XCOM By Any Other Name Could Be GreatS

The reason I love XCOM so much, why I'm so worried about its future has likely more to do with a stolen car and an obscene amount of hoagie sandwiches than it does the Sci-Fi strategy game.

You see, in the summer of 1994 I was between jobs. Having been fired from the arcade I ran and busy wrapping up my two degrees at University of Maryland - College Park, I decided not to find work and just float through my last year at school writing for the college paper, the Diamondback.

But right when the Summer of Brian was about to kick off a model friend of mine managed to leave my new car parked in her questionable neighborhood with the keys in the ignition.

The next day I woke up blissfully car-free and with oodles of time to wile away in my Brooklyn, Maryland row house.

I spent that entire summer playing PC games, but none more than X-Com. I even had a routine. I'd wake in the morning. Eat a bowl of cereal. Play X-Com until the evening. Go downstairs and make an enormous hoagie sandwich, eat it and drink beer until I passed out. And then repeat.

So it's probably not fair for me to expect this new XCOM, this reboot of a series that I don't think really needed rebooting, to live up to the fond memories of the Summer of Brian.

I pointed this out to Martin Slater, studio director at developer 2K Canberra, in a roundabout way.

XCOM, the XCOM being shown at E3 that looks and plays like a shooter, seems like a pretty great game, but it doesn't seem like an X-Com game. X-Com, pre dash omission and pre-reboot, was a game played floating above the action, looking down at your field agents. It was a game of pacing, of tactics, of turns.

If you're going to change the game so completely, I asked Slater, why bother using the name XCOM anymore, even if you remove that dash?

Slater talked about how his team and 2K Marin, which is also developing the title, looked at the core experiences of the original X-Com games, how they plucked from those games the notion of fear and terror, of surprise and going up against the unknown.

Yes, yes, I got that, but I still don't get the name. It's a solid looking game, I tell Slater, but not an X-Com looking game. Finally, seemingly exasperated with the repetitive nature of my questions, Slater snaps back.

"We believe this is an XCOM game," he says. "That's the bottom line.

"We hope the old school gamers who love the original are going to understand this is XCOM."

And that's what I wanted to hear, I think, deep down, that Slater wasn't just echoing what others had told him, that he understands that this XCOM was tapping into an all together different sort of fear of the unknown among a certain set of gamers.

While I'm not completely ready to accept that my X-Com, the X-Com of a long summer punctuated by hoagies and beer, bears more than a passing resemblance to the new XCOM, I am willing to wait and see.

I have to admit, some of what I saw at E3 did recall those days of gaming in the 90s. The game certainly looks new and improved. The command center of the original X-Com games, shown as a series of charts and graphs floating over a rotating Earth, is now a place with a physical presence. You can walk around in this command center, visit the guy who makes the weapons, talk to a lady with an armful of manila folders, each representing a mission.

And that works, not just because it's more visually pleasing, or because it adds character and personality to the game, but because it seems easier to navigate.

The missions see the biggest change of course. As with the original X-Com titles, you have to decide which missions you want to take on. There is a unspoken tension behind your decisions. In the world of XCOM, you are part of the government but don't have much of a budget. Money, instead, comes from those missions and you ability to collect new technology and resources.

The mission itself plays as a first-person shooter. There are some elements of the original X-Com hinted at in the gameplay. You do, for instance, have some agents along with you. Though it looked as if you don't have any direct control over them.

Slater said that the agents can progress and that they are "critical to your success in the misson." But he declined to elaborate.

The mission I watched started in a typical 1950s suburban neighborhood. The agents arrived to a suspiciously quiet street, a car stopped in the middle of the road, door ajar.

The player-controlled agent, William Carter, opened a paper map to show the surrounding area and where the 911 call, which triggered the mission, came from.

Walking down the street toward the home, the agents spotted a trail of what appeared to be tar. Carter pulls out a camera to take pictures of the trail for research back at the lab.

Following the trail up a grassy hill next to a house, a few black blobs jump out and then disappear around the home, dodging fire from the two other agents.

Inside the home the agents are attacked by these giant tar-like blobs. While blasting them with a shotgun can eventually take one out, make-shift bombs which set them on fire, do a much better job of killing them.

Carter also has a lightning gun with him that can quickly kill off a blob.

One of the neat things about the battle is that the blobs don't just look different, they behave differently as well. Instead of hopping around on the ground and moving between rooms, these blobs attach to the ceiling, bounce off walls, seep through the floors and even going into the pipe of the house through the sink.

Eventually, though, they're taken out.

Outside of the house a portal forms in the sky, and a pillar slowly appears out of it. The pillar then falls apart and reforms to become a spaceship. The ship shoots beams of white light at the agents. When it finally connects with one the agent breaks apart into hundreds of little bits of light and dissipate. It's an uncanny, spectacular site.

The original X-Com delivered its suspense and scares by only allowing you to see the enemies on the map that were in the line of sight of your agents. This XCOM, it seems, delivers that fear through spectacular effects, surprising creatures and unnerving attacks.

So in that sense the game makes good on its promise to live up the X-Com name. What I didn't see, and what still worries me, is any real use of tactics in this game.

Slater says that XCOM will give gamers strategic and fast-paced gameplay, but I only saw the second and the first is the thing that will really help set this title apart from the glut of top-shelf first-person shooters all headed to consoles next year.