For as long as we’ve had the capacity for thought, mankind has looked up at the stars and wondered. What lay beyond those shining points of sky? Do other creatures, in other places, make their homes in the celestial? Are we alone in the universe… or are we not? And to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: which option would be the most terrifying?
On March 1st, 2015, both of these questions were answered in a single, violent stroke, as several unidentified objects touched down in the German town of Cologne. Mistaken at first for crashed satellites, reports quickly started flooding in. Of their strange behaviour; of their hostile intent; of their undeniably alien nature.
We are not alone. But whatever is out seems to wish it was.
On that day, the Council of Nations activated the XCOM Project: a global initiative aimed at combating the alien menace, and humanity’s last, best line of defense.
This is the story of what happened.
Hello, dear readers! As you may have gathered by now, what you have in front of you is a Let’s Play of the recently released XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A remake of the ever-popular and many-named X-COM, its announcement was met with equal parts delight and apprehension; the later announcement of a tactical shooter game by the same name not helping the latter reaction. Fans of the original the world over were hoping for a game that could capture the spirit of the older ones while improving playability and design, while fearing for much the opposite.
Now, confession: I myself never played any of the old X-COM games. Not the one. The closest I’ve gotten to the experience is through several Let’s Plays, such as this excellent X-COM: Apocalypse text LP and our own Rutskarn’s Unfit for X-Command. I am, in a nutshell, not really qualified to compare this newer installment to the older games. However, I did play the first two tutorial missions at Gamescom this year — on an XBox, no less — and found it to be quite entertaining. Because of that, and because of the largely positive reactions to my previous text-based Let’s Play, this idea was born.
Here’s the plan: I am going to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown as blind as I can. I’m not actively going to avoid information about the game, but I’m not hunting for it either. Beyond the aforementioned two tutorial levels, I have seen or read absolutely nothing about it. I’m going to play until I win, until the aliens eat me, or until it drags out and stops being funny; whichever comes first, really.
Starting a new game in XCOM provides you with three sets of options. To wit:
The difficulty seems pretty straightforward: Easy is for new players, Normal for regular players who like winning, Classic — set to evoke the earlier X-COM games — for regulars players who like losing, and Hardcore for masochists. I should probably start on Easy, but on the other hand, that’s not going to happen. I pick Normal for this game: I hope it gives me enough challenge for interesting stories, while allowing enough leeway for my nigh-inevitable mistakes.
The optional Ironman mode, as it so often does in games, restricts saving to only one auto-save. In practical turns, that means all decisions are permanent: no re-loading to undo earlier messes. Opinions differ about its entertainment value, but for a Let’s Play, it’s really a no-brainer: I wasn’t planning on loading anyway. Plus, I find that this permanency gives every action a little more gravitas; like permadeath in roguelikes. I might turn it off in a later game (i.e. ‘if I want to win’), but it’s in full effect for this game.
Finally, the Tutorial mode scripts a few of the earlier missions for explanatory purposes. I’m leaving this on, because I have absolutely no illusions regarding my own skill.
And with that, we’re off! XCOM: Enemy Unknown opens with the earlier-mangled Clarke quote…
…before bringing us to the town of Cologne, Germany. Impact site zero.
Objects streak from the sky, smashing into the asphalt oddly unharmed. Curious citizens draw near; what are these things? Are they alien? Are they hostile?
Oh, they are hostile. Green wisps of something — energy? — draw forth, people scream, and explosions rock the offscreen: more death from above.
There are no survivors.
Next, a briefing from the leader of the Council of Nations, who looks suspiciously like Agent 47…
…while in the background, soldiers suit up, grab weapons and pile into a VTOL. Time to find out what’s going on.
Now, as I alluded to before, I’ve played the first tutorial mission before. It is highly scripted: you make approximately zero own decisions. As such, I’m not going to do a play-by-play here; rather, I’ll tell you the three things this mission has to teach us.
The first lesson the tutorial confers is basic control. For reference, this is the opening screen you wake up to after the various cutscenes:
Like its spiritual predecessor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game at heart. On your turns (that is to say, my turns) each soldier can perform up to two actions. The five basic actions are Move, Fire, Overwatch, Reload and Hunker Down: Moving can be done twice, while any of the other four ends the turn. Weapon swapping, a sixth action, can be done at any time without using up an action.
Look at this schematic overview of how Moving works:
The blue line indicates the distance a soldier can move in one action, while the yellow line costs two. Moving directly into the yellow zone — and using up both actions in the process — is called Dashing: a Dashing soldier can cover a little more ground than one who Moves twice, and also gets some mild defensive bonuses.
XCOM is fairly uncomplicated in its movement. You can sidle up to doors and open them manually, but if you plot a path that would go through a closed door or window, your soldier will simply take the most expedient route:
Hand in hand with moving comes the element of cover: soldiers who end their turns next to obstacles automatically hug up to it. Cover is directional, and can either be full cover — indicated by a full blue shield — or partial cover — indicated by the half-full shield. Cover means defensive bonuses, which means being harder to hit. Conversely, a yellow shield — being out of cover — is bad business sense all around.
The first half of the tutorial is pretty much this: our soldiers run around, move from cover to cover, find some disgusting corpses and enter a warehouse, MAN-STYLE. It’s there that the tutorial dispenses its second lesson: a little glimpse into the nature of our enemy.
The second half of the tutorial mission involves the basics of combat. Firing a weapon brings up a neat little overlay, showing to-hit and crit chance and damage potential, zooming in from the 2D-isometric view to a more involved 3D line of sight:
What’s that? You want more numbers?
The other options aren’t as well explained, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at the tooltips. Overwatch, another old X-COM staple, basically puts a soldier on guard against alien movement in the alien turn. The hope, here, is that you can catch an alien out in the open while it’s moving from cover to cover, killing it before it does any more harm. Hunker Down increases a unit’s defense, but at the cost of removing their line of sight: you basically literally put your head down.
There’s more, situational actions, too. For instance, every soldier in this tutorial carries one grenade, which can be lobbed through its own interface:
As I said, this whole mission is pretty much scripted. This is done partially to drive home the third, incredibly important XCOM lesson: everybody dies.
Nobody is safe in XCOM. Death is only one unlucky shot away. True, these aliens are a little turbo-charged compared to the versions I’ll meet later (again: foreknowledge) but that’s just dramatic freedom. The point stands: four people go in, only one comes out.
As the mission ends, and the lone surviving soldiers falls back to base, the game reminds itself that it doesn’t really know where that base is, yet. Correspondingly, I get a choice of continents:
Every continent has a bonus attached… but for some reason, only Europe and America are open for me. Tutorial thing? Related to the difficulty level? Whatever the cause, it hardly matters for now: since I am a European in real life, it would be remiss of me not to base myself there.
The Skyranger (for that is what these VTOLs are called) touches down, and a lone, dejected soldier walks out.
A cutscene introduces us to the main base players: Dr. Vahlen, head of science, dr. Shen, head of engineering, and… green-sweater-guy, whose name I don’t recall actually ever seeing somewhere. We’ll call him Steve for now; Steve is head of communications.
As for the base itself: it basically looks like this:
Because we’re still in the tutorial, function access is restricted. First, I’m to visit the surviving soldier, whose combat expertise has granted him a promotion!
Before we get to that, though, I’m going to customize this man. Yes, I know he’s just been through hell. I’m not sending him out to fight more aliens — yet — but all I want to do is completely change his name, race, head, hair colour and style, facial hair and armor colour and layout.
In fact, let me just do that for all of the other eleven new soldiers I’ve gotten:
That SQ. next to Dima’s name indicates his superior rank: he’s a Squaddie, whereas all the others are mere Rookies (denoted by RK, sometimes). Which brings me back to this:
While Rookie soldiers are all alike, every soldier who makes Squaddie is assigned a class. I don’t actually know how many classes there are, or what they do: in this tutorial, your first soldier becomes a Heavy. This changes their weapon loadout and unlocks a small skill tree, with a binary choice at some levels. I’m quite curious to see the other classes, but the Heavy — who carries a rocket launcher and trades his assault rifle for an LMG — will suffice for now.
Finally, science: an introduction is made to the research system, which basically boils down to picking one topic from a list and waiting. There’s more to it than that, but this introduction is running long as-is. There are three options currently, one of which is unavailable due to lack of… ‘materials’. I opt to research Alien Materials, hoping for better armor.
And with that, our introduction ends. Steve is calling me to the Situation Room, which I’ve learned before means another mission; my first real mission, this time.
I sent out a Twitter call a few weeks back, asking for volunteers who’d like their names and/or handles pasted to various doomed soldiers. This list is the result of that. At time of this going up, the 21st of October 2012, I am still accepting submissions: leave a first name, last name, and possible gender preference in the comments and you’ll be added to the list ‘o doom. There’s no guarantee that late submissions see combat time, but then again, there’s no guarantee they won’t, either. Cancel that, folks, death-signup’s over: I’ve finished the gameplay part of this Let’s Play by now. Better luck next time!