Previews

Why XCOM is a poor remake... but a promising shooter

2K Marin's B-movie outing is unfaithful but interesting

The action is real-time rather than turn-based, your squad of UFO-swatting agents has been slashed from eight to three, and you'll spend much of your playthrough hot-footing around ominously cheery '60s locales in first-person, eyes peeled for the glow of an extra-terrestrial carapace. 2K Marin's XCOM is a pretty poor reflection of isometric hit X-Com, then, but what it lacks in fidelity, the hyphen-less prequel promises to make up for with crunchy squad tactics and testing, unearthly opposition.

Director of development Morgan Gray speaks of the MicroProse original in honeyed tones, but leaves little doubt of the pragmatism at work behind the scenes. The idea is to make X-Com function within the modern shooter template, rather than vice versa.

"We narrowed it down to three broad things to represent a wide swathe of minor components. First, we think the heart and soul of the X-Com franchise is that peanut butter and chocolate mix of strategic gameplay and tactical combat. Using your brain in the meta-campaign, and using your brain on the battlefield - that's the heart of the game.

"Two, the concept of no 'one man army'. You're not John Rambo, you're not going to take them all on by yourself with vim and vigour. Getting the best and the brightest the world has to offer, forming them into a team, and going out into the field to fight. And thirdly, a sort of universal concept of fighting an unknown alien threat, learning about what makes it tick, and using that information against it."

It's in the last of Gray's criteria, the cultivation of a claustrophobic strangeness, that XCOM could really set itself apart. As white collar hero William Carter, players take charge of the X-Com organisation's efforts to cleanse a McCarthy-era US of off-world influence, winning over regions by completing primary and secondary missions. The missions in question range from the basic - annihilate anything whose genetic code looks dodgy - through the strategic - gather XCOM's resource, Elerium - to those that push the narrative.

Zoom
Faint overtones of Alice: Madness Returns here.

Much as Kaos Studios did with Homefront, 2K Marin aims to squeeze dramatic value from the notion of fighting on your own turf. "Far from massive amounts of tanks and aircraft carriers meeting the aliens in battle, in our game the frontlines are your neighbourhood, your kitchen, the church, the hospital, your university," says Gray. Unlike Homefront's loud-mouthed Korean aggressors, however, the threat won't always be obvious, though it will be just as overwhelming. "The attack is pervasive at every level of society, and at the start of the game the aliens are actually winning in a big way."

With producer Drew Smith at the helm, we're shown a gun battle in a pastel-coloured suburb, the enemy's crusty, neon-veined foot soldiers trading fire with our plucky troupe of pipe-smoking super geeks. The aliens have a portable shield, obliging Smith to implement basic suppression and flanking strategies via a real-time order system that immediately recalls Brothers in Arms. X-Com's "battlescape" feature has been converted into a slow-motion third-person Command View, allowing fine-tuned control of the agent squad.

It's compelling stuff, the bogies realigning their shield as Smith works his way round their position, but hardly a jolt to the imagination. And that's when the floating fractal eyeball weapon shows up. Described by Gray as "sort of an alien B52", it quickly drowns the human advance in violet death, an eerily shifting assemblage of broken planes and edges.

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