XCOM: Enemy Unknown Demo Impressions
It’s hard to judge whether something is going to be good or bad in an encased, hand picked environment like a demo. Yes, while it shows you some of the great points of the game you can be certain the developer isn’t going to be upfront about flaws and problems because, in all honesty, if you’re on the fence about a game this is the thing that is supposed to sway your opinion.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown then, had one of the largest challenges I’ve ever seen; demo a product that could take hours to truly understand and making it fun was going to be a tough sell. Despite the fact that I was sold already, I am a little more wary of my expectations now.
Firstly the game looks great. As a fan of the original series I never really cared what XCOM: Enemy Unknown was going to look like, I cared about the units, the combat and the currency with which you forge bases over the world but was extremely impressed with what has come out of Firaxis. The game looks crisp and clean yet, in the demo at least, holds a dark and gloomy atmosphere extremely well. The lighting is excellent and plays into the sight mechanic of the team who are constantly on the lookout for the new alien menace.
The character models are pretty basic and simple but this works extremely well, although the game seems to take a pretty serious tone, I couldn’t help but get a B-Movie vibe from the demo which I’m extremely happy about. I hope this is design choice rather than a fortunate accident and is something that appears throughout the game; the semi-serious nature coupled with the fist-bumping marines plays extremely well as almost a parody of the large action blockbusters of the modern age and adds a little fun in the mix that felt refreshing in the short two-mission demo but I worry about the longevity of this content throughout an entire campaign and how quickly it could become stale and repeated.
The combat works exactly as before in the XCOM series; your team take their turns as individuals with which you can choose to Move, Shoot or use an action – and any combination of the three depending on character level and upgrade path – then the alien enemies on the battlefield take their turn to do the same. Often when you first enter combat your enemy’s movement is hidden out of view which adds to the tension as you first step foot on solid ground but soon enough you’ll start charging forward you come face to face with the alien scum and are quickly directed and taught how to effectively destroy them.
Annoyingly, this tutorial mission, while necessary, takes up half the demo time and is more of a scripted event than I had expected from the game taking away a lot of the control and freedom I want from the game. This mission sees the death of the majority of your squad while showing you the basics of combat and tactics in the game. The tactical-combat element is in full swing from the start as you first notice a huge focus on flanking your enemy while will have you spending a lot of time thinking about those precious few spaces you can move with each turn.
Cover is also an enormous concern for you, as players are advised to keep people in cover via a simple touch of the controls. By sending your soldier against any surface they will utilise whatever cover exists. Obviously, send them to a lamp post and it isn’t going to do a thing against enemy fire but pinning them against a shipping container ensures their safety. Cover is based on a simple metric which is visualised by a shield at each cover point. Half full means slight cover while full shield means complete protection. Things change if you’re flanked by the enemy so you’ll always be juggling your movements with the enemy to try and not allow them any progress around your line.
After the first mission, the game drops you out and allows you to form a very basic base, it shows you the research and upgrade mechanic for your soldiers and also a few of the bits you’ll be able to do in the main game. Most of the deeper mechanics here are barely hinted at but you get the idea of how your base will look and what you will be no doubt be looking at for the majority of the game.
While the demo showed very little of the actual world outside of the base it looked great in that short window. There is no indication how often you’ll see the Earth and how much time will be spent directing aircraft to destroy enemy UFOs but hopefully this will be a prominent feature!
You jump into a second mission where you’re given more free range this time; your new group of soldiers move through a dock to meet three enemy types and get a real sense of how the combat will work. This second mission also shows off the level mechanic where your characters will be able to climb ladders and pipes to get to the roof of a building and gain a vantage over your enemy but also you meet enemies that fly to counteract such advantage.
The demo ends with a small tease but overall I felt disappointed. I don’t know what I expected but I definitely wanted more. The strength of XCOM is building your team up, naming them and growing an attachment then sending this squad of hardened fighters from all around the world to fight the alien menace. It’s all about juggling budgets from different countries and chasing down enemy UFOs that dare enter your sector and trying to keep a squad alive that you’ve spent 8 hours developing.
The demo struggled with these elements and although I’m a little more confident things haven’t been dumbed down for a controller, I felt none of the connection I have with the original. I’ll end as I started then; Demos are a tough beast and with a game with such large mechanics and lingering questions I’m still left wondering what XCOM: Enemy Unknown will actually become. Although, I’ve got all the confidence in Firaxis and what they have achieved in the past this demo showed me very little of the general feel of the game, outside of the combat, to get me truly excited.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes out on October 11th in the UK on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3