Klei Entertainment hasn't argued the comparison. To the contrary, they were the first to make it, saying their upcoming game, Incognita, is in effect espionage done in the mode of XCOM. But you find out how quickly the game is not like XCOM when you unholster your weapon.
"I just want to see the combat," I said to James Lantz, a technical designer on Incognita's eight-man team. "OK ..." he said, with a suit-yourself tone. Before too long I was joined by Jeff Agala, Klei's creative leader, trying to make suggestions over my shoulder and wincing at the mess I'd created.
Klei is cultivating a reputation as a stealth boutique, thanks to last year's outstanding Mark of the Ninja and the buzz emanating from Incognita, due for release in early 2014. The buzz is justified. In many stealth games, stealth actions are expressed as style points — a more skillful way to complete a level, where a brutish one is always there if you just need to bull through. That posture will only make Incognita a lot longer and harder than it has to be and, with a time-limit on your caper, will only sink you deeper into situations from which you can't shoot your way out.
Incognita's turn-based gameplay and isometric playing field, plus its class-based actors and the tray of skills they possess all speak to the XCOM experience reborn on PC and consoles a year ago. But where XCOM is a game purely about combat — occupying a more advantageous position and attacking from it — Incognita is something of the inverse: Avoiding the least advantageous situation and exiting it. There's only one way to do that: Know what you're getting into before you commit.
"This is a game about information," Lantz said. "Turn-based stealth is a big challenge. Most people think stealth is hiding and waiting for a guard to go by. We think what gives the game its flavour is when you can gather information, make plans, and everything is more executed than in real-time stealth." Turn-based decisionmaking also allows for single-user control of squad members more precisely than in other squad-based games that may feature stealth components. No one is going to trip a security camera or a sensor unless you put them there.
Though it isn't shy about its commonalities with XCOM it does diverge from the latter in a couple of key areas. The first is that the game's map (an office, or "store" according to the internal lingo) is procedurally generated. Considering that other games' stealth objectives are often won by memorizing layouts and movement patterns, Incognita's random layout ethic will put the demand squarely on moment-to-moment planning and acting only on what your characters have actually learned (or acting foolishly on what they haven't.)
Line of sight also plays a stronger role in this game, as it should, triggering not only enemy behaviour but also aiding you in the times you do choose to take down a guard, either from behind or from the side. Just be sure if you do it with the stealth class' tranquilizer gun — silent, but not deadly — you get the hell out of dodge before the guy wakes up.
That was my problem. My stealth operative had already taken down one guard in the room I presently occupied while he peered through the keyhole of the next room to evaluate who and what was on the other size. Seeing only one other guard, this looked like a good time to take him down, too. I imagined the gun going off with that "pheet!" silencer sound you hear in the movies. Tee-hee!
Instead, two more guards entered the room, and while I was beside the doorway still in full cover, I had to take down both of these guys before either could sound the alarm and hurl shit directly into my fan. I brought over my engineer, a cyborg-like character done in a stylised 60s heist-caper way, to engage one. He isn't equipped with any silenced weapons, so after his shot, I had to be damn sure of mine. The engineer connected; I missed. And then the first guard, the one in the room we occupied, woke up.
Not only should I have recognised this was a guard shack and not the exit, after taking down the first sentry I should have moved away from the hostiles rather than toward them, and use the computers I had acquired to deactivate the security systems.
My decisions may have been rash because I was on the PAX 2013 showfloor and, as I said, I wanted to see the game's combat after watching another person prowl through the demo, which will be available soon when the game's alpha hits Steam Early Access. The two classes I played will be available in that build, with a third — the more combat-focused "sharpshooter" to come later.
"Overwatch" is a function in this game, more evidence it ain't hiding from the XCOM comparisons. Lest you think you can slowly move/overwatch in Incognita the same way as XCOM, you're wrong, You have a fixed number of turns, a timer in essence, to get what you're there to steal and GTFO before a SWAT team arrives to pound you. While the game will feature a somewhat linear narrative, it won't be revealed via cutscene. Instead you pick up story details from the documents you pilfer.
"This game will consistently force you to make choices you haven't made before," Lantz said. That's how you know you're playing it right. When you're making the choices you have always made — shoot that guy, run into that room once someone leaves — you're barreling down a one-way street to trouble.
When Incognita returns to my screen next year, I'll probably still do some dumb things — but I look forward to making my decisions with more intelligence.