Back in the early 1990s, the now-defunct studio Microprose captured the imagination of nerds everywhere with a tactical PC strategy game called X-Com: UFO Defense. The game put you in control of a squad of human freedom fighters opposing an alien invasion by fighting harrowing tactical battles on randomly generated maps against unknown numbers and varieties of aliens. Then it had you take the spoils of war (namely, alien technology) and use them to research powerful experimental weapons to bring into combat. Years later, 2K Marin, the studio responsible for BioShock 2, is now working on XCOM, a first-person shooter that will attempt to include elements of that original game but will also focus on fast-paced shooting action and character-driven stories.
The new game takes place during an idealized version of the American 1950s--a time of innocence, white picket fences, and burgeoning conspiracy theories. Your character is special agent William Carter, the head of XCOM, a secret government agency specifically put together to combat what appears to be an alien invasion by researching every reported alien sighting, rescuing civilians whenever possible, and collecting intel on the aliens that can be converted to research. That research can then be used to gain access to those wonderful, wonderful experimental weapons.
Our hands-off demonstration started with a car ride into an ordinary-looking airplane hangar, where day workers lugged cargo boxes around boxy 1950s-era cars and up a central ramp. After getting out of our own car, we walked up that same ramp to find that it led to the secret headquarters of XCOM itself, an office with dozens of operators manning phone stations listening in on any and all reported alien incidents. On entering, we were accosted by Angela, our female assistant, who handed us the briefing for the most recent mission reported to HQ--a rescue mission to save a hysterical woman in the California suburbs who put in a terrified call about being attacked by "…things!"
However, this wasn't the only mission available to us at this time--while Angela was standing off to the side of the briefing room giving us the details, our character was actually staring full on at the giant, wall-mounted map of the USA, which pointed out two other potential missions with different purposes. In addition to rescue missions, Walker can take on anomaly missions, which may yield a few rare chunks of elerium, the energy-rich alien mineral used to power experimental weapons, or unknown missions, which may offer dangerous new alien life forms to battle (and also to research). We're told by 2K Marin staffers that these missions will not only offer different rewards; in some cases, they will be exclusive to each other--taking one mission now may mean that the others will no longer be available when you finish. The staffers also hinted that your choice of missions may have effects on the game later on.
We decided to take the rescue mission, which Angela reluctantly endorsed, after which, she reminded us to pay a visit to Mal, the compound's top scientist and researcher. We stopped by Mal's workbench to find that he had been hard at work creating a new kind of incendiary grenade specifically intended to target a class of aliens known as the blob. We stocked up on these handy toys and also made a run past XCOM HQ's gun rack, picking out a standard-issue shotgun and a not-so-standard-issue experimental lightning gun--a weapon that almost looked like it had classic TV set rabbit ears for a gun barrel. On our way out, we met with our away team, two smartly dressed G-men who would accompany us on the mission as computer-controlled squadmates.
We then skipped ahead to the mission proper, which took place in a quiet, sunny suburb full of nice houses, nice cars, and exactly zero people. While our buddies wondered allowed why it was so quiet, we started noticing subtle but telltale signs that the alien blob just might have been through the area, such as traces of black slime along the ground, a gigantic black smear underneath a child's baseball cap and baseball mitt, a dead dog covered in black slime, and a crashed car with a dead man in the driver's seat covered in black slime. Finally, there was a dying man crawling out of his home covered from head to toe in black slime and vomiting out even more of the stuff before collapsing in a heap and dying. While this last fatality was tragic, it gave us an opportunity to whip out our in-game camera and take a photo of the slime-covered corpse--a photo that, the 2K Marin staffers explained, could later be brought back to HQ and used to fund new research. And once we reached this house, we heard a woman screaming for help and took that as our cue to spring into action.
Guns drawn, we leapt into the house to find that several blobs--black puddles of goo that slithers along walls and floors and leaves a trail of slime behind--had infiltrated the house. We wasted no time and drew our trusty shotgun, blasting the first few at point-blank range after one nearly killed us by leaping in our face. When sufficiently injured, these creepy critters tend to sit still and begin bubbling up like boiling water in a pot. When killed, the bubbles all pop, leaving a crusty, dehydrated husk and a wisp of steam. We hunted them all throughout the house, switching off to the experimental grenades, which often killed the aliens with a single, well-aimed direct hit, as well as with the lightning gun, which fired several streams of crackling electric energy seemingly randomly within a certain radius in front of us. We then worked our way up to the second floor to find the lady of the house, covered in goop and struggling to fight off a blob from getting near her face. A few shotgun blasts later, and we had finished it off, but not before we had lost one of our computer companions--an event that 2K Marin staffers suggest is "very, very bad for you."
All that remained of the mission was to head back outside, jump in our car, and go home, except that that's when the giant alien spacecraft (if that's what it was) known as The Titan made its appearance in the sky. After leaving the house, we saw the sky begin to shimmer and then eventually warp until a small, localized black hole effectively caused a small hurricane in the neighborhood, tearing away at us and all the other objects in the environment. Through this shimmering aperture emerged a gold-colored column that briefly glowed white, showing what looked like a highly advanced technological skeleton. Our remaining partner drew his weapon and opened fire on the structure--a bad move on his part because the Titan responded by morphing from its original rectangular pillar shape to the strange, gold-colored concentric circles that appear in some early concept art for this game. After changing shape, the Titan zapped our remaining squadmate with a single energy blast that covered him in what appeared to be black soot up to his waist, immobilizing him, and then fired a second blast that completely vaporized him.
At this point, we decided to run--not walk--to our car, to which the Titan responded by apparently causing the weather storm to buffet us even harder, while more blobs appeared from out of nowhere, flitting up and down the streets. We made it to our car just as the Titan began charging up for a final blast that might have been the end of us.
While we've seen very little of the game so far, we're both comforted to hear that the 2K Marin team includes many loyal fans of the original X-Com, and we're also looking forward to seeing where the team takes the game from here. XCOM is scheduled for release on the Xbox 360 and PC next year.