I was lucky enough to spend my Thursday evening playing Xbox 360 preview code of 2K Marin’s upcoming XCOM prequel, courtesy of Megarom and Microsoft SA, and boy is it looking good. Not quite XCOM: Enemy Unknown good, but it’s certainly fun to play if third-person Mass Effect-esque tactical combat and saving the world from alien invasion is your thing. I wasn’t allowed to take photos or screenshots, though, so this hands-on won’t be full of exclusive in-game images…. sorry! There are, however, 25 screenshots at the end of the article that should give you a good idea of what you’re in for.
Prequels are always tough to pull off, and 2K Marin (the studio behind the Bioshock series) has certainly tried very hard to please everyone, if the 2.5 or so hours I played tonight are anything to go on. The bits I saw contained quite a few nods to the enemies and themes of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so I really got to feel that I was playing in the same universe, but there were a lot of very unique ideas too that set the game firmly on its own path.
As a big fan of Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, my initial impressions were good, and hope was high that this would be a game worthy of the XCOM name. I was quite happy with the game’s visuals; even though they weren’t jaw-droppingly good-looking, character models were sufficiently detailed and everything had a definite vintage 60s look to it that had me convinced this was really 1962.
I was told the point I started from was about an hour into the game, so I didn’t get to see the opening scenes, or go through any tutorials introducing me to the game’s combat mechanic. Instead, as my game started I found myself in what looked to be an underground bunker, and I set about exploring it.
Turns out I was in the XCOM headquarters, an incomplete, still-under-construction subterranean bunker of sorts, filled with soldiers, scientists and the organisation’s top brass. I walked William Carter (my character, a grizzled, gung-ho, out-for-vengeance FBI type) around, talking to various people using a dialogue wheel very similar to Mass Effect’s, picking up notes and listening to audio clips, all of which helped to flesh the world out a bit.
After I had talked to everyone and spent some time at the bunker’s shooting range, I selected my squad, kitting them out with weapons and supplies. Now I was ready for my first assignment (minor spoiler alert): rescuing a scientist who might know something about the alien invasion XCOM has been tasked with stopping. Me and my two squaddies were whisked off in a helicopter, and after coming under AA fire we were set down a wee way from our objective, and told by our pilot that we’d have to fight our way to our scientist’s university and (another spoiler) take down the aliens’ AA gun if we were going to make it back to base alive.
That is where the combat started. At first, controlling my own character and issuing orders to my two sidekicks felt clunky as it involved bringing up a radial menu in the middle of combat, choosing a soldier, then an action for them to perform, then a target. Time slows to a crawl when the radial menu is opened which thankfully takes most of the urgency out of hitting the right option, and after a few minutes, it actually became quite a fluid process. After just two encounters, my confidence had grown to the point where I felt comfortable issuing orders, and I found myself starting to enjoy combat more. I was better able to focus on what the enemy was doing, and could counter their actions smoothly as a result.
And of course, just as I was getting the hang of it, the devs threw curve balls at me by changing up the enemies I was fighting and introducing newer, stronger units that required different tactics. I will admit to dying a fair few times, but my deaths never felt cheap, and were usually a result of ignoring my squadmates and thinking I could go all Rambo on my enemies’ asses. Turns out, that’s a bad idea.
On being incapacitated, I had to rely on my AI-controlled squadmates to come and revive me, just as I had to revive them when they fell. There is a brief window in which this can happen, and if you don’t get to a downed ally in time, they die – permanently. That’s quite a big deal, as combat brings experience, which brings levels, which brings new abilities, some of which can really turn the tide of battle if used in the right way and at the right time. I didn’t lose anyone, thankfully (that’s because we all tended to die at the same time), but I can really see that permadeath mechanic being a major factor in the full game, just as it was in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
By the time the evening was over, I had seen many of the game’s systems up close and a few opinions had formed. Sure, The Bureau was fun to play, but I also discovered there was little sense of exploration to the levels I saw that were set outside of the XCOM headquarters. I felt like I was walking from one combat encounter to the next, funneled between them by a very tight corridor and punctuated by the odd story snippet that unfolded in-engine. In fact, I was reminded of this meme from a few years back, but instead of cutscenes there were combat encounters book-ending each straight section:
In fairness I only saw a small portion of the full game, and levels might (and probably will) be more diverse when the game releases on August 23, but the rather unflattering image on the right definitely reflects my impression of the game’s level design, based on the preview code I played.
So, am I looking forward to The Bureau? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. As a big fan of the original XCOM games as well as last year’s excellent reboot, I like my XCOM slow and deliberate, which this isn’t. And while I can certainly see what the guys at 2K Marin are trying to achieve with this action-y prequel, I still feel this is a tactical shooter that’s trading on the XCOM name, rather than a game that will add to the series in a meaningful way. I totally reserve the right to be wrong about this – the game could still turn out to be stupendously amazing and earn itself the same cult status of those other XCOM games – but going on what I saw tonight, that outcome would surprise me.
On the other hand, the tactical shooting bits are very slick, and the game’s early-60s setting is unique, so there’s hope that everything will turn out okay. I am also rather curious to know how it ends, and what the designers will do with the new aliens they introduced (i.e. is there a reason they don’t appear in XCOM: EU?), so I will definitely grab it when it releases.