Xcom! XCOM!

Oh man, booted up the console (360) version of XCOM last night. Thoughts:

Nervous hope has been the name of the game since the series relaunch was announced. Firaxis is maybe the #1 developer I would have tapped to handle this sort of delicate task, so expectations were running high even from the get-go that the game might actually turn out OK.

I knew I was in for a treat when I saw my square jawed Delta Squad bravos storming this German industrial warehouse during the tutorial sequence. Clean, intuitive interface and core gameplay ideas ripped straight out of Necromunda (have I mentioned I played a hell of a lot of Necromunda in college? Coincidentally at about the same time as I was playing X-Com?). Right away these guys were tickling my buttons with their cheesy beefthick guns and armor and overly serious mannerisms. I kind of love that Sci-Fi channel special feel that everything has — you know, B-movie played 100% straight for the sake of the audience?

The tutorial forces your squad to be annhialated down to a single soldier, which I appreciated very much. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed hating on the sectoids and co. With their beady little eyes and hidin’ mindcontrolley ways they’re just thoroughly unlikable entities. Lots of enjoyable references to greenblooded alien scum, lots of ass whoopin’.

After I got back to the base I was delighted by the little details Firaxis has put in there. Soft-spoken avuncular old boss engineer and little-too-excited-about-anal-probing German head scientist are interesting characters in their own right. I love the Fire Emblem 1 style gimmick of everybody speaking directly to you, the player, through the TV. (cutscene: Control, speaking to the other NPCs says “We’ll do it if the commander gives us permission” – cut to Control walking up to you and staring at the screen “Commander, the crew has something we need to ask you”…)

Guys running on treadmills in the gym. Little vignettes of your actual squaddies playing pool or recouperating in the medlab if they get shot up on missions. Bagpipes in the memorial hall — the exhileration of watching the entire mission control pit crew erupt into spontaneous applause, whoops and high-fives “curiosity rover style” the first time you successfully shoot down a flying saucer. So much attention to detail and player experience here. It’s so obvious that whoever designed this game looooved XCOM.

One thing though: No autosave by default with the console’s default settings. I was on mission 3, and my team was getting absolutely annhialated by snakeman fire. Decided to pull the plug and restart from the beginning of the level. Brought up my console and… what? No saves, no checkpoints, no “reload from…” Nothing. I literally had to start the entire game again from the very beginning, tutorial included. Boooo. When was the last time you ran up across this old chestnut? Save early save often kids.

Why console? As vs PC? Dunno, apart from maybe a) Couch and 72″ tv and b) a sort of perverse facinatinon to see whether or not you could actually do actual XCOM, in 2012, on mainstream living room devices. I’m pleased as punch to report that the entire game controls buttery smooth with a controller in hand. Like a CSI investigator, I spent the whole evening scanning every portion of the available interface, watching how “hold R to view upcoming events” / “hold L to zoom around base” “Y = go to ! marker” was incorporated into a really, really smartly designed UI. I mean, it’d have to be, right? RTS on console is so crazy to begin with, the whole thing lives or dies based on whether they can actually design to the controller and, wonder of wonders, it all works beautifully.

Little marching ants lines snapping intelligently to cover points, subtle acceleration cues on the onscreen cursor and commands that are a breeze to input, smart use of UI elements to keep you from being intimidated from the controls. It’s as well designed for a couch experience as Xcom could possibly be.

Every now and then I run into a definite lack of something that only a series vet like me would even think to notice. No encumbrance, no “allocate ammo to your guys” no “picking up stuff off the ground”. No stamina guage, etc. Your dudes are promoted based off what the game guages as their strengths rather that just simply upgrading organically based on how you play with them. It’s much less micromanagey – maybe it’s a better game for it… but I miss the rediculous wheels within wheels that was the original experience.

Still, the whole upgrading chain is handled by people who obviously put tons of thought into design. I appreciate the little Necromunda / D&D 4E touches with things like your leader class units having basically to choose between 2 equally good options every time they rank up. Will you go with “lead the attack” warlord powers or will you sacrifice team bonuses for the ability to snap shot a few rounds after you take a double-move action? The choice is yours.

Also, damn, did they ever slam dunk the musical score. I love that soft synth that increases in intensity during those nailbiting evac runs.

So yeah, basically XCOM is something you should play.