Touching the Unknown: the bright future of XCOM

Familiar XCOM enemies such as the Sectoids will make an appearance in The Bureau: XCOM DeclassifiedThe revival of XCOM, the classic strategy game in which a desperate humanity tries to fight off invading aliens, followed an interesting path.

Publisher 2K Games owned the rights, and the first new title they unveiled for the long-quiet franchise was a first-person shooter, called simply XCOM. The fans were understandably annoyed. XCOM was always a turn-based strategy game, so a FPS reboot that kept only the setting and threw out all of the classic gameplay seemed like a really bad decision.

Live demonstrations at E3 2011 backed up the fans’ distaste. The game seemed clunky, with very erratic pacing and unwieldy controls. The critical response was lukewarm, and it was not too surprising that the game vanished from view for almost two years.

The thing about 2K is that they exhibit a great willingness to give a good project the time it needs to come together, a rarity in the modern video game industry. Bioshock Infinite is a great example, a game that was delayed time and time again, with 2K stating repeatedly that they would not ship it until they were satisfied is was the best it could possibly be.

In the meantime 2K-owned studio Firaxis, most famous for making the last few iterations of Sid Meier’s Civilization, was revealed to have been working on an XCOM reboot more in keeping with the classic series: turn-based, tactical, and deadly. It was released late last year to immense critical acclaim, satisfaction from fans, and healthy sales. It even netted a handful of Game of the Year awards.

Last month, 2K’s XCOM shooter finally popped its head up again, and it had clearly undergone a major re-think. The new name – The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – indicated that 2K had accepted that strategy is the heart of the XCOM franchise, so a shooter could only ever be a spin-off of the main series.

I was given the opportunity to get my hands on this newly made-over title, and what I saw was very pleasing. First of all, internal studio 2K Marin has done away with the first-person view and made it a third-person shooter. This might sound like a minor change, but it signals a new way of thinking: once again, you are looking at troops on the battlefield, rather than being there yourself.

You directly control a single recurring character, a field agent of the secretive XCOM organisation. Heading out into the field, you choose two support characters from a pool, much like assembling a squad in Enemy Unknown. These characters have specific abilities and skills, and they gain experience if they survive being deployed. That’s right, survival is not certain: agents in The Bureau can be injured or killed, just like in the original strategy game.

Pacing has also undergone major changes. This is no longer a non-stop action game, but a tactical squad-command shooter that requires intelligent and careful command of your two assisting agents. The game it reminds me of most strongly is Mass Effect – you can just ignore your squad and let them do their own thing if you wish, but you will get much better results directing their efforts. Unlike Mass Effect, though, your troops can be permanently killed in combat, so you need to keep a close eye on them and get them out of danger if they are taking too much of a beating.

Orders are issued in an almost-but-not-quite paused command menu, in which time is slowed to a crawl. Different actions are selected from a familiar command wheel interface, and it is a simple task to pick a special attack and choose an enemy target, or to pull your soldier back into stronger cover. Simply telling both troops to attack the same tough enemy to concentrate fire can make a significant difference in a big firefight.

What I especially loved was how the different abilities could interact with each other. Some troops gain the ability to telekinetically lift an enemy into the air, bring them out from behind cover and allowing allies to fire freely. This could be made more powerful by complementary skills from other troops, such as an explosive attack that needs to be centred on an enemy target. You can even have an engineer place a turret and then telekinetically lift it up to get a better firing angle on your enemies.

I didn’t see enough to be absolutely certain that The Bureau will be a success, but everything in my short demo was very encouraging. You will be able to try it for yourself when The Bureau is released in August this year.

In other excellent news, 2K is not resting on their laurels in regard to classic turn-based XCOM. No, there hasn’t been a sequel announcement as yet, but last year’s release of Enemy Unknown is still being expanded and improved.

Before playing The Bureau, I was given some hands-on time with the upcoming Apple touch device port of Enemy Unknown, and it may be the best version yet. Commanding a squad of troops on a grid-based battlefield is perfectly suited to a touch display, and this new version uses the touch-screen to excellent effect.

All of the expected gestures are there: swipe to scroll, pinch to zoom, and so on. You can tap to select a soldier in the field, tap on a map location to give them a destination, then tap the confirmation button to send them on their way. Everything works exactly as you expect.

Also, thanks to Epic Games porting the Unreal Engine to iOS, the game looks almost identical to the PC and console versions. Some of the finer details have been simplified to make it run smoothly on mobile devices, but for the most part it looks great. All of the voice acting in the original release is present, too.

This is not a cut-down version; this is the full XCOM: Enemy Unknown experience in portable form. The only exception is multiplayer, which we are told will be added on with a free patch some time after launch. No precise release date has been revealed yet, but it’s definitely coming soon.

– James “DexX” Dominguez

DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲学校.

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