Ok, before we dive into the XCOM: Enemy Unknown demo impressions from the Steam download, here's a brief potted history via the Wiki page of UFO: Enemy Unknown, otherwise known as X-COM: UFO Defense in North America.
Back? Good, so now you know. There have been numerous attempts to clone UFO over the years but for many of us, none have really hit the mark and left us with the same: OH MY GOD MY SQUAD IS GOING TO DIE impression. Until now...
We had that feeling the other day whilst enjoying the demo of XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the PC.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is just a few short weeks from release on major consoles and PC and it's looking excellent already. Firaxis and 2K have made sure that whilst it takes advantage of modern design and technology, it remains true to the roots that make a great XCOM game.
New coat of paint!
So the demo is kind of like this, it's gung-ho setting in an alternate future Earth where aliens are invading and you command the XCOM Project, a private-sector funded organisation that is tasked with defending the Earth from the alien menace. When aliens attack Germany XCOM is sent in to find out what happens to the previous German recon team.
It isn't pretty (it is very pretty actually) and Germany is in trouble. This marks the start of the tutorial, which takes you through the array of skills you'll need to mount a successful defence later on in the game. It holds your hand a lot, but that's ok, XCOM is not a simple game by far, its quite complex and whilst the GUI has been improved and some systems have been changed, there's enough tactical depth there to give you an idea of what you'll be able to do later on.
Don't expect to be let off the leash in the demo, this is going to happen at retail too, this mission is a setup for your understanding of the game's mechanics and it works flawlessly in that regard as long as you follow the instructions on screen.
Once you have been walked through what you can do in a turn, what you can achieve via cover and tactics, you get to watch the squad suffer the classic XCOM near total party kill, something that could happen with frightening regularity in the early games. A single alien grenade or launcher could wipe the whole squad out on the Skyranger and that was it, want to see that in action?
X-COM: Terror from the Deep vid - this is a total squad wipe in seconds. The good old days!
With your last squad member aboard the Skyranger you now get to choose from two demo base locations and in this remake you only get one base...but it is an amazing thing to see. Each base location offers a bonus and you need to choose wisely. Once you arrive back at HQ you'll get to witness Firaxis' Ant Farm in action.
Little Computer Squaddies!
The Ant Farm is the best addition to XCOM to date. The original game had an isometric and top down base construction, and whilst we don't get to play with base building in the demo, we can see the areas which can be developed later on. There's plenty of base to look at and it's all animated with a massive attention to detail, something the game excels on in the field too whether it is a cut scene introduction or a mission brief, XCOM has some great animations for the characters and squad members. The HQ is teeming with people and interesting locations, sadly in the demo you can't really see all of it up close, but you can play with squad promotion, renaming soldiers and queuing up a research project. Once all that's done it's time for small, but promising slice of XCOM action in the form of an abduction mission.
In Abduction Missions you need to pick a site that you want to support, knowing full well that the country you fail to help will end up in a state of higher emergency and panic, perhaps even losing you their support. It is a tough decision to make, but one that will pay dividends if you win.
After you get your squad (the full game will let you equip/customise/name/choose your soldiers) assembled and aboard the Skyranger. Its off to shoot some Xenos, in a small but perfectly designed map which will allow you to experiment with cover, door tactics, diving in through windows and climbing up onto rooftops.
The GUI for the PC is solid and there's a tactical overlay for combat if you want. Though we never really used it, since the controls are intuitive and the whole game feels polished even in the demo state. Your squad of four will survive if you keep your wits about you, think carefully and use tactics. There's always a chance you could make a costly mistake of course and watch as the aliens blast your favourite soldier in the face with some alien plasma tech, but those are the XCOM breaks.
We'll discuss the mechanics in our actual review of the game, but suffice it to say, from the demo its all looking very promising and we've had a blast so far even though it's short.
It has a very over the top gung-ho military style to it, almost GI-Joe cartoon warriors in look and that fits perfectly. XCOM looks great and the game has lots of little details packed away for the avid XCOM fan too...plus in this version we get the action camera, a cinematic trigger that happens when a soldier dashes for cover, throws a grenade, shoots an alien particularly effectively and a few other circumstances - what matters is that it doesn't detract from the turn based gameplay nor the action. It complements it solidly and provides yet another layer to enjoy.
We'll talk about that more in our review though, when the game comes out on the 12th of October.
We feel as though the demo could have been given far more meat to it, an expanded look at the base, more options and a few more missions. That's only because we can see what the full game has to offer and we wants it my precious, we wants it so very badly!
For an XCOM fan like many of us are here, we're happy enough though, because XCOM is back and it is looking great. We do also say, go see some gameplay videos and read other articles on the tactical layer of the game since you don't really get much of a look at that from the demo - there are some good videos of the game's various mission types on Youtube and the like.
We can also give a shout out to Rock Paper Shotgun for their 40 hour XCOM writeup, it made us want the game even more.
For a new player, the demo might be a little bit lacking in some aspects but we can assure you in the bold text below.
The full game of XCOM: Enemy Unknown will seriously kick ass!
Firaxis has made all the right moves in terms of gameplay, with just enough changes to keep it fresh and just enough XCOM homage to keep it old-skool. We can't wait!