatar) run XCOM can make or break the entire world.

I get the sense that XCOM may be my undoing on an emotional level. For a game with the general premise of "kill aliens," it seems the personal connection with each of the squad members can get intense, and I already don't look forward to losing any one of my little soldiers. But that's going to happen. A lot, apparently. Luckily, XCOM has an Iron Man mode that prevents players from reverting to a save version -- otherwise I expect it'd take me years to finish this game.
Yeah that's the biggest issue with this series, or any tactical RPG with dynamically generated soldiers: You use them, you put a lot of upgrade points into them, they become your favorite people ... and then one misplaced grenade goes off and kills them. Solomon told us that he felt that pain, but Firaxis isn't playing it safe. He says your team members will die, so the company's goal is to make each character as interesting as possible.

For every burly rocket launcher dude with a heart of gold that goes down, there will be a female sniper with a mysterious past ready to join the team right away. "We give you the props," said Solomon, and it's up to your imagination to jump in and give stories and context to these characters fighting aliens for you.
We've seen plenty of games attempt to re-ignite a classic franchise, and most of them end up playing like gross parodies, or nothing like the original in any way. From the reaction of the XCOM fans on staff, I think it's safe to say Firaxis has found the sweet spot between paying homage to classic X-COM and creating a new, engaging game for players like myself, who don't have an existing emotional attachment. Agree?
We'll see. If you're not into turn-based strategy, it can be frustrating. There's a lot of planning and care involved, and anyone rushing in will have trouble early on. But Firaxis has definitely worked to make a strong, interesting package here that takes the PC original and smooths it out for modern consoles. Civ Revolution simplified Civ a little too much, I thought, but in XCOM (perhaps because it's not quite as complex), Firaxis is adapting the first game without having to put the training wheels on. The short time I had with it at E3 sent it to the top of my list for the show, and it's now one of my most anticipated games of the year.
As I mentioned on our E3 podcast segment, my unexpected excitement for XCOM has filled the gap left behind by the delay of BioShock Infinite (only because nothing will replace my crushing despair over DmC's delay). I'm definitely eager to play the full game now that I've had a taste. A taste of delicious, delicious aliens.

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