E3 2011: XCOM, the thinking man’s shooter

In 2K Marin’s XCOM reboot, the idyllic suburbs of 1962 America are irreparably transformed by an arcane alien invasion. These aliens aren’t the creepy critters of Aliens vs. Predator or the anthropomorphic Helghast of Killzone — no, they’re much more mysterious. At first glance, they’re just shiny black blocks. At second glance, “The Outsiders” are shape-shifting entities able to wreak havoc with lightning storms and other petrifying powers. As Special Agent William Carter, a field intelligence officer who recently joined a secret agency called XCOM, it’s your job to investigate and repel the alien assault.

XCOM features a “mix and match of gameplay styles: the strategic aspect of the global campaign mixed with the tactical combat and in-your-face squad control in the battlefield,” says Morgan Gray, director of development at 2K Marin. “We figured that peanut butter and chocolate mix was essential to the gameplay experience.”

XCOM is the thinking man’s shooter. While the foundation of the game is built on its first-person shooter action, there are layers of strategy and role-playing woven into the gameplay. In the XCOM headquarters, the game’s central hub, you can train and recruit agents, manage and select your campaign mission in a non-linear fashion, and conduct research on alien technology to craft new tools, weapons, and powers. You’re also able to talk to the various XCOM staffers, including potential field agents, through conversation trees similar to those in BioWare’s Mass Effect series. Out of eight total agents — this number may change in the final version of XCOM, says Gray — two will accompany you on each mission. Each agent represents a unique class type, boasting distinctive abilities acquired through upgrade trees.

In the XCOM gameplay demo showcased at E3 2011, Special Agent Carter attempts to recover Dr. Weir, a brilliant scientist who would make a valuable addition to the XCOM team. When he travels to Weir’s suburban community, however, he finds a desolate ghost town. “This isn’t right, I can feel it,” trembles one of his fellow agents. But it’s not completely empty. As Carter enters a nearby military base, he spies an officer. “We’re federal agents,” says Carter, “let’s see some ID pal.” The officer, glowing eyes ablaze, doesn’t take too kindly to that request, jumping on Carter with intent to kill. Carter whips out his gun and shoots him in the head, which splits apart into dozens of shiny blue fragments. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t an officer at all, but rather an Infiltrator, an Outsider alien with the ability to shape-shift into anyone at will.

The XCOM team quickly encounters heavy Outsider resistance, highlighted by a pulsating piano score. Carter and his allies are armed to the teeth, but simple run-and-gun tactics would end in disaster. The Outsiders deploy a special shield technology that stops bullets head-on, so it’s necessary to come up with an approach outside of a direct assault. Here, XCOM Producer Drew Smith (the one ‘driving’ the demo) enters the tactical view to slow down the action and formulate a strategy. In the tactical view, radial menus appear on the side of the screen with which players can issue commands to field agents and employ special powers, which use a resource called ‘time units’ — effectively turning this tactical mode into 2K Marin’s real-time interpretation of the original XCOM’s battlescape mode. By tagging the Outsider with a power called ‘disrupt,’ running to the opposite side of the battlefield, and distracting their attention with a ‘diversion’ power from another agent, Carter is able to circumvent the Outsider shield and take them down with a few well-placed shots.

As Carter and his team navigate the town, they’re able to capture powerful Outsider technology. At these junctures, players are faced with a tough choice: they can either take it back to base for enhanced research, cash, and other perks, or immediately deploy it on the field to give the Outsiders a taste of their own medicine. If you go with the latter option, you lose out on potential long-term gain, but you’re able to take down tough enemies that might otherwise kill you.

I won’t spoil what happens to Dr. Weir at the end of the demo, but I will tell you this: XCOM looks phenomenal, and I mean that from both a visual perspective and more generally as an entire game experience. Amidst the plethora of shooters at E3 2011, XCOM was one of the few to engage both the right and left sides of the brain. Yes, there’s plenty of visceral, in-your-face action, but it also makes you step back and think, “Is this really the best route to take? How else could one approach this scenario?’

XCOM is scheduled to release on March 6, 2012 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.