XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Preview] – Space Invading21 May 2012
Turns out that shooting aliens in a turn-based strategy game from an isometric viewpoint with soldiers that look like muted versions of Buzz Lightyear is a lot of fun. Of course, if you’ve played the original XCOM games, that’s something you’ll already be well aware of. However, for those of you without experience of the legendary series that began life in 1994, that may well be news to you.
Given the series’ following and grand ol’ name, generating hype for XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not going to be a problem for publisher 2K Games. Developer Firaxis has a different problem on its hands though, one of expectation and long memories. 1994 was not all that long ago, many of the fans that were taken with XCOM: UFO Defense (UFO: Enemy Unknown in the UK) are still indulging in the franchise today. Those that are not still harbour fond memories, and it’s Firaxis’ job to not only provide something wonderful but also not tarnish the elements fans have come to love.
We’ve now played the game for ourselves and the signs are good. Then again, this is Firaxis we’re talking about. Firaxis is Civilization nowadays. Firaxis knows strategy games.
Not only do Firaxis know strategy games, they know how to make strategy games engaging and appealing to those that don’t consider themselves the long-lost child of Sid Meier. Our demo begins with a nifty tutorial designed to introduce us to the controls and basic abilities of our squad. We learn how to position each of our squad, how far they can move in a single turn, how to fire, types of firing options, how to read what quality of cover an object will provide as well as some basic tactical options such as flanking, dashing and using elevated positions.
We’re playing on a PC using a 360 controller and it works absolutely fine. Yes, a mouse is still more suited to controlling your movement icon and instructing your team who to shoot, but there can be no serious complaints about the feeling Firaxis has imbedded into the pad.
Learning how to coordinate a mission is important, but knowing how to set your army up and plan for the future is equal to it. As with previous XCOM games, researching, upgrading, accepting missions and monitoring the state of the alien invasion is performed through a base lovingly referred to as the ‘ant farm’. This hive of activity can be personalised as you see fit and is where you’ll define many of the tactics you’ll use in field missions.
Alien technology recovered in the field can be broken down and understood by your research team in the science lab. In the early missions we’ve played, this involved learning about either new types of armour or boosting the health stats of your soldiers permanently. Choices must be made, you can’t have everything. Once researched, it’s the job of the engineering team to construct your new found tech and make it battle ready.
Here’s the bit that differs from the majority of strategy games; what you research and build doesn’t automatically get applied to your entire team. Instead, you must spend money buying individual items for each squad member – if you want a set of armour for everyone on the next mission, you’ll need to buy them all individually. If you can’t afford it you can’t buy it, and then the decision becomes which of your team to equip and which will miss out.
Items researched, built and equipped, it’s time to head out and do our bit to stave off the alien invasion. We’re given a choice between two missions, one on the east coast of the USA and one in China. No matter which you choose the map and mission will be the same, with cosmetic alterations to differentiate between the locations.
Once you’ve chosen a mission, you can never replay the one you passed over. The result is panic. Shun the China mission, for example, and China’s panic rating will increase and the country will slip further into the control of the aliens. Conversely, the country you choose to help will reward you with money and a reduced panic rating for each successful mission undertaken on their territory.
Just how this will play out and how it will affect the standing of the world as a whole is not yet known. Again, however, this is Firaxis. Firaxis know strategy games. Our confidence is likely to be repaid.
Controls learned, soldiers equipped and mission chosen it’s time to head off. Our mission takes place on a small map located in a dockyard. It offers a decent opportunity to put the tutorial’s lessons into practise, particularly those involving cover, flanking and using elevated positions. Cover can be destroyed and flanking has the potential to leave your crew isolated if you don’t scout the area properly, therefore a shallow learning curve is probably a good thing.
With troops positioned, you’ve various attack options at your disposal to remove the first couple of aliens from the map. You can simply fire at them directly, which is the best option if you’ve successfully flanked them. ‘Overwatch’ mode which will lock your troops into place and order them to attack any enemy that comes into view and range. Suppression will shoot an alien’s cover and prevent them from changing position. Or, if you’re so equipped, you can fire grenades, rocket launchers and other special weapons.
All of these options are useless if you’ve not explored the field of battle properly, though, and this is where the fog of war system comes into play. Each soldier has a realistic view of the map, preventing them from seeing around corners and through walls. From our experience, this represented a great danger when storming buildings as (unless the place is lined with windows on all sides) your view of the interior is severely limited. Caution is advisable, entering buildings without backup in close proximity is downright stupid.
Turns out that the map only houses two further aliens, both of which were taken out by firing a rocket into the building they were hiding in; destroying the whole place and the ugly bastards within. Yes, scenery is destructible.
All of what we played involved low-level troops that had seen few upgrades, meaning that each one of your squad played in a similar fashion due to the lack of skill tree specialisation. Later in the game troops (if you can keep them alive in the face of perma-death) become much more powerful and unique, as was evidenced by a short hands-off demo of some of the game’s most powerful soldiers.
Included in the arsenal of the late game content are one-shot-one-kill sniper rifles, optical camouflage (dubbed ‘Ghost Armour’), the ability to use mind control and take over the movements of enemies and a grappling hook with which to climb buildings without using the ladders and pipes that are likely to be well guarded.
Our demo ends with a sneak peek at a soldier packing a wide range of abilities, and most of the above. Literally, the embodiment of the founding father, it turns out that one of XCOM’s most fearsome soldiers is Sid Meier himself, his likeness (including balding head and broad smirk) plastered over the character model in the ultimate act of fondness and respect.
If Sid Meier’s presence within the game results in just a small degree of his design ability permeating throughout the experience then we’ve got nothing to worry about.