E3 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown Demo Impressions


X-Com: UFO Defense’s parasitic chrysalid is back, and more terrifying than ever.

One thing is clear from the beginning of 2K Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown E3 demo – Firaxis’ re-imagining is infinitely more cinematic than MicroProse’s 1994 classic. If you’ve played the original, you’ll understand this isn’t really a huge feat of engineering, since most of the narrative in the original game played out via text-based status reports delivered at the end of each in-game month, but still: the use of cut-scenes before, during, and after missions adds a nice touch of context to the objectives your squad is tasked with carrying out.

The demo I saw in 2K’s booth, which takes place much later in the game than anything that’s been shown so far, is based on one of the original X-Com’s infamous terror missions, and it opens appropriately with quick, low-angle shots of a city burning while its citizens are tortured and murdered by invading forces. From there, the demo cuts to the actual gameplay, where a small squad of XCOM operatives is surrounded by plasma-blasting Heavy Floaters, melee-based Berserkers, and a psionics-wielding Sectoid commander that is using its mind control ability to make soldiers “eat their own grenades,” as the 2K rep narrating the demo so eloquently put it. The XCOM unit is on its last legs, and a decision is made by HQ to send in what Firaxis is dubbing a “Reaper Squad” – an elite team of operatives that is faster, stronger, and all around better-equipped to handle the alien menace.

It seems as if the tide will turn, but the triumph is short-lived as a couple of the game’s most terrifying alien units, the parasitic Chrysalids, sweep in and start doing “their thing.” For those of you who haven’t experienced this series before, that “thing” is one of the most insidious tactics the aliens have at their disposal. They move in quickly, infecting humans with a zombifying virus that turns them over to the enemy forces; at this point, players have little choice but to destroy their own squad members, or the civilians they’re supposed to protect. If the infected isn’t killed quickly enough, it turns into a chrysalid itself, and XCOM operatives soon become overwhelmed by enemy forces.


With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis wisely sticks closely to the gameplay of the original.

The chrysalids of Firaxis’ XCOM are reminiscent of the warrior bugs in Starship troopers in that they now move around on four spindly, scythe-like legs – a change that may rankle long-time fans, but one that serves to explain how they’re able to move so quickly. In the original game, an infected unit’s flesh would sort of slough off as a new chrysalid was being born, but the birthing animation in the new game is even more effective: infected humans bend over backwards, hands and legs on the ground like they’re crab walking, and explode in a mess of gore as the chrysalid’s limbs burst out of the their arms and legs, with the rest of the revolting creature’s body popping out of the infected’s abdomen.

It seems as if the XCOM operatives aren’t going to make as a couple of them fall prey to the chrysalids, but the Reaper Squad manages to contain the situation before the enemy multiplies to an unmanageable level. The captain of the Reaper Squad – none other than the creator of Civilization himself, Sid Meier – has a surprise in store for the aliens: a psionics expert himself, Meier uses the Sectoid’s commander’s strategy against it, using mind control to force Heavy Floaters to detonate their own grenades, instantly killing them.


A Heavy Floater hunts down Hendrik “Hawks” Mulder.

Despite a camera that seems to capture the intensity of each conflict from the most dynamic angle possible, it’s pretty clear that Firaxis’ XCOM update hasn’t changed much from the game it’s based on, which is certainly a good thing, as MicroProse’s game is generally considered one of the best strategy games ever made. The only real change I witnessed during 2K’s brief demo was the introduction of a grappling hook, used by XCOM units to quickly reach elevated terrain – a most certainly welcome change to anyone who remembers what it’s like to watch an X-Com unit “jump” off the top of a building in the original game.

The demo closes with a triumphant XCOM force ready to tackle its next challenge: a hulking, two legged walker, called a Sectopod, that’s grown a bit since its 1994 incarnation and now towers over XCOM units like a mini Metal Gear. It’s clear Firaxis is having fun with the license, and I can’t wait to see how XCOM: Enemy Unknown fares when it’s released on October 9th, 2012.

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