XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

When 2K Games revealed they were rebooting XCOM, fans of the classic tactical strategy title rejoiced…until the other shoe dropped. Developed by BioShock 2-maker 2K Marin, it turned out the game was actually a story-driven FPS sharing little with the turn-based title that spawned it. But then the publisher pulled a “psyche!”, announcing they also had a remake of the mouse-and-keyboard favorite in the pipeline titled XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Crafted by the Sid Meier-led Firaxis Games, this more faithful re-imagining of the 1994 hit aims to please those longtime followers who’d rather tax their brains than blister their thumbs. Based on our recent demo, though, it also possesses the potential to pull in the Call of Duty crowd.

Like the Microprose original, Enemy Unknown takes place in an alternate version of our modern-day world, one where evil extraterrestrials regularly abduct citizens and do god knows what to them. As commander of the government-funded XCOM, players represent humanity’s final hope of having an alien-free future. As described by lead designer Jake Solomon, this unfortunate predicament presents players with “epic, world-changing decisions on a strategic layer, and intimate, heart-pounding decisions on a combat layer.” While our demo definitely hinted at the former’s depth, it was decidedly more focused on showcasing the latter’s alien-splattering action.

Unfolding at a roadside fueling station, our mission saw four XCOM soldiers—support, assault, sniper and heavy—take on some of the series’ signature Sectoids. The little gray men look like close cousins of E.T., but they’re not interested in phoning home; in fact, if the gory cutscene we witnessed is any indication, they’d rather feast on human flesh than Reese’s Pieces. Of course, being a turn-based strategy game, going in guns-and-grenades first wasn’t an option for the Firaxis rep steering the demo. Instead, he needed to use his noggin before choosing very specific moves and actions for each of his characters’ turns.

He first directed his support soldier to a cover spot, and then had him release a barrage of suppressing fire. Apparently a smart move, as it put the Sectoids on the defensive and set the tone for the next several turns. While the big-eyed bastards spent most of their time just trying to survive, our guy used his subsequent turns to strategically place his sniper on the canopy above the gas pumps, have his heavy toss a car-demolishing grenade, and command his assault soldier to feed a Sectoid a face full of buckshot.

Perhaps feeling a bit too confident after reducing the grays to pulpy puddles, he then sent his support soldier to scout the building’s interior. Sadly, this proved too risky, as a hulking Berserker—who happened to be hiding inside—broke through the wall and pummeled the poor grunt into the pavement. A well-placed sniper slug and rocket-propelled grenade later, and the rest of the team managed to take out the remaining threats. Still, the mission didn’t end as successfully as it started.

Without being behind the controls, it was difficult to experience what we suspect was an intoxicating mix of cerebral strategizing and on-the-fly decision making. We did, however, appreciate the fact the support soldier, who proved himself a hero early in the battle, was now occupying a body bag. Like the original game, Enemy Unknown has no problem permanently killing characters players have spent days, weeks, or even months customizing. Solomon explains the importance of this potentially bold move: “When your soldiers die, they stay dead. Those kinds of real consequences create a tension, a drama, and a fear we believe is a hallmark of the XCOM series.”

While retaining such gameplay aspects from the original XCOM is important to Firaxis, they’re clearly not interested in duplicating its nearly 20-year-old presentation. Complemented by a visual style falling somewhere between the realism of a military shooter and the cel-shaded charm of Borderlands, Enemy Unknown utilizes different camera perspectives depending on the scenario; players see a birds-eye view of the action when plotting their next move, but get a nice over-the-shoulder close-up when choosing a character’s actions. Furthermore, polished cut-scenes and physics-displaying destructible environments inject some welcome cinematic flair.

Combat was clearly the focus of our demo, but Firaxis also gave us a teasing taste of that aforementioned “strategy layer.” When not engaged in boots-on-the-ground action, players level-up and customize soldiers, research alien technologies, engineer new weapons, and plan their missions back at headquarters. Managing resources isn’t the genre’s most glamorous activity, but Enemy Unknown’s UI keeps it interesting by going beyond the usual number-crunching and stat-tracking of similar games. Given a god-like view of what Solomon calls the “ant farm”, players scan the rooms and levels of their subterranean base. A sort of diorama, complete with tiny animated action figure-like characters, the headquarters contains specific areas that can be accessed for further interaction; select the science lab, for example, and you’ll soon be face to face with your lead technician.

While not as easy—or exciting—to show off during a hands-off demonstration, this aspect of Enemy Unknown has the potential to be dangerously addictive. Based on the combat’s engaging mix of emotionally-driven action and thoughtful strategy, we look forward to joining our XCOM elite in the trenches. However, it’s this promise of our decisions back at base ultimately playing out on the battlefield that’s really got us itching to rescue the world from evil-doing extraterrestrials.

Expect more details on XCOM: Enemy Unknown as its fall release date for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 approaches. In the meantime, head here for more new screenshots.

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