The past and the future collide in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a throwback to the classic turn-based strategy game that kept one eye on the sky and a finger on the trigger. The gray skins return with more firepower and a taste for destruction in this iteration of the series. As before, you’ll need to use your head if you plan on keeping it. Players move their elite squad through what’s left of the war-torn streets of Earth one turn at a time as you try to out maneuver your opponent.
Developers emphasize that every action comes with its own consequence. From the weapons you take into battle to the choices you make off the field, every move weighs down on you like a ton of bricks. And if you don’t feel it now, that only means that it’s going to hurt later.
When I sat down to try out the first couple of levels, I never imagined the world of hurt waiting before me. With a couple of grunts at my side, we start out investigating rumors of a crash site in the middle of a populated area. With guns drawn and everyone on alert, the alien menace still managed to take all but one of my men. More reports come streaming in of strange objects crashing to cities. The war has already begun.
Even off the battlefield, the choices you make can completely change the way you play. After leaving the first encounter with our enemy, I needed to pick where I wanted to place the base. Certain areas allow you more resources or the ability to build for a little less. Again, every choice could mean an easy win or a staggering defeat.
XCOM gives us a sideways view of the base as we scrolls through the barracks, research facility, and even the command center. In this ant farm layout of rooms and tunnels, every little section requires some of the biggest choices. Research takes the items you find on the field and turns them into weapons for your soldiers with enough time, of course. Barracks, for example, let you equip your unit with the best weapons as well as level up individual warriors as you guide them through class specific tech trees.
And at the heart of it all, the command center keeps an eye on the sky and an ear on communications, looking for alien threats no matter where they appear. In my first mission, I had to choose between China and America. Picking one means that you take on that threat, curry their favor, and reap the benefits of keeping a strong ally in tow. Friendly countries lend you technology and a stipend to keep their shores safe from the enemy menace.
The one you don’t pick, however, feels the pain of a full out invasion as fear spreads through their lands. Refuse to help them out when they most need you and they’ll pull out from your faction with their tech and money behind them. As one of the developers mentioned, it will be nearly impossible to keep everyone happy. Someone must suffer in order to keep others safe. Sometimes the biggest choices don’t come from a trigger, but from the click of a button.
Back with our boots on the ground, I moved my troops around the field with ease from cover to cover. One of the goals for the developers was to get more people quickly into the game without sacrificing any of the difficulty. Selecting any of your soldiers instantly shows you where you can move while a shield symbol quickly show you when you’ll be in full cover and when you’re going to have your soft head poking out.
Alien icons light up when you trip their human senses when you pass by their line of sight. You can either bunker down for a fight or go into overwatch. With this second choice, your men stay down but alert. If any of those invaders happen to move past their line of site, they open fire in a blaze of bullets. Overwatch demonstrates just another layer of strategy in a title that’s built on choices.
Hunkered down and unable to flank the two aliens hiding in the building, I pulled out the big guns – a rocket launcher, to be precise. Having leveled one of my men previously to the heavy class, my solider gained access to the rocket ability. After picking the ability, the reticle turned from a single point to a dome that covered the front entrance of the building. With one pull of the trigger, the aliens as well as most of the front of the building blew up into bits of flaming debris and roasted gray meat.
Fans of the series will instantly recognize the destructible environments in the game. When you don’t have time to go around a building, sometimes it’s easier just to bring it down. The same goes for cover. That parked car might save you from a couple of bullets but a well-placed grenade makes it a ticking time bomb. Be careful what you hide behind. It might not always be there when you need it the most.
For one final tease, we got to see a later level of the game with the Earth’s forces in their final push against insurmountable odds. With a screech and a leap, we get up close to the new crystalis alien invaders that fans of the series will remember from previous games. Fast, nimble, and able to move from their starting position to “way too close” in a single turn; these creatures not only tear you from limb to limb, but use what’s left of you to create one of their own.
So when the world’s in danger and no ordinary solider can save you, there’s only one man to call: Sid Meier. Yes, the man who started Firaxis, the developers behind the game, is looking to finish the job. The man behind Civilization showed off some of the psi powers as he took control of one of the creatures and made him eat one of his own grenades.
We also got a taste of a jet pack solider who took out two of the crystalis thanks to the “in the zone perk” that allows you one more shot when you kill an enemy with a shot. A cloaked scout managed to make it to the top of a building with a grappling hook. With a clean shot in her sights, she took down the last of the brutes without any trouble.
Even if you happen to be new to turned-based combat, XCom: Enemy Unknown will strap you in for one hell of a ride where you need to make every choice count. It’s good to see a game where you need to use you brain more than you need to use your trigger finger. Expect in invasion to hit on October 9th on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.