Six years have passed since I invested any significant amount of grandiose interest in an anticipated video game release. The last game bestowed with the honor of grabbing my attention was none other than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for reasons that seem juvenile when placed within the context of contemporary game design. Although my own personal disinterest in the latest modern blockbusters could be explained by a variety of reasons, I believe the last half decade of video games have been lacking in unique ideas. That is until around 1:00pm this past Thursday, when after viewing the thirty minute presentation of 2K Marin’s XCOM that familiar feeling of boyish wonderment and excitement stimulated my senses.
Developer 2K Marin has been on top of the world lately… well, most of them. The team originally stemmed from the crew that brought the world of Rapture to life in the first BioShock. A few corporate decisions later, the developers became known as “2K Marin” and helmed the prodigious task of following up BioShock with a proper sequel. Once that project was all set and shipped off, the team began work on XCOM. Considering the history of these very talented creators, it shouldn’t be a surprise that XCOM gives off a similar vibe to the first BioShock.
The setting is idyllic 1950s America. Society lives during a post-wartime with little to worry about other than cutting the grass and painting white picket fences. This is also a time for conspiracy theorists and superstitious folk to begin an era of UFO sightings and alien abductions. However, are these reports the result of hysteric citizens who have become afraid of their own shadows? Or are these interactions with the unknown truthful experiences? That’s the question the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit plans to answer.
XCOM is a task force branched from the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a goal of discovering the substantiality of these otherworldly reports; if necessary they will prepare America to battle the mysterious and unknown. The player takes on the role of the leader of XCOM and discovering the secrets that our extraterrestrial visitors are hiding. This press-presentation of the game was played by 2K Main’s own James Sharpe a developer working on the game, while another developer, Martin Slater, narrated the events that occurred.
The demonstration started at XCOM’s headquarters, an airport hanger that acts as a front for the entrance to this task force’s base of operations. The first thing I noticed about XCOM was its art style. Colors are strong and vibrant, character models are exaggerated with elongated limbs matched with cartoonish faces, and every asset in the game seems to have been the product of a Team Fortress 2 and Pixar Film marriage.
As I was marveling at the stylistic art direction, Slater explained each individual section and room within the headquarters. There was a team of busy worker-bees perusing files and using type writers, determined to learn more about their objective. We moved through the corridors and came across the laboratory where scientists examined an alien artifact to dissect useful information about its design and make. Finally, we stopped by the weapons expert who notified us that a new weapon had been conceived thanks to the research the player had gathered in previous missions.
The art style has the uncanny ability to look cartoony and realistic at the same time
It was in this room we learned about the artillery XCOM agents were equipped with to combat alien forces. The weapons expert handed us a grenade-sized glass ball of goo that, when thrown, enflamed the inside contents. On the way out, we picked up a shotgun and the intriguing “lightning gun” which had been described as “extremely effective” against our adversaries. After suiting up for what dangerous deeds were to come before us, we made our way to the national map.
Slater explained that all missions in XCOM would be in response to paranormal activity reported by citizens of the United States. Small blips across the map indicated mission locations. Upon choosing which location we’d be visiting, our agent was briefed with the mission’s objectives and what intelligence we had about the surrounding area. The 911 call that was made at the site was played for us, whilst we were provided with a clipboard filled with notes. Following a trip back to the airport’s garage and picking up two fellow XCOM agents, we were on our way.
Upon reaching our destination, the sense of obscurity and mischief was palpable. The joyful streets were vacant of neighbors and children, and true to spy-film nature, it was quiet… too quiet. Slater explained that much of the level design was dependent on investigating the environment and being on top of your senses, using your brain, not your gun. A scream was heard from one of the nearby houses which prompted us to explore what caused the shriek of terror.
Victims’ deaths can be examined to research important advancements for your goal
Unfortunately we had arrived too late and found a dead body covered with black goo that stood out when juxtaposed to the colorful surroundings. It was at this point that the investigating we had been hearing so much of was finally shown in gameplay-form. Our agent took out a flash-photography camera and snapped a picture of the poor-soul who became victimized by the ominous goo. Instantly, bullet points of what this photograph could possibly reveal was explained to the right of the finalized picture.
However, we didn’t have time to examine the information here on the field, there were still other people in the nearby houses and a trail of black goo exited the corpse’s resting place and made way towards the house next-door. After following these subtle clues, we made our way into the compromised house and were ambushed by a plethora of creatures. A firefight ensued that left the once beautiful household marred by remnants of black tar. Amidst the chaos, one of our teammates was taken over and killed, it was time for the lightning gun.
With a booming thunder, the once fear-inducing antagonistic foes fell to the fury generated by our extremely effective lightning gun. We made our way from room-to-room until we finally reached the young woman under attack. After a successful rescue, it was hinted at that our struggle was not over, we would still have to return to our vehicle and exit alive. Seemed like a simple task, but once we left the premises of the goo-ridden household, a new threat pended before us.
Spoilers: The guy in this picture dies
An enormous monolith referred to as “The Tile” levitated over the street that would be our way out. Before we were given a moment to assess the situation, The Tile changed forms into an intimidating ring of doom and reigned terror on our last remaining squad member. It was at this point in time that Sharpe, the developer playing the game, demonstrated that without knowing what we were facing it’d be impossible to harm it. The lightning gun was ineffective and our shotgun would have trouble competing with Pea Shooter.
The only answer was run, retreat and return to our laboratory with our newly acquired information and hope it would reveal the weakness of this new enemy type. After a slew of graphical effects that manipulated gravity and a strong pulling force that brought us closer to the threat we were desperately trying to outrun… the demo ended with a title card: “XCOM.”
2K Marin has a strong pedigree for fantastic game design and narratives that are often referred to as some of the medium’s best. In a day and age where every game is about making explosions bigger, muscles thicker and thinking less important, XCOM seems to be going against the grain by believing that players want to do more than count headshots. The investigative aspects of XCOM’s central core design seem very interesting to me and, if done right, could lead to a very compelling experience. I’m also interested in uncovering the mystique of the extraterrestrial, and with all that in mind: XCOM is easily one of my most anticipated titles for 2011.