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Quick Take on the X-COM: Enemy Unknown Demo

To dismiss with this point first, I know Firaxis calls the game XCOM and not X-COM. Screw that noise. We all know better. As for the demo, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about it. It’s very, very brief, taking you through two largely scripted missions and then depositing you at the menu. This isn’t a demo so much as it is a guided tour, so there’s a lot we don’t know (at least those of us, like me, not on the golden ticket list for preview code), including just how much freedom of play the actual game will offer. This was extremely restrictive, but it hints at a world of promise. Here’s what I can tell you based on the 50 or so minutes it took to go from beginning to end on the PC…

– The game looks good. The environments, soldiers, and aliens are all visually appealing. It was easy to play this and think back on what the original looked like and simply be impressed with how far we’ve come. The thought of taking the experience of yesteryear and making it look like this is delicious.

– The tactical element is alive and well. In the first mission you can only do exactly what the game tells you to do. The second mission opens it up a bit more so that, by the end of it, you’re making your own calls. At this point that glorious old feeling returns – moving your squaddies around from point to point, trying to limit their exposure, and find the ideal moment to rip off a shot at a concealed alien. Sometimes with this kind of remake attempt you’re sternly reminded how rose-colored glasses can taint memory. Not so here. The X-COM formula can still work and it’s obvious with even just a half mission to really play.

– It’s playable. If you tried to play the original X-COM and found it all too convoluted, either originally or in trying to make it work today (which it really doesn’t so much), you’ll find this a much more approachable experience. It’s possible, for long term play, it’s oversimplified, but I appreciated in the demo the simplicity of each soldier having two actions to make that can consist of two moves or a move and fire. (There’s some variation here, but at its simplest, this is how it works.)

– The squaddies are distinguishable. For X-COM to work, having an attachment to your squaddies is essential and, although it doesn’t let you make any real decisions about squad composition, it’s clear that element is there. By the second mission I found myself wanting to protect my lone veteran soldier, ensuring he was in position to both have the greatest impact –Go rocket launcher! Go!– and not be exposed to aliens hiding in the shadows. The national flags on the back of each soldiers armor was a nice touch.

– All this does not mean the game is out of the woods. The formula may work, but it’s not at all evident from the demo how much variability and freedom the game will have. I’m not saying it won’t be there, but this demo is so limited that almost nothing of long-term value can be deduced from it. Research, mission selection, and more appear to be very A-B choices right now. Do the mission in the US and get some scientists or do the mission in China and get some money. Either way one country will like you and won will resent you for it, so it’s really just about which reward you want. I doubt all mission selection will be this binary, but if it is that would suck. I’m not for or against the action camera yet (see the screen above). It adds a certain something right now, but will it get as tiresome as slow-mo deaths in Fallout 3/New Vegas? It could. (Not that it matters all that much. You can turn it off.)

– The PC controls work. I’m not going to tell you that there’s no console design influence at play here, because there obviously is, but you can effectively use them and they don’t feel kludgey.  The reality is this is not a PC-only game and to expect a more advanced/complicated interface is unrealistic. The only thing to hope for is that there’s a fair balance that doesn’t feel wholly compromised and that effort looks successful.

All in all I do wish the demo offered more, but that’s a testament to the fact that what it offered sets the stage for a game that could be every bit as remarkable as the original so long as, when the training wheels do come off, what’s left is an experience that’s every bit as variable, tense, and outright hilarious as we’re being led to believe. I’ve put a bunch of shots in the included gallery. Hopefully it works since I’m not used to doing those.

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at ToddsFoolery.com.

19 thoughts on “Quick Take on the X-COM: Enemy Unknown Demo

  1. I loved it.

    It’s a little kludgy but was apparently cobbled together with great haste so that is to be expected.

    The first mission was very rote (though wonderfully creepy as hell at times), the second was great once they let you into the fray properly. Nice touch being able to fly through windows and doors or gently nudging them open.

    The look is quite nice and the base is utterly closed off, same as research. The specializations looked neat; lots of choices with promotions.

    Given the very glowing previews and my own experience I am excited as hell. It felt XCOM-y, and I have a lot of faith in Firaxis.

  2. 1) it felt really, really good to stack up my men against the door and get ready to face whatever was inside
    2) also, opening doors without actually moving through them! great news for the survivability of my men! remember the days of running in your rookie one square and then running them back out.
    3) seems like they took most of the inventory management out of the game, which is probably good news for accessibility to the game. I won’t lie though; I will miss stockpiling hoards of ammunition and having one guy be my ammunition mule during long missions.

    1. I’ve been playing the original recently (for the first time actually) and the point #2 is huge. When I need to finally breach an enemy craft I will set up my good squad in a perimeter with lines of fire, pop off a smoke grenade, and send in a suicide rookie. If they survive the trip and take out the alien then great. If not then my colonel behind cover will shoot over their still warm corpse to take the bugger out.

      That said having no way to open doors without going through sucks (and why often I use explosives to create a new one, auto shot in, and anything in line stands a fair chance to get hit too).

    2. I have seen people complaining about the ammo and not being able to swap weapons on the go.

      I get that, but dropping some of the fiddly crap for actual gameplay isn’t a big loss to my mind.

      I love that they have special objectives too, some of them sound brutally tense

      X-Com is one of the best damn games ever made, but such a product of its time. The remake may not equal it, but personally I think getting rid of some of the overly pointless stuff isn’t so bad.

      1. yeah, I wasn’t really complaining about lack of inventory management since that’s just some nostalgia tinted perspective. I also remember those times when you forgot to order Cannon Ammo x50 and then your interceptors went out unarmed. OOPS.

        1. Let’s not forget raising up an amazing squad of accurate, fast-moving badasses and then finding out they’re all highly susceptible to mind control and thus worthless at the end of the game. 😉

          That always drove me nuts.

          A lot of the streamlining is going to make this more fun to play; I can’t help but like that promise.

  3. The original runs fairly well if you pick it up on Steam, since it runs using DOSbox. The reality is that the game is nearly impenetrable. Lack of tooltips, keyboard shortcuts, and proper explanation of mechanics left me nearly lost at first. Thankfully the internet exists, and after a few hours on various wiki’s, youtube let’s plays, and a sacrificial trial and error game (restarted after about 45 minutes of play, and several very poor choices that left me broke) I was able to get a game going.

    At this point I understand the quirks of the game, and have been able to greatly enjoy the tactical/ strategic mix of the game. That said the flaws do mar the experience. Seeing what Firaxis has done to the formula excites me. Being able to see unit stats during loadout (and not having to rejigger loadout every. damn. time.) would be a godsend. Having your raw recruits be more than door opening/ blind corner exploring meatshields is a good thing. The ammo thing may drive people nuts, but realistically how often was that important? If you ran out, it wasn’t usually due to a tactical choice, rather you simply forgetting to reload the Skyranger due to the obtuse interface.

    1. I’d like a *bit* more options with inventory management/loadout control but I am looking forward to not micromanaging every soldier again.

      The demo gave me a bit of that old feeling so I’m down when it comes out.

  4. I’ve played the demo, and been keeping track of the game as it nears release. I’ve never played X-Com but I like turn based tactical games. I’ve seen videos of developers playing and the squad customization options look good. You can change the name, nickname, armor skins, facial skins. This will go along way to attaching me to my squad and really caring about their survival. I’m thinking of starting on normal difficulty (vs. Classic) but I will try out “Ironman” on the first play through(ie. any actions or decisions cannot be undone by reloading a save, when the shit flood hits, you have to sink or swim).

    1. Ironman adds so much to the first. I’ve been playing that way, and it’s very tense. I only allow a reload when a mistake occurs due to the obtuse interface.

  5. I’m super stoked. But this is the third article I’ve read that pees all over the demo – not that I have any reason to believe that such is not the correct thing to do. Seems like I should probably just wait for launch. :)

    1. Well, it wasn’t really my intent to pee on the demo. I just think people should understand what it is before the get into it. Like I wrote at the top I think this is much more of a tour of X-COM and the UI than it is a demo of the gameplay. There’s just not a lot to learn about what the game will play like in hour six (or even hour two for that matter). Whether that’s a mistake or not… eh… I’m fine with it. For me it did what it was supposed to do – make me want to play the actual game. :)

      1. The funny thing is, RPS was similarly apologetic – but that was because they had the press build, and knew what they were missing in the demo. I’ve never seen the vocal gaming press want so badly to see a particular obscure game succeed. But in this case, I’m definitely in the same camp – I want compelling SP brain-hurt games to make a comeback.

        1. Part of me feels like the other X-Com — the shitty FPS reboot — is the world’s most complex marketing campaign for this version. Get every fan of the original pissed off at the reboot, then say ‘oh hai guys, there’s also this version coming out!’

  6. “Research, mission selection, and more appear to be very A-B choices right now … I doubt all mission selection will be this binary, but if it is that would suck”

    Agreed, I doubt it but hope this are just some “special-mission” types, really liked how the old globe map worked, sometimes you had 2 crashed UFO’s and just 1 SkyRanger, you needed to take decisions based on you time left, you could always rush through the second mission with injured soldiers on-board or rushing against the “night scenarios”.

    1. This kind of forced choice seems to be a heavy focus in the re-imagining. Moreover, the simultaneous mission choices is probably there to combat the kind of hard-core XCOM gamer who figured out the original, saved and reloaded constantly, then turned an early lead into 100% coverage of the globe with no missed missions.

      Someone has already figured out how to turn the difficulty settings on the demo up to Impossible, and that plus Ironman mode will turn the entire game into the kind of slugfest you’re describing.

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