XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

By Andrew Yoon, May 23, 2012 12:00pm PDT

Firaxis has a daunting challenge to overcome with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. As a true successor to the beloved strategy classic, it has to sate the expectations of those that played the 1993 original. But, it needs to be flashy enough to catch the attention of the modern console gamer. How does one go about making a turn-based strategy game appeal to the masses?

Simple: stay as true to the original X-COM as possible. Fighting an alien invasion where the stakes are so high makes for great drama, no matter what the genre. Thanks to the game's unforgiving and brutal difficulty, every move matters that much more. Whereas other games had me mowing down hundreds of enemies, Enemy Unknown made me feel like every decision I made was crucial.

Enemy Unknown has one of the most compelling tutorials I've ever seen. There's a lot of ground to cover: the game has to teach you how to move your units, place them in cover, and take advantage of their class' special abilities. By incorporating it into the narrative, Firaxis manages to teach players the basics in a way that's comprehensive without being pedantic. It also does a great job of teaching players that humanity is absurdly underpowered compared to its alien invaders.

Gone are the "action points" from the original game. Instead, each soldier under your command can move and take an action, or rush to a greater distance every turn. As you move the reticule around, you'll see how the unit can take cover. As in a chess game, your position is crucial. Do you take a more direct, exposed route? Or, do you try to flank enemies? Will you take higher position for your sniper? Will you break through a glass window for a surprise attack--or go in more stealthily?

The simple act of moving around is entertaining in XCOM, thanks to some great camera and animation work by Firaxis. The story unfolds dynamically as you play, and the camera cuts in close to show whatever you're doing. Whereas you can feel a bit detached from the units in a typical strategy game, the intimate direction of XCOM makes it feel far more personal. Seeing enemies respond intelligently--getting into flanking positions, setting traps, and taking advantage of the environment--makes the moment-to-moment gameplay all the more exciting. If you have a unit that's exposed for just one turn, the Sectoids will find a way to take advantage of the situation. And in XCOM, when a unit dies, he stays dead. Forever.

There's good reason why you want to ensure your squad gets out of each mission alive. Every member of the XCOM can earn experience points and level up. At the start of the game, you'll be able to set up your HQ at a locale of your choice. For example, do you station yourself in America where research might be faster? Or do you station yourself in Russia where aircraft might be cheaper? Once you set up your home, you'll be able to develop your soldiers, change their loadouts, and tweak their abilities. Some of the later abilities will prove to be quite useful--for example, "In the Zone" will allow you to shoot twice in a turn. So, keeping your soldiers alive is quite helpful.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. There are flying aliens, berserkers that can break through walls, and there are psychic aliens that can take control of one of your soldiers and have them commit suicide via grenade. Even worse are the aliens that can turn humans into new aliens. The chess analog doesn't work so well when dealing with encounters like this.

Excitingly, you'll eventually be able to turn the tables against the aliens using their own technology--and your squad will be able to replicate many of these abilities for their own use. Unfortunately, my hands-on time only covered the beginning of the game, so I wasn't able to get a feel for it myself--but given how much fun the beginning of the game is, I'm eager to see how these additional tactics play.

Whereas many games this E3 will try to wow gamers by showing off bleeding-edge tech, Enemy Unknown is a game that rests solely on its gameplay. Yes, even on PC, the game isn't particularly attractive to look at. But given how riveted I was by every turn that passed, the game clearly doesn't need bump-mapped, tessellated graphics.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be available this October on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.


Watch the Shacknews E3 2012 page to follow all our coverage of this year's show. This preview is based on a hands-on demo shown at a pre-E3 event.

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