E3 2011: XCOM - The Outsiders

The last time we saw XCOM was E3 2010. Now, a year later, we get another look at how this sci-fi shooter is coming along.

In XCOM, the name of the game is fighting fire with fire. That's how it worked in the classic PC strategy games, and it seems that philosophy hasn't changed in this modern-day reimagining. After going dark for a year, developer 2K Marin was finally ready to give us a second taste of XCOM during this year's E3 convention. 2K Marin began its presentation by defining its interpretation of what makes an X-Com game. Its points were building and customizing your team, creating a game that blends multiple genres, and facing an unknown enemy.

In 2K Marin's words, it is taking the Batman Begins approach with XCOM and retelling the origins of this supernatural agency. Our hands-off demonstration began in the shoes of William Carter, the head of the newly formed XCOM agency in the year 1962. This was a time of great change for the United States, with the ideal vision of 1950's America giving way to the counterculture movement of the '60s. And to make matters worse, aliens are popping up to further traumatize the country.

The demo began with Carter sitting in his office reviewing some amateur footage of an extraterrestrial attack. On it, an unfortunate cameraman guided us through a quiet, everyday suburb. Everything seemed as normal as apple pie and the 4th of July until he rounded on a young woman with a devilish smile. A moment later, her face rippled and deep, black lines split from her nose and cut back toward her ears. The frantic shaking of the camera signaled that our man was now running scared, eventually spilling outside to find his quiet suburb under siege by an alien weapon. By the time the first car was vaporized, he had already dropped the camera and was fleeing on foot.

Back at the office, Carter took a moment to review some of his new XCOM agents. Every character shown had two slots for powers and two for perks, with each slot broken down into a few sections that we presume are for leveling up. Once Carter had made his selections, he checked in with Angela, XCOM's chief of intelligence to choose his next mission. From a map of the continental United States, he had the choice between advancing the story and choosing a randomized side mission. He went with the former and was briefed on a mission to find and secure Dr. Weir--a brilliant scientist and much-needed asset for the young organization.

After a short helicopter ride to his last-known location, we stopped to check in with a military outpost. At first, everything appeared to be in order, save for one thing: There were no people. The streets were empty. The local diner was empty. Even the military's tents were empty; that is until our character rounded a corner and spotted a body slumped against a chalkboard. A massive burn wound was still smoldering on his chest. In the next room was a lone soldier surrounded by more bodies. As he slowly turned his gaze on us, our teammates called out for identification. The soldier exploded in response. With a piercing wail, his body rippled and he reverted to his true form: a blue, slightly crystalline alien.

The alien was promptly gunned down; however, its death triggered an alarm that alerted its companions. It was obvious that this mission just got a whole lot more complicated. On the far side of the outpost, Carter and his team encountered a half-dozen aliens barricaded behind cover. Worst of all, they had a powerful shield that was blocking his gunfire. To counteract this, he called up the tactical command view that displayed each character's abilities while drastically slowing the action. From here, he used his disrupt ability, a bit of technological wizardry researched from alien technology, to stun the alien on the far left and attempt to flank the side of the barricade.

In response, the aliens threw up another wall. Annoyed by this turn of events, Carter ordered his squadmates to move to the other side of the barricade and use an ability to draw enemy fire. In response, the aliens dropped the shield facing Carter and redeployed it to counter his teammates. This was their undoing, and they were soon wiped out under a barrage of gunfire as our hero closed in for the kill.

Further along in the demonstration, our squad arrived at the inner courtyard of a local university. This was where Carter encountered the Titan, which was a massive enemy laser cannon in the form of a giant, ever-morphing ring. This siege weapon quickly incapacitated one of his squadmates, forcing Carter to use his shield ability to protect the two of them while he helped his partner. Using a high-powered energy weapon he had collected earlier, Carter managed to weaken the weapon to the point were it could be captured.

Capturing alien technology and bringing it back for reverse engineering is key to your agency's survival in XCOM. The aliens are winning the war, and turning their weapons against them is your only chance of evening the odds. Once the cannon was dismantled and sucked into a space containment sphere, our character could either chose to save it and bring it back for research or redeploy it in the field and gain a powerful ally (but lose the device afterward). The game ended up forcing his hand by dropping in another swarm of aliens that were quickly annihilated by the now-friendly cannon.

Inside the university, we spotted the good doctor just as a translucent blue snake creature snatched him up and carried him down a hallway. Our character gave chase, with the screaming racing ahead of him just out of reach. As he closed in, the creature dragged him off into a portal and beyond our sight. But that didn't stop Carter. He dove after it into a flash of white, blinding light. When his vision cleared, we saw that his hands rested on unfamiliar terrain--gray and pulsing with blue lines. Looking up into the smoky sky above, we saw more of these jagged, floating islands shifting and moving through the air. Then the lights came up, and the demo ended.

This cliffhanger left us hungry for more details. Overall, XCOM reminded us a lot of Fallout 3--both in terms of art style and its hybrid of role-playing and first-person shooting genres. We'll be sure to keep you abreast of any further developments leading up to the game's release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on March 6, 2012.

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