XCOM: Enemy Unknown First Look Preview -- Let Lift the Fog of WarBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Mar 06, 2012
Firaxis Games took Civilization into outer space long, long ago in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, but that's going to be flipped around later this year when space comes a-knocking at Earth's front door. The aliens of XCOM: Enemy Unknown aren't the friendly, cuddly types, as fans of the classic turn-based tactical strategy series know too well. Those fans will be pleased to learn that Enemy Unknown doesn't mess around too much with what MicroProse first dreamed up in the '90s.
2K Games recently offered media in New York City the chance to take a look at how the fall release is coming along. It's... definitely XCOM. The basic framework of the classic game is very much in place. It's just streamlined, to the point that a console release isn't just possible, it's also fun. Strategy games don't have a great track record on modern-day consoles, but Enemy Unknown's lean design certaintly looks-- from a hands-off perspective for now, to be clear-- like it works.
The most fundamental change that longtime fans of the series will contend with relates to how you move your alien-fighting squad around each map. TimeUnits are no more. Instead, your squad members all have two options available on any given turn: move plus an action or a longer-range move with no action.
In essence, you're looking at two sets of move ranges each turn for your soldiers. Stay inside the smaller bubble, and you can fire a weapon or activate an ability; this is the game's "Dash." If you advance into the larger bubble, you'll probably want to end that turn with the soldier in question behind cover. Shield-shaped icons on the screen helpfully denote how much cover a given position offers; the more filled-in the shield icon is, the more protection you'll have.
I got to see how this plays out in a hands-off demo that found a team of four--an assault soldier, a heavy soldier, a support soldier and a scout--taking on the alien menace at an abandoned, fog-shrouded gas station. The original game's knack for framing the action against an eerie environment is alive and well in the new Enemy Unknown. Fog of war keeps threats hidden until you're close enough to spot them and a spooky soundtrack helps keep the tension high.
Obviously, the look of things is dramatically different with a new engine and shinier graphics powering the game. You'll still spend most of your time looking down on your soldiers from on high, but the camera will now dynamically zoom in for an over-the-shoulder perspective when various actions are performed. You can also position it however you like, of course.
It's not just a prettier scene that you're looking at, however. What good is all of the new, fancy tech powering XCOM if you're not going to be able blow crap up? Large chunks of the environment are destructible. In the case of the demo's gas station, that means everything from the pumps to the cashier's booth and attached diner to the parked, abandoned cars scattered all around.
The encounter starts simply enough, with our squad of four taking on a small group of Sectoids, the smallest and weakest of your foes. For those unfamiliar with the series, the little, grey-skinned creepers resemble the pop culture "standard" for aliens with their large, bulbous heads and enormous black eyes.
Teamwork is the big focus in Enemy Unknown, as well as using each part of the environment to take advantage of what your squad members can do. I watch as the demo's pilot moves the heavy into position behind a car facing the Sectoids, which are taking cover just outside the cashier's booth. Support and assault circle around for a better angle while the sniper rifle-toting scout uses a grappling hook to climb onto the overhang above the gas station's pumps.
The heavy uses his suppression ability, which does no damage but prevents the targeted enemy from moving. This give the support soldier time to get into position for a grenade toss, which takes out both the Sectoid and the car it's cowering behind.
Of course, the aliens don't just take this assault lying down. They put up the best fight that they can against superior firepower. A Sectoid inside the gas station uses its mindmerge ability to link with an alien outside, upping its deadliness. The mindmerged Sectoid uses its Overwatch ability, allowing it to take potshots at any soldier that crosses its line of sight.
The assault soldier learns this firsthand, and I watch as the camera dynamically drops down behind the Sectoid. The action slows down as green bursts of energy follow the XCOM grunt's line of advance, though all of them fortunately miss.
The three Sectoids are defeated in fairly short order, but another, more challenging alien menace awaits inside: Mutons. These are the deadly front-line soldiers of the invading armies. They're big, hulking, armor-wearing green brutes that come packing some heavy alien weaponry. In their midst is a Berserker, a melee-focused variant of the Muton that is capable of plowing straight through environment obstacles with a single charge.
The poor support soldier learns this firsthand when the demo's pilot directs him to line up alongside the diner's front door in an apparent attempt to storm the aliens waiting inside. The Berserker's not having it though. It charges straight through the wall that the human is hiding behind and beats him to a bloody pulp with its massive fist. This soldier is now dead for the rest of the game; death is permanent in Enemy Unknown.
While the loss is a devastating one for the XCOM squad, the mission is far from over. While the support soldier is getting pounded, the rest of the team takes up positions. The heavy gets a good line of sight on the front of the diner, but the Mutons inside immediately suppress him. The sniper takes an overwatch position looking down on the diner, but the front wall blocks his view of the aliens.
The assault soldier ends up being the key here. While the other three move into position in front of the diner, the fourth has been working his way around the building and onto the roof. The assault class has a Run and Gun ability, which allows for shooting during one of the longer Dash moves. In this case, that gives the assault soldier the opportunity to sprint across the roof to a hole located just above the Mutons waiting inside and attack before they can respond to this new threat.
A shotgun blast from the assault soldier quickly puts down the Muton suppressing the heavy. This in turn frees up the heavy to whip out a rocket launcher and take out the Berserker, destroying most of the diner's front wall in the process. With the wall now out of the way, the scout now has a clear line of sight on the final Muton; one shot, and it's down. Mission accomplished.
It's impressive to watch all of this managed with an Xbox 360 controller. The strict turn-based elements make playing without a mouse and keyboard a viable option of course, but even from a hands-off perspective, it's clear that the controls seem to be built around gamepad play. It's going to take a proper hands-on session to really get a feel for things, but Enemy Unknown certainly looks the part of the rare user-friendly console strategy game.
Missions are only part of the fun, as fans of the series are no doubt aware. Between missions you'll head back to the "Ant Farm," the nickname Firaxis uses for XCOM's underground home base. It's an apt name too; you see the base's many rooms in cross-section.
Each room has a unique function. There are labs for research and manufacturing of new equipment. A hangar where your upgradeable aircraft--used for taking on UFOs--are managed. Soldier barracks, which you'll access to upgrade your troop's abilities as they level up (and yes, you can name them all). All of this can be further developed as you advance through the game; you'll dig deeper underground and add more and more rooms to the Ant Farm as you go.
That's all Firaxis is willing to reveal right now. I ask Jake Solomon, the game's lead designer and a veteran from the Civilization Revolution console game's dev team, about the possibility of a multiplayer component. He gets really quiet and looks at me intensely for a moment, before replying that the mission that I just saw is "all we're talking about right now." Hardly confirmation of a multiplayer component, but even the mere possibility is exciting enough. We'll almost certainly learn more when E3 rolls around in June.
Everything looks new and shiny, but the minimal changes made to the framework established in earlier games is a testament to how forward-thinking the MicroProse classics were. There's an alien menace, an Earth-protecting force of soldiers and an array of battlefields to mix it up on. You'll direct these skirmishes on the ground while also maintaining a more strategic global picture of your ongoing fight against the invaders. Yup, Enemy Unknown is very much still an XCOM game.