It seems too good to be true. The resource management and research tree of X-COM married to the incredibly powerful Unreal graphics engine is a prospect that should have any self-respecting action gamer drooling with anticipation. This could be the first time ever that we see an accomplished 3D shoot 'em up with a convincing and challenging strategy game attached to it. Not that we're taking anything away from games like Klingon: Honour Guard or Jedi Knight, which are brilliant games in their own right. We just feel there are only so many straightforward shooters people can take.
With X-COM Alliance poised to deliver exactly that, we went to MicroProse's Chipping Sodbury HQ to quiz game designer Andy Williams on what will surely be, barring a completely unforeseen disaster, X-COM's finest hour. Andy explained how X-COM Alliance was conceived: Unreal undoubtedly has a fantastic graphics engine. It's a good game that oozes atmosphere and has a couple of moments of sheer brilliance. But we thought we could take the engine and do a lot better. You could argue that Unreal was a pretty good showcase for the engine but we felt the gameplay was fairly linear. We want to create a game that not only surprises you at every turn, but has lots of unexpected events to scare you rigid. Alliance will have ominous dimly-lit levels which you will hardly dare to step into, and times of genuine tension that fill you with anxiety in the way that a truly great game should.
Having seen the game in action, we can vouch for the fact that MicroProse are well and truly on course for realising their dream. The levels are absolutely massive and much more varied than those in Unreal and even Klingon: Honour Guard, the game which had PC ZONEs newly-converted Trekkie Steve Hill well and truly hooked for the entirety of last issue and beyond. The detail in the scenery is hugely impressive, with decorative walls and ceilings, ornamental landmarks and drop-dead gorgeous lighting effects and explosions. Of course, fantastic graphics do not a great game make, a fact that many people who have played Unreal will be more than happy to point out. Fortunately, the heritage of the X-COM series opens up gameplay possibilities that will make other 3D shooters look pale in comparison.
X-Com Mark 5
While much of your time in Alliance will undoubtedly be spent killing alien scum in your latest attempt to save the world from a fate worse than round-the-clock showings of Neighbours and Noel's House Party, an equal proportion of the game will be spent simply staring at your screen thinking about what you are going to do next. Research and resource management will play as important a part in Alliance as it did in the previous X-COM games. Any alien weapons or items picked up during the 3D sections of the game can be researched and then used in later missions. You can have up to five X-COM soldiers in your squad for each level, but you'll need to make sure you've given them the best equipment at their disposal before sending them in to take on the aliens.
This is what has always made the X-COM series so damned addictive, a fact I pointed out to the team during my visit in the hope that they will take an Cit ain't broke so don't fix it' approach to designing the latest game in the series. Andy was quick to respond: X-COM fans have no cause to worry with Alliance. We're not setting out to produce a 3D shoot 'em up with X-COM gameplay tagged on at the end as an afterthought. What would be the point of using theX-COM branding without exploiting it fully? You will be in no doubt throughout the game that you are indeed in the X-COM universe, but this time the action sections of the gameplay will be better than ever.
Let's Get Together
The nature of Alliance's gameplay allows for some very interesting multiplayer options indeed. Imagine the scenario: five human players form a team. One of the players takes the role of commander and directs the rest of the crew, who have no idea of what's going on in the gameworld apart from what their commander tells them. Pitch them against another human team with the same set-up; to say this sort of scenario would be ten times more tense and satisfying than standard Quake deathmatch games is an incredible understatement.
Of course, teamplay is only a small part of the multiplay experience in Alliance. Normal deathmatch levels will be supported with players having the freedom of Alliance's massive levels in which to happily blow each other into tiny little pieces. All of the weapons and items discovered in the single-player game will be available for use in multiplay, making for one of the most varied deathmatch experiences ever. The team are still finalising details of yet more multiplay options as gamers in the UK are becoming increasingly aware of the joys of multiplayer gaming and are rapidly catching up with their US counterparts, who have been enjoying deathmatch fragging en masse for some time now.
Finally, having licenced the best graphics engine available and ensured quality of gameplay with the X-COM branding, Andy has turned his attention to the audio side of the game, which he feels is one of the most important factors in the overall experience: The audio side of things is often criminally overlooked. I want sudden noises to startle you at every turn, over-the-top sound effects for weapons and explosions, and deeply atmospheric understated music to create a real sense of tension. If we can get all these elements right we will end up with a very atmospheric experience which you'll find well and truly scary.
Stop Andy, you're frightening me, please stop.
Prepare For Battle
To succeed in X-COM Alliance you need more than a quick trigger-finger and an enormous gun. Choosing the right X-COM units for each mission is of paramount importance. After each mission briefing you're taken to this screen to pick your squad armed with the information you've just been given. Different units have different abilities and excel in different areas. For example, units with low psionic (mind control) powers will be useless on a mission against aliens with high psionic abilities and will be more likely to panic when things go wrong. The decisions you make on this screen will probably be the deciding factor in determining your overall success (or failure) in the mission.
X-Com For Everyone
But what if you're not a fan of the X-COM series? Jeremy Wells, who wouldn't touch any of the earlier X-COM games with a shitty stick, takes a long hard look at Alliance.
X-COM is by no means everybody's cup of tea. The tum-based combat of the earlier titles, the in-depth research trees and brainpower required to finish the games has meant that the X-COM phenomenon is lost on many of those addicted to the likes of Quake and C&C. With its lush graphics and intense gameplay however, X-COM Alliance looks set to change the way the series is viewed forever.
I've got to admit that I've never really seen the appeal of X-COM. Chris raves about it at every opportunity and maintains that it's the most addictive and intense series he's ever played - and let's face it, he's played a lot of games.
Intrigued by his undying commitment to the X-COM cause, I tagged along with him on a recent visit to the MicroProse HQ in Chipping Sodbury where the game is being developed to see what all the fuss was about.
I have to say that I was more than a little impressed with what I saw. I'd dabbled just a bit with X-COM Interceptor, but felt that it was little more than a smart Wing Commander/Privateer clone. X-COM Alliance however is a game that I'm desperate to play. Not only does it look fantastic, but if the developers can pull it off (and Chris is convinced that they can) it could be the next step in third-person 3D action games. Because it combines action, strategy and resource management in one game, it really could be a Cthinking man's Quakd, and that's a game that I'm as keen as Chris to get my hands on.