X-COM: Enforcer Preview
How does X-COM make the transition from a strategy game to a shooter?
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Microprose's X-COM franchise has had a strange and rather shaky history, as even its biggest fans will attest. Mythos Games developed the original X-COM: UFO Defense (released in Europe as UFO: Enemy Unknown), which was an innovative turn-based sci-fi strategy game that put you in control of a global defense system, fighting off alien invaders. Shortly after UFO Defense's release came X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which took the same "invaders from space" storyline and replaced it with "aquatic enemies," but the overall gameplay remained virtually the same. Mythos was not involved in this game's development, though, as it was working on what would be the third game in the series: X-COM: Apocalypse. In this game, Mythos added real-time combat, and it was the company's final X-COM product. (The company is now working on Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge, which is a full 3D game in the style of the original X-COM). Microprose also released X-COM: Interceptor, which threw X-Wing-style space action into the mix. Most recently, Hasbro Interactive (which purchased Microprose in late '98) released X-COM: First Alien Invasion. This game was basically a remake of the first X-COM, but was limited to play-by-e-mail multiplayer mode. X-COM fans have been anxiously awaiting the first completely new X-COM game since Interceptor, and it looks as though X-COM: Enforcer is going to be the first one out of the gate as the other planned titles in the series have been plagued by delays. X-COM: Alliance, a first-person tactical shooter, has been delayed until later in the year, and X-COM: Genesis, which was planned as a completely new 3D game that would return the series to its roots, has been placed on indefinite hiatus. But let there be no doubt about it: X-COM: Enforcer is very different from the other games in the series. Whereas all of the other games had a strategic core (although some had real-time combat elements) X-COM: Enforcer is a completely unapologetic action game.
X-COM: Enforcer is played from a third-person perspective, and like the other games of this nature (such as the Tomb Raider titles and Heretic II), the mouse is used to control the camera and to aim your weapon, while keyboard commands are used to move your character about. While the Unreal Tournament engine powers it, no real changes of note have been made to the underlying technology, so Enforcer looks good, but not spectacular or outstanding. The game makes good use of the Unreal engine's ability to render large, detailed environments, and many levels have remarkably detailed backgrounds, including one that takes place in a fully rendered trailer park and another in which you're battling aliens in a shopping mall. It is also worth pointing out that the game showed no major slowdown problems (on a mid-level test system), no matter how many aliens showed up at one time. Considering that enormous numbers of enemies come at you, this is a nice accomplishment.
Non Stop Action
The game opens in the laboratory of an unnamed scientist (who sounds like someone doing a Charles Nelson Reilly impersonation). In the laboratory, a brief in-engine cutscene sets things up and explains that your character is a robotic "enforcer" created by the scientist to kill the nasty aliens that have invaded Earth. These alien enemies are pretty much the only things in Enforcer to remind you that you're playing an X-COM game (well, besides the logo, I suppose). The familiar sectoids (also known as "gray aliens" to sci-fi buffs) are here, as are the snakemen, mutons, and other enemies from the previous games. All of them have been remodeled in full 3D, and it's certainly a kick to see a modern take on the enemies we first saw in old-school VGA. The opening sequence is very, very campy, as is much of Enforcer. While the other X-COM games were steeped in sci-fi clichés, they weren't this far over the top, so hardcore fans might be a little bit turned off by this reinterpretation of the franchise, as Enforcer has more in common with the action sequences and humor in MDK2 than any of the previous X-COM games.
The first level is a tutorial, and it begins with the scientist explaining how to use the various power-ups that will appear, as well as the purpose of data points. When you kill enemies (and believe me there are a lot of then in here), they leave behind data points. Data points can be saved and spent in between levels to upgrade your weapons, improve the effectiveness of power-ups (such as increasing the amount of health restored, how long you stay invisible, or how much faster you get with the different power-ups), and basically beef up your character. It is through this system that the game has its only real strategic elements.
The action unfolds in a fashion not at all unlike the classic arcade game Gauntlet. Swarms of enemies come at you one after the next, and you must destroy all of them, while making your way to the generator that lets them keep spawning. It's not quite as hectic as Gauntlet was, or more recently KISS: Psycho Circus--The Nightmare Child, as the aliens don't just keep popping out of the generator. Instead, they periodically beam in (in groups) giving you a little time to make your way over and destroy the generator without making things too tedious.
Standard levels have you plowing through reams of enemies, although there are a few variations on this theme scattered throughout the game. Some levels have you rescuing humans, while one interesting mission puts you on a boat that you must defend from hoards of alien invaders for five minutes (RTS fans may recall a similar concept in Starcraft). As you run around killing everything in your path, the main character will occasionally spout a catch phrase, if you're doing particularly well, such as, "You have been enforced." The scientist from the beginning also chimes in from time to time, either by commenting on how you're doing (such as the Unreal Tournament-esque, "Alien killing spree!") or by setting up the premise for a particular mission.
Lots of Guns.
Any action game of this nature relies heavily on how interesting its arsenal is, and so Microprose has gone out of its way to create a number of interesting weapons. Pretty much all the standard sci-fi action-game weapons are in here, as are ones from popular first-person shooters, such as the rocket launcher, laser rifle, grenade launcher, railgun, and flamethrower. But there are also some much more creative and over-the-top weapons. One such weapon is the nukem, which when detonated creates an enormous explosion that kills just about every visible enemy in a flash of blinding light. Another is the boomerang gun that fires discs that kill everything in their path and that bounce off walls before returning to you. Also clever is the "attack drone" a power-up/weapon that creates a little helper bot that floats beside you and attacks when you do. It's possible to get more than one of these at a time, making it a very useful item when faced with tons of enemies.
All of the weapons are upgradable through the data-points system, so while the rocket launcher initially only fires one missile, it can be upgraded to shoot more. It can also be modified to shoot "drunken rockets" and eventually even homing missiles, and the grenade launcher can be upgraded to simply spew explosive projectiles. Naturally the game has the standard health items, but there are also some creative power-ups, like the "timeshifter" that temporarily freezes all the enemies in the level or the "air strike" that causes flaming death from above. And like the weapons, these are all upgradable through the data-points system, which lets you increase their effectiveness. All these things have to be unlocked before you can actually use or upgrade them, and in order to do that you'll have to find question-mark items scattered throughout the game. Grabbing one of those will unlock a random item or weapon, which you can then upgrade with data points. It will also be available to you in every level thereafter. Your Enforcer can only carry one weapon at a time, so deciding what weapons to upgrade does have an impact on how you play each particular mission.
In addition to the standard missions, there are also four bonus levels, which can be accessed by finding the letters to spell the word "bonus." The letters are scattered throughout the regular levels, and after completing your current mission you're taken right to one of the four bonus levels. These are simple maps that are a fun distraction and add some replayability to the X-COM: Enforcer experience. One of them has you running around grabbing as many data points as you can within the time limit. Another is a fun take on Frogger, as the game switches to a top-down view, and you have to cross the road while dodging traffic and grabbing as many data points as possible.
Not Quite Ready for Prime-Time
Although the build of the game we were sent was fully playable and remarkably stable, it still had quite a few rough edges. One problem lies with the sheer number of power-ups available. There are no fewer than twelve, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, not all of them are very useful, and they have a tendency to pop up in places where they aren't needed. For example, on the level where you have to defend a boat for five minutes, you have a very small space to walk around in, and it's very easy to accidentally fall off the side of the boat (which will quickly drain your health and more than likely kill you). Getting the "speed" power-up here is tantamount to suicide, especially if you've upgraded it to its highest level.
Another problem stems from the fact that you can hold only one weapon at a time. Microprose's decision to do this made much of the game frustrating because weapons tend to spawn throughout the level, and when you're surrounded by hoards of enemies, it's very easy to accidentally walk over a weapon you don't necessarily want to use. And of course there are lots of interesting and fun weapons, but because you can use only one at a time, you find yourself looking around aimlessly, waiting for the one you'd like to use to show up. The data-points system is neat, although the developers are only just now beginning to balance it, so in this build it was very easy to upgrade everything to its highest level.
Like in any third-person game, X-COM: Enforcer has some camera issues, although not nearly as many as most thanks to the limited camera movement at your disposal. While you can look around freely, vertical movement is limited, which is a good thing, as it means the camera doesn't get stuck in walls. Also, this build lacked any sort of multiplayer gameplay. Microprose tells us that it is working to include some sort of multiplayer mode, although the designers aren't sure what will be included in the shipping version beyond cooperative mode. (They are looking into other multiplayer gameplay types now.) Some of you might have a problem with Enforcer's lack of an in-game feature. Although this was criticized when it was implemented in several recent PC games (causing some developers to release patches that removed it), none of the levels in Enforcer are very long, so it's not terribly missed, and the game automatically saves between missions. One thing that is missing, however, is your inability to replay finished missions. In this build of the game, once you've completed a level, there's no way to go back and try to find any secrets you might have missed, which severely hurts the replayability of the game.
Despite the problems in this particular build of X-COM: Enforcer, it is still very much a fun experience. It has little in common with the other games in the series, and it marks a major change of direction on Microprose's part, but it is certainly a fun, if not terribly cerebral game. Look for it to arrive on store shelves in early April.
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