If XCOM is a Shooter Then So Is Mass Effect

Illustration for article titled If emXCOM/em is a Shooter Then So Is emMass Effect/em

The news that 2K's XCOM reboot would handle combat as a first-person shooter sent longtime fans of the PC strategy series on a gamer's tour of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, rage, of course, lasting the longest. A year after it was first shown at E3, and about a year before its release, we might be seeing a game that can sway some of them into acceptance?

The X-COM series' gameplay legacy is in its tactics, in its understanding of the enemy and in the economical use of the time within your turn. XCOM presents two mechanics that address the in the choices . The result is a squad-based game that looks much like Mass Effect.

As agent William Carter, your time in the field is going to be wasted if you handle all the wet work yourself. We saw a shootout with the aliens (the "Outsiders") in which the feds were constantly outgunned. Tactics such as diversions and deployable cover, not raw firepower, were essential to breaking the invaders' emplacements. You'll call these in as the leader of the team.


The game's tactical view looks a lot like Mass Effect 2's. When you pop it up, Carter takes cover, whips out a walkie-talkie, and the game goes slower than bullet-time but not a full pause. A wheel popped up listing the skills and technologies usable by the two agents you'd brought with you, selected out of a lineup in your briefing room at HQ. In this case, our demonstrator brought along the commando and the "master-at-arms." The commands you give them also are mappable to the D-pad.

What's a smidge different is the concept of time and how it's applied. Certain actions will cost time units, and ones that are infeasible will have a unit cost that is above what your team has at present. In our case, it was overcoming one of the Outsiders' "Titans," basically a big badass cannon, and appropriating its technology for the team's use. Originally, taking it over required a time unit cost of 20; the team only had 10. That meant weakening it with conventional fire from cover. When the tactical view came up again, subduing the Titan now had a time unit cost of 10, and the team turned the cannon into its asset.

What happened next also honors XCOM's ancestors. The team had the option of saving the alien technology and bringing it back to HQ, where scientists could make use of it to create new weapons or exploit the aliens', or deploy it in the battlefield for a limited use that had a big offensive upside. We got the latter, and it was lovely. The Titan annihilated a platoon of Outsider reinforcements just as quickly as they had beamed in.

The sense I got from the demonstration was that the tactics would be mandatory in nearly every engagement; if there was a control to set an agent's behavior to an always-do-this default (letting you handle the combat more or less by yourself), I did not see it. But that's because, in addition to innate qualities like weapons and defenses, tactics like diversions and demolitions are resident in you, the group leader, and are specific acts involving at least two characters, if not the entire squad.


Visually, the game looks great. Set in 1962, Carter and his agents are Kennedy-era G-men fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses, button-down shirts and slacks. They also pack some throwback-scifi gear, prototypes made of chrome and wiring. Somehow, it all fits together, but then I'm a sucker for these displaced-era science-fiction games, such as BioShock, Resistance and Fallout.

But this will still be the 1962 America you are defending, albeit one in which the Outsiders have arrived to terraform Earth into something more fitting their bizarre dimension of origin. Our demonstrator said we'd be seeing the story of a nation at a time of conflict, in the era of the civil rights movement. Notably, a scientist the team had been sent to rescue was identified as someone persecuted for both his sexual orientation and his political sympathies.


Carter's inspiration, we were told, is as the embodiment of the omniscient protagonist of the original X-COM games, i.e. you, as the game's commander. They wanted to imagine what this man was like at the beginning of a colossal existential threat, where he acquired his sense of leadership and strategy.

In other ways the game gives nods to what made the XCOM series so compelling. I can foresee players spending a lot of time at their headquarters. It's where you'll acquire new agents and train them with new skills and equip them with new technologies acquired with XP. You'll have your choice of team members for each mission and sometimes the decision won't be so obvious. You may elect to take a sub-optimal team member because he needs to rank up. In other cases, you may have a greenhorn pressed into service because a downed agent who is not revived in the mission will still limp through, but be out of commission for sometime after.


At HQ the XCOM scientists are repurposing and reverse engineering the Outsiders' technologies, and a team of analysts are receiving emergency calls from all over the country and building out a profile of cases, which you may choose to play in any order. These choices, of course, have ramifications for what you can accomplish next, but not to the level of complexity your mission decisions presented in X-COM's strategy titles. Some missions in XCOM, will offer you technology or objectives that are useful in the near term, others more into the long term.

This is not an isometric-view turn-based strategy game, and I don't suggest that XCOM is any better or worse off imagined as something other than one. It is, simply, different. For many who poured hours upon hours of play into a series widely hailed as one of gaming's best, this departure does make it not a true brother of the originals. And the obvious similarities to Mass Effect may win it some new criticism on that front.


Yet though both games feature this element, I would no more call Mass Effect 2 a shooter than I would XCOM. And it does look fun, and certainly intriguing. And perhaps that can get some through the final stage of their XCOM grief, and even on to being happy to see its name on a disc again.

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No argument here, Mass Effect 2 was dumbed down to a shooter thanks to EA and PS3. Expanded audience, guys!