First-Person Strategy

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Like many fans for the classic PC strategy series, I was both elated and disappointed when XCOM was first announced. As a major fan of the original series, I was happy that I would get another chance to delve into the series’ universe and tinker with the incredibly deep strategy elements. Then I saw a screenshot and my heart sunk. Rather than seeing a ¾-view of the battlefield, I saw the now generic look of a FPS. The 1960’s visual aesthetic looked great and, at least in my mind, carried the same stylish appearance I’d liked about BioShock. Still, it was an FPS and not a strategy game.

The feeling was apparently mutual, even among the game’s developers. Or, rather, they figured everyone had the same notion and wanted to communicate that XCOM was not just another FPS and was a true strategy game in every sense of the word. And, you know what, it is.

The very best way to describe XCOM is First-Person Real Time Strategy Game (FPRTSG??? Nah, that won’t stick). The game looks and controls like an FPS, but contains strategy elements similar to Mass Effect 2’s command system. You move around the map in FPS fashion, only to pull up a ring-based command menu to order your fellow agents into action. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; the real action begins before you even step into a mission at HQ.

With XCOM, the developers are trying to turn back the clock and imagine a place where the idea of the X-COM force originated. That time is 1962, which is a perfect fit considering the Kennedy-era, Cold War fears permeating throughout the country and the emergence of societal fringe groups. The developers made special mention that these factors would play into the larger story with your team. For instance, developers mentioned that the scientist at the heart of the demo mission was persecuted for both his politics and sexual orientation. No indication was given as to how these outside factors would relate, but its cool to see that an attempt is being made to tie the game into a larger context.

XCOM is a non-linear experience. You play as Agent William Carter, a government field agent faced with investigating a series of alien (called Outsiders) attacks around the country. Calls come in throughout the game and are posted on a big board map. You can tackle missions in any order, though actions in one mission may impact what you choose to do next. Future missions may be harder or easier depending on what you choose to do in previous missions.

Strategy elements go deeper than choosing which locales to visit first. Before a mission, you’ll need to hand-select a team of agents to bring with you. Sometimes the choice will be as obvious as reading the agent’s specialty, though given the vague nature of missions, you’ll often have to make your best guess based on the information on hand. You’ll also have to decide how to grow each agent’s skill set, load out or if it is wise to take a lower-level agent just to get him some experience. I can already see myself obsessing over the most mundane of choices, and I look forward to it.

Another cool feature takes place once you’re in the field. During missions, you’ll come across Outsider technology. You’re then presented with the choice of either taking the technology back to base with you, allowing your team of scientists to reverse engineer the tech and create new toys for use in the field, or make use of the tech to help you in the field now. You won’t get the bonus on the back-end, but if the demonstration was any indication, the boost in power will be significant. We had the chance to see the “Titan” in action, which is essentially a giant cannon connected to what looks like an energy-pulsing black hole. Little decisions like these go a long way in my view.

Getting back in-field action, commands are given in real time, meaning there’s no pause to give orders. Instead time dilates, offering just enough time to think but still keep you in the action. Time units dictate actions and your actions will affect how many units certain actions take to use. It is possible to enter a situation without enough units, fight for a bit, and have the cost reduced. Certain agent abilities can be mapped to quick-use buttons, cutting down the time spent in the radial menu.

The one idea XCOM’s developers wanted to communicate with their E3 demo was, just because the game looked like a duck, it was actually a platypus. XCOM offers an intriguing interpretation of the series; mixing elements of the classic’s heavy strategic elements with the faster flair of a modern shooter. We’ll get a chance to see how well the combination works early next year.