XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Preview] – Isometric strategy

6 Mar 2012  by   John Robertson
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It’s tempting, whenever writing about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, to get caught up in the whole console vs. PC debate and whether or not a game like this should be played on a controller at all. For now, let’s forget all that.
I’m just going to talk about what I’ve seen so far. For the record, Firaxis demoed the game for us on a PC, but were using an Xbox 360 pad as the input device… it seemed to work just fine.
The demo took place over the course of a single mission, Operation Banished Goo. Having learnt of an alien abduction at a local petrol station, it’s our squad’s job to explore the area and eliminate any hostile alien presence. Sounds simple enough. After a brief cut-scene depicting a dead human body half hanging from a smoking car, complete with the scuttling crawl of the series’ ‘sectoid’ enemy in the background, it’s straight to business.
At first, the petrol station setting seems rather simple but closer inspection reveals a deceptively complex layout. Accompanying the ground level mix of petrol pumps and abandoned vehicles is a rooftop that can be scaled and a building housing a small cafe and service area. This building also has a roof that can be climbed upon, so long as you don’t fall down the hole up there that has been created by events unknown.
This layout looks delightfully seductive through the wonderful glasses that are the isometric camera, with your brain immediately scanning the environment in a bid to highlight potential strategic advantages and sure-fire death traps. Combine that with graphical integrity that holds up brilliantly when zoomed all the way in and you’ve got a gorgeous game oozing with the subtle touches of detail we expect from Firaxis.

At this point in the story (somewhere at the start of the game) the XCOM organisation has no knowledge of who/what is abducting people, where they’re coming from and what their combat capabilities are. You’re in the dark and you have no idea how to stop them.
But in the words of Jake Soloman, lead designer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, “this being a videogame, guns and grenades are always a pretty good starting point.”
Guns and grenades may be enough for some videogames, but it’s not enough here. The gas station is shrouded in a thick fog of war; yes, the kind of fog of war that has all but been removed from modern game design. It could be hiding anything, but this being an early level, we’re not expecting to die as soon we approach the fog and begin uncovering the map.
Our squad is made up of four members: an assault rifle carrying ‘support’ soldier, a heavily armoured ‘heavy’ weapons expert, a close-range ‘assault’ specialist and a sniper. Visually, Firaxis have gone with an approach somewhat akin to action figures as far as your squad is concerned. Armour is over the top, weapons are so large that it’s unlikely anyone in the real world would be capable of carrying them up a single step, and hair styles are either very big or very bald. What that allows you to do though is immediately identify who is who without having to highlight them or scan the HUD for clues.
Plus, the heavy in particular looks like a dirtier, tougher and more adult incarnation of Buzz Lightyear. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a good thing.

At the most basic level, each member of your squad must choose between two options per turn: move and perform an action, or move a very long way. By combining these very simple building blocks you can play out tactics of great complexity, especially once you’ve unlocked more abilities (so we’re told).   
Move next to a large enough object or wall and you’ll automatically take cover behind it, ridding you of having to hand hold and micromanage your soldiers to the nth degree. Once you’ve moved you can then bring up the action wheel and select how you want each of the team members to behave in that turn. With the heavy set-up behind a large support column, he proceeded to use the ‘suppression’ ability to lock one of the sectoids that had darted from the building behind a car.
With a spray of bullets all around him, the little guy has nowhere to go. If he wasn’t so ugly I’d almost feel sorry for him. But this is war, so instead someone flanked the pinned down alien and lobbed a grenade at his feet. Bingo. Dead. While still rather simple, the combination of moves and actions between your squad in a single turn allows you to dispatch enemies without putting yourself in too great a risk.  
To get a better view of the battlefield, the sniper was positioned on the petrol station’s roof. When atop buildings the upper most layers become see-through to allow you a constant view of the action. In this instance, during the enemy’s turn, two sectoids performed their ‘mind-merge’ technique which makes them a much more formidable foe through enhanced combat and defensive techniques.
Like the original game, both friendlies and enemies can employ the ‘overwatch’ ability. This gives up that individual’s current turn but puts them on high alert during the enemy’s move, causing them to fire at anything they see and don’t like. It seems to be very useful for funnelling foes down certain avenues by setting up camp and blocking off others, effectively limiting the battle space to the areas you want to concentrate on to give the greatest tactical advantage.

With the sectoids down it was time to storm the petrol station’s cafe/service building. Inside we found Muttons and a new enemy, the Berserker. Berserkers are able to kill a soldier with a single melee, so it’s a good idea to stand back and attack from afar. The assault soldier was placed on the rooftop and used the aforementioned hole to dispatch of everything but the Berserker.
Clearly not happy with being disturbed, the Berserker smashed through the building’s wall and killed a soldier standing on the other side of it. Death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown means exactly that, he/she will never come back again. It’s over for them.
Keeping your soldiers alive in order to level them up, teach them new abilities and (possibly) develop an emotional attachment to them has always been a key part of the series’ strategy. And, while this demo was largely combat focused, deep strategy options are promised. Soloman describes the combat of XCOM: Enemy Unknown as the “heart” of the game, and the strategy as the “mind”.
Much of this strategy is played out via XCOM’s HQ, the side-on ‘ant-farm’ which you’re able to upgrade and develop as you see fit. Within the HQ you can research new projects, train soldiers, pick up missions, buy and sell firearms and get feedback on your performance and what specific nations think about your actions.
Zoom into any specific room and the place instantly feels alive; the soldiers on the previous level are being healed in the infirmary, a spot for the fallen has been added in the memorial room, scientists are working on research assignments you’ve set. It’s a fancy doll-house for geeks.
How closely Firaxis can combine these two distinct elements will determine just how much the game appeals to both newcomers and veterans. It will also be what makes XCOM feel unique; there are lots of turn-based combat games and there are lots of strategy games, but there are very few that very successfully merge the two. 
In the confines of the fancy demo room, however, things looked excellent and there’s little to complain about. Actually, the screen was too big… my neck started to hurt. The perils of writing about games…

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