XCOM: Enemy Unknown – E3 Preview
by Mark R
When you love a game for seventeen years, and find out that it’s not only being remade, but also re-imagined… something inside snaps. Perhaps ‘snaps’ is too harsh a term, but it’s certainly beyond those butterflies of trepidation and less than if someone were to come at you with a blood-stained machete and a hungry look in their eye. Either way, the knots in the stomach flit between excitement and a sense of foreboding where you are possibly staring down the barrel of your worst enemy’s gun… or into the eyes of a woman who is about to give you the best night of your life. Trouble is, you won’t know which until it’s over.
That is the feeling I had when it was announced that Firaxis were given the green light to do what nobody else has managed to do thus far. As each new nugget of information was released and the bigger picture grew, so too did my concern over whether or not they’d be able to pull it off and remain true to the original while, at the same time, modernise it enough so that it appeals to the current generation of gamer – those who have become accustomed to superior graphics, the highest definition, ear-blistering audio and lightning-fast reflexes. It’s no surprise that, when you first consider the gameplay style of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown, these modern requirements are perhaps far removed.
As our previous look ahead and video preview show, the attention to detail that was present in the original release is almost certainly there within the Firaxis title and, with Jake Solomon’s reported love of the original X-Com franchise being well documented in most interviews to date, it was becoming more likely that this would not only work, but would leave all other remakes utterly destroyed in its wake. Whether or not it would win over the original creator, Julian Gollop, however is another matter entirely as his reaction to the delayed 2K Marin FPS was one of disapproval. Ultimately, though, it’s down to the gamer. If done well, a new breed of X-Com fan is likely to be born and lovers of the original will undoubtedly offer allegiance. Developer-released gameplay videos are one thing though, and what we wanted to know was how it would stand up in a real-world environment.
The first meeting of this year’s E3 was, fortuitously, with 2K – Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so all our questions were about to be answered. The first thing that hits you when the game kicks in on the 7ft screen is just how far it’s come in terms of visual presentation. In close-up mode, the level of character detail is enough to retain that level of immersion while still remaining firmly on the stylised side of the fence, with no photo-realism visible at any time. Pull back to view the actual gameplay arena and you’re immediately presented with pin-sharp units, a beautifully-rendered environment, futuristic HUD and directive controls as well as that same sense of the unknown that Gollop managed to achieve with even the most basic sprites and tiles back in 1995.
Sending troops is as simple as you’d expect from an X-Com game – select your character, decide the type of movement you want them to take, and have them execute the order before moving on to the next unit. Movement is fluid, responsive and very natural in terms of being representative of how you’d expect someone to move. The HUD itself is easily understandable, concise and displayed with extreme clarity without ever detracting from the job at hand. As each unit reaches their destination, a glowing perimeter follows their movement, presumably showing their immediate field of vision – this was never explained and, as we’d previously heard mention of the old fog-of-war being retained, it would make sense that this represents the area where the fog disperses.
With the lack of time units being the greatest concern to most fans of the original series, and with it being the most controversial of all changes made in the gameplay thus far, it was important to see how this played out on the field – the ability to adapt to this new play-style is, after all, going to be what either makes or breaks Enemy Unknown as far as the sceptics are concerned. Thankfully, it never appeared to be an issue and, in fact, the time units were still there as far as tactics are concerned… but they just don’t physically exist anywhere.
What I mean by that is that, in the original Enemy Unknown, time units meant that you had to make a tactical decision prior to making your move – do we go all out and use the time to manoeuvre the unit to a specific location and forfeit any defensive moves should an alien appear from around the corner, or do we prepare for the worst and leave enough units for a snap shot, auto shot, or aimed shot? While the time units themselves aren’t on display, and play no part in the gameplay whatsoever, the thought process behind these time units is still prevalent at every stage of the game and we asked exactly how much this would impact the player if, at the end of their turn, they were suddenly faced with an alien emerging from the fog of war – would they die immediately or is there scope for a defensive move.
“Only if you’ve gone into ‘overwatch’, so now instead of the time units you can either move really far in the turn or move and then take an action, so overwatch becomes your action. You can’t take a shot and go into overwatch in the same turn and it’s much more about making the decisions, and much more about critical, so the decision to shoot at someone means you’re foregoing the chance of having to defend your guy. What’s really useful is that if you’re exploring an area, eventually you’re going to have to make the decision that ‘yeah, I need to push the offensive and I’m not able to completely respond to that situation’. So in that sense it creates a lot more tension, a lot more of an interesting decision rather than going ‘I always need to reserve time units for an auto-shot from the moving position’ and play it more tactically”.
To date, none of the previews we’ve come across have ever mentioned psionics beyond the Sectoids being able to take control over X-Com units, and quite some time ago it was rumoured that psionics wouldn’t exist in any other form. Today, however, we not only witnessed Commander Sid Meier taking the lead on a terror mission, but at one point, after a Sectoid commander had taken control of an X-Com unit and had him “eat his own grenade”, immediately taking him out (as you’d expect) along with a considerable area of the environment, Commander Meier pulled one hand towards his head and stretched the other towards one of the enemies.
It was at that point that a purple-hued smoke-stream appeared around his head and slowly made its way towards said enemy, penetrating its head, giving the Commander full control and allowing him to return the favour by making it eat its own grenade. For someone who had previously enjoyed tinkering with the psionics and training, this was a welcome sight.
Something that will take some getting used to, maybe… or maybe not, is leaving the top-down viewpoint after the turn ends and switching over to a more cinematic viewpoint as the action plays out. The danger is that it may ruin the immersion but, on the other hand, there’s always the slight possibility that it will enhance gameplay. One of those things which will have to be experienced first hand before committing to an opinion, I suspect. Ultimately though, for something which was kept under wraps until the development was heavily underway, Firaxis’ take on the X-Com franchise has very quickly taken the disappointment surrounding 2K Marin’s project and turned into an air of excitement, albeit with a slight peppering of doubt for those die-hard fans.
Getting to finally see the new Chryssalids in action as they take over a human host, with shards of limbs tearing through the unfortunate unit as their zombified bodies snap backwards, was a sight to behold and one which hadn’t yet been teased – they are every bit as menacing as before… moreso, in fact. The Floaters are very different from before and have gone from being a rather well-dressed and docile-looking race to being sick and twisted beasts. I, for one, can’t wait to get some hands-on and find out if that deep immersion has carried through from the sprite-led classic to the high-def re-imagining.
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