XCOM Has Made Strides - E3 Hands-On

By James Hawkins in Hands-on
Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 5:30 pm
​Last year, we had our doubts about 2K Marin's franchise reboot of XCOM. While the 1960s setting was appealing, all we saw of storyline and enemy design was a series of inky blobs attacking the John and Jane Does of the mid-century Midwest. It was cryptic, but lacked the intrigue needed to keep it on our radars over the past year.

This year's demo was a more in-depth look at the XCOM universe, and those who reside within it. What originally looked like a sci-fi first-person shooter has become a squad-based tactical shooter laced with RPG elements and a full offering of enemies, weapons, and technologies. 2K's ambition is definitely inspiring, and a few points brought up in the demo were hot-buttons for a potential compelling story. That is, as long as their ambition doesn't render the game too sprawling.

XCOM has grown into a far more robust game than the one shown at last year's show. The
announcer at the demo stated that the game was a re-invisioning of the classic XCOM games, with pieces of the original games' formula repurposed to complement the new, innovative gameplay mechanics of current generation games. The focus is on strategy and tactics, with deep character design to convey the story of the human race with their backs against the proverbial wall. A common theme in many near-apocalyptic tales, yes, but there's a vein of discovery that is seeded throughout the narrative that could lend some depth to that played out plot.

The protagonist is William Carter, a suit and tie wearing government agent tasked with pulling together the world's most brilliant minds to battle an onslaught of unknown aliens attacking the planet. His crew consists of many specialty characters -- agents from science, engineering, and intellectual fields imbued with powers to aid Carter on his quests. These serve as the "squad" of which humanity's defensive is comprised. For 1962, their equipment is extremely futuristic, but with the build of something a bit more arcane. The idea is that during America's golden age, underground teams of scientists were developing weapons and technologies based on alien equipment they recovered. That recovery continues throughout the game, as Carter and his boys are able to pick up and research alien techs for use in combat. As you discover the intricacies of the enemies, the story and mystery surrounding the war becomes apparent.

1962 was a year when the brightest, goldest era of post-war America began to fade, and change started to take place in response to political, social, and racial turmoil that threatened to cripple society. The civil rights movement was gearing up, feminism's outward rebellion was less than a decade away, and the ideals of white-bread, middle America were being stripped down to incorporate freedom for everyone. The game was deliberately set in that frame for these reasons, and there were some small comments during the demo that showed the potential for the exploration of some interesting themes. 

There was a point in the demo when the announcer spoke about a character that was persecuted for his sexuality and political leanings before the alien invasion. No more was said on the topic, but the idea that characters have atypical (for games, at least) personal nuances that are going to be explored gives us more hope for an intellectually stimulating, thoughtful narrative to drive the action-filled game. It's merely a hope -- games don't generally handle these topics all that intelligently, but 2K Marin is a smart developer, and in BioShock 2, they began to handle some of these threads delicately. Even more so in Minerva's Den.

We've got until March 6, 2012 to speculate about the quality of this title, but it is miles  ahead of its weak showing last year. And if 2K Marin can band together all these concepts and execute deftly, we should have something rare.
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