The upcoming XCOM shooter might have gotten the cold shoulder from fans of the PC classic, but this strategy-based "reimagining" has had a much warmer welcome. By the same token, though, the weight of expectation is greater--and when the goodwill of fans comes from 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 toward 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 are gone, replaced with simpler options to move and perform an ability or move further away.
The New-Look Base
At XCOM headquarters, research and engineering are as important as 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 also doubles as a menu, zooming you from the ant-farm view into the science labs for research options, the engineering bay for investing in new tech, the barracks for customizing and training your personnel, or 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 by selling scavenged alien technology on the gray 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. Firaxis calls it an "action figure" aesthetic, intended to help with identifying the classes of your squaddies at a distance.
"Action Figure" Styling
In our first look at the turn-based combat, we were walked through one nighttime mission at a US gas station, in which one of each of the four classes (heavy weapons, assault, sniper, and support) dispatched to hunt down a small pack of spindly gray 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 dipped 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 also remains in place, letting a squad member fire during the enemy's turn, should an alien critter move through his or her line of sight.
No More Procedural Levels
We're told all of 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 multilevel and 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 muton aliens and a hulking new heavy enemy unit, the berserker. Unluckily for the support-class soldier, environmental damage plays a big part in XCOM; after the support soldier crept up to the outside wall, the berserker smashed through it, bashing the XCOM 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. A player turn combining 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, meant 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, because XCOM's traditional 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 in 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 these two games are stand-alone 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."