XCOM: Enemy Unknown Hands-on (PC)

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Fans of the original XCOM game, UFO: Enemy Unknown, need not be concerned. Rather they should be jumping up and down with frothing anticipation – XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the first game to do the series justice since Terrors of the Deep. I’ve only put 15 hours into a preview version which stops at a certain point in the technology progression, but based on this time I can honestly say that out of all possible upcoming games I am most excited about XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

I’m waiting to play the full game before I start declaring XCOM: Enemy Unknown my ‘Game of the Year,’ but it certainly qualifies as GoTY material. Let me describe it for you.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot 1

An alien pod lands somewhere in Germany and the rescue squad sent in hasn’t returned. A group of nations scrambles to set up ‘XCOM,’ a special international organisation that they hope will protect the world from this new alien threat. You are put in charge of XCOM but you’re answerable only to the international members. Your first task is to direct a group of four elite soldiers to find out what is going on at the alien landing site.

You see the area through an isometric top-down view and on your turn you can move each soldier a certain number of squares and perform an action. You can also move a bunch further if you don’t perform any action except moving. Each soldier has a set of weapons (a rifle and a pistol, for example) and maybe a usable item (a medikit, say), which determine what actions they can perform. How you direct your soldiers on the battlefield and a little bit of luck will determine whether they live or die, and whether your mission is a success or not.

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What is unique about XCOM is that you not only take part in these turn-based tactical missions, but you also make grand strategic decisions about everything. If you bring back a new alien corpse you can choose to research it and discover new technologies which will help equip your soldiers better on the field. The research paths you take and the new facilities you build at the XCOM base affect the detail of the weapons or armour your soldiers have. Every decision counts. Money is tight and so are raw materials collected from alien ships so choosing what to build is a very tough decision.

Tough decisions are good, especially when it’s clear just what you are choosing between. Do I build a new Laboratory so that I can research faster and so try to catch up to the technology of the aliens and make things easier for myself on the battlefield? Or do I build a new Satellite Uplink so that I can reduce the panic level in a country and stop it from leaving the XCOM project (and gain some extra monthly income in the process)?

Do I sell the Elerium I harvested from the latest UFO crash site and use the money to increase my squad size and make battles a little less perilous? Or do I use the Elerium to build a better power station, which will save money in the long run?

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Everything in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is designed with such impeccable restraint, so there are little decisions to make all the time: ‘I should probably start excavating a new space in my base now because in five days time I’ll want to start building a Workshop so that I can get some more engineers which will allow me to build those new Laser weapons we’re busy researching, making my soldiers more effective. What space do I excavate, because if I build Workshops next to each other I get a bonus few engineers? What about my interceptors – do I need to upgrade them so I can take on bigger alien ships, should they appear?

It might sound overwhelming, but it isn’t – everything is so clear and well designed that the implications of what you’re doing is always apparent. All decisions are made with all the time in the world too, so you can weigh up your options before choosing to do anything. When you want time to pass you just have to go to Mission Control and choose to ‘Scan for Activity,’ which waits for aliens to appear or something else to happen (research or building to complete, for example), whichever comes first.

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Sometimes you’ll have to make a really tough choice – for example, when there were three alien landings happening at once and I could only choose one site to send my Skyranger to (because I only had one). I chose to let the panic in Brazil rise so high that they left the council because I really wanted the reward money from the Canadian mission to build a new satellite to ensure more nations were protected. There is a real sense of short-term versus long-term rewards – sometimes a short term loss is worth it to gain something bigger.

Of course, if enough nations leave the council it’s game over for you as XCOM director, which means game over for you the player, and you’ll have to start over again. In Classic mode this is a likely ending to your game, just as classic UFO players will know. Fortunately there is a Normal mode made for mere mortals (although once you’ve finished the game on Normal I expect you’ll want to play on Classic).

I haven’t even mentioned the variety of choices going on when you go on field missions, but I have to re-iterate that no other game I have played provides this sense of how your grand strategic priorities affect things on the ground, such as the survival of your beloved soldiers.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot 5

Those who have played the original game will notice some big differences in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but I can again reassure you that most of the changes are really good. The plot is the first noticeable change. There are little cut-scenes triggered as you get to certain points (shooting down your first UFO for example) which move the plot forward. You can happily ignore them if you’d like to, but for your first playthrough they do add a lot to the experience and lend a sort of B-movie sci-fi feel to everything which is very welcome.

The second noticeable change is the special abilities of your veteran soldiers. As each soldier gets kills on the battlefield they will earn promotions, and with each promotion comes a special ability of some sort. On their first promotion from Rookie to Squaddie, each soldier will be assigned a class – Assault, Heavy, Sniper or Support – and with this comes one base special ability. For example, Support units can throw one smoke grenade each battle, which increase defence within an area for two turns.

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An Assault soldier’s basic ability is Run and Gun: they can do a dash and then still shoot, but this ability can only be used every three turns. The Sniper can perform a Headshot, increasing the chance of a critical hit. The Heavy soldier can use a rocket launcher once each battle – a potent weapon when all your enemies are bunched together. As they are promoted further you can choose one of two abilities for each promotion. There are about six promotions in total, and the more experienced soldiers are worth their weight in gold, so you really don’t want to lose them in battle.

The one change that many will consider to be for the worse is the lack of randomly generated maps. From playing a number of different types of maps it’s clear why this was not possible – the maps are very meticulously crafted to offer lots of tactical options and reward careful planning, something that wouldn’t have been possible with random maps.

There is a huge variety of maps, and enemy placements and types seem to be very random, so even if you do ever get a map a second time you’ll have to be just as careful since you won’t know where an alien is going to pop up, or what kind of enemy you’ll encounter. The tactical battles are tense and immensely fun. There is always a chance your soldiers are going to die in one critical shot, so you have to be careful how you move forward and don’t let anyone get isolated.

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A safe option is to advance your soldier to the nearest bit of cover and put them on ‘Overwatch,’ which means they will react to any alien movement by shooting. If all your troops do this you’re probably relatively safe (although my guys were notoriously weak at reaction shots), but you’ll move very slowly through an area. Sometimes running forward with your Assault Caption can work since they’re equipped to handle reaction fire from the aliens and can shoot after dashing.

The options are legion. The stories are epic, like the time I blew up four aliens in a huge rocket blast, or the time ‘Shotsy’ (they get nicknames as they are promoted) strolled into an alien ship and took out three floaters and the alien commander without a scratch on him, or the other time my whole squad went into panic when ‘Road Block’ died from one critical shot and we quickly fell apart, or the other time I got very lucky when Lt. Zuzanka didn’t become a zombie – you’ll have to play to see what I mean. The variety of things that happen on the battlefield is huge, and yet it all comes from an easy to understand system that feels very natural.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot 8

The preview version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown sadly ended at a certain point in the plot and I am now saving myself for the retail version, as difficult as it is to stay away. The controls on the preview version (on PC) were mostly great, with the mouse being used for most things. Having played a bit at Gamescom on the Xbox 360 I expect to enjoy the game more on the console because of the gamepad controls (but I really don’t like the mouse as a gaming input device because it hurts my hand after a while). Of course, you could play with a controller on the PC too.

A few other little bugs were encountered, such as a bit of difficulty navigating when inside buildings because the walls wouldn’t always disappear at the right time. Shooting rockets and throwing grenades was also difficult because the control sensitivity would randomly change. These were really minor issues which I could happily live with in the final version – there was not a single game crashing bug and a considerable level of polish in this preview edition considering there is still a month to go before release.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the best game of its kind that I have played in a long, long time. It oozes atmosphere, has extremely clever mechanism design in every little nook and cranny and manages to be really accessible. Turn-based fans will love it (I can’t think who wouldn’t, from SRPG fans to 4X fans), and those who simply like good gameplay, I urge you to try it out – you might be surprised.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out on October 9th in the US and October 12th in Europe on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Thank you Firaxis!

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot 10

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot 11