In an age where shooters reign supreme and games are valued more for their action than their storylines, we were surprised to discover Firaxis’s XCOM Enemy Unknown, a reimagining of the XCOM series of sci-fi turn-based strategy. We say reimagining because it retains the look and feel of the old XCOM, yet given a nice modern touch-up and what seems to be a very fun and addictive multiplayer mode.
Our preview of XCOM Enemy Unknown began with the first mission – a rigid tutorial that introduces you to both gameplay and plot. Here we met the soldiers that would form the basis of our troops in XCOM, as well as the invaders: the enemy unknown who will be our enemy for the rest of the game. XCOM is really titled after the fictional organisation that was formed to take care of these alien ‘sectoids’ and the rest of their ilk.
Similar to StarCraft II, we were brought to a quest hub after successfully eliminating the first sectoid threat. This quest hub is where you choose new missions, upgrade and customise your individual soldiers, and even mourn your fallen in a memorial hall. You are also able to purchase upgrades in the research labs.
Here, the kind folks at 2K Games explained that research modules, like missions, work on an ‘either, or’ basis. Selecting one may very well lock out the other upgrade for good; the same went for missions, albeit with more political and financial fallout.
For our second mission in the single player campaign, we were asked to choose between aiding the USA or China. Helping the USA would give us four scientists, while aiding China would have them invest monetarily in the XCOM initiative. With more scientists, you’ll be able to research at a faster speed (as well as having more research options) – whilst choosing the investment choice would, naturally, provide you with the funds to purchase weapons, gears, recruitment, etc.
But there are negative side effects for neglecting a country’s call for help too often, as citizens within will grow in to panic. Let the panic grow beyond control and that country would cease its investment in you. And thus, putting a damper into your plans for running XCOM efficiently and effectively.
Our most enjoyable moments during our hands-on demo (which already looks impressively polished, mind you), was definitely without a doubt its multiplayer campaign. While skirmishes are limited to just two players with each on an opposing team, you’ll be able to add anyone from the weakest Sectoid to the meanest human machine-gunner in Archangel (read: flight-empowered) armour. The key strategy is to create a team that is suitable to your style of play, and without exceeding the ‘pool’ points allocated to both players.
While the composition of your team plays a huge part in multiplayer, strategy is equally important. Building several heavy units and sending them head-on towards the enemy works less effectively than having a sniper sneaking around on rooftops. Heavy units are also less effective in an environmentally-busy map, but are great when you’re playing in a small arena.
We gave multiplayer a go on two different maps – one concentrated in and around a multi-storey building, and one in a graveyard – and concluded that the beauty of XCOM is that it’s not a game that relies on reflexes, unlike many modern strategy games. Anyone can attempt it on a level playing field, because it only requires a basic sense of strategy and quick-thinking. You could also say XCOM’s new multiplayer isn’t that much different from a game of chess. And that always makes for good, multiplayer fun.
XCOM Enemy Unknown launches on October 18 2012.