XCOM: Enemy Unknown Hands-on Multiplayer Preview -- Human InvasionBy Miguel Concepcion - Posted Aug 16, 2012
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." This Arthur C. Clarke quote is what greets you upon firing up the single player mode in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It sets the tone for a very effective, concise, and above all, dramatic opening cutscene of an alien invasion. XCom developer Firaxis for gets to the point and there’s very little time for mystery: these oddly shaped creatures aren't from around here and they're hostile.
This latest preview session of Enemy Unknown first took me to the single-player campaign as I took tutorial orders in guiding a squad to one of the locales of the first extra-terrestrial disturbances: Hamburg, Germany. The mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in strategy RPGs, where different actions cost different turn units. In XCOM, you can move to nearby cover and attack in the same turn or you can spend a character's turn dashing a long distance.
Similar to Valkyria Chronicles, the sense of immersion is maintained by not having movement grids. XCOM instead uses multiple movement ranges, one for the distance you can go if you dash, another for shorter distances that will allow you to attack in the same turn. And with any deep, tactical game, there are both environmental variables to consider, not to mention strategies involving flanking enemies to increase one's accuracy.
Firaxis could have easily focused on just recreating the classic XCOM gameplay, satisfying the majority of the fans of the original title. Yet the studio also devoted time and resources to load Enemy Unknown's story mode with a ton of cinematics. From Shining Force to the upcoming MechWarrior Tactics, many strategy games feature most of their dramatic moments in brief dramatic cutaways of the battle. With Enemy Unknown, it's easy to notice that Firaxis took a lot of care in crafting its cinematics, even when characters are not in attack phases.
Even if the studio didn't preemptively storyboard these camera angles, you can tell they put thought into giving these shots dramatic flair with such techniques such as low camera positioning and dutch tilting. The best and most important component of these scenes is the lack of load times from gameplay to cinematic, whether a gunner is shooting from cover or a support class is leaping through a window.
The characters are realistically proportioned though their intentional lack of detail give them an almost cartoony look to them. I think it fits the game, especially when juxtaposed alongside the merciless scenes of brutality at the hands of the aliens. Don't be surprised if a supporting character (or two) die earlier than you expected.
This story driven feel goes beyond the battles. Back at base, my commander made mention of a soldier's performance in the last mission and thinks I should give him a promotion. In other words, this was time for me to learn how to upgrade my operatives. Making the most of your time at your base in between battles will be crucial, not mention where you decide to establish your base after the first mission. Each continent has its advantages, whether you want a 50 percent discount on aircraft and aircraft weapons in a North American base, a 30 percent funding boost in Africa, or instant autopsy/interrogation results in South America.
Multiplayer was not available in the original XCOM even though its gameplay would have lent well to adversarial matches with friends. The inclusion of multiplayer in Enemy Unknown gives the seasoned strategy gamer an unpredictable level of challenge arguably similar to the harder difficulty settings in the story mode. Firaxis has limited the player counts to 1 on 1 matches, giving the multiplayer mode both a do-or-die and chess inspired feel.
The pre-game portion of multiplayer focuses on recruitment, which is all the more engrossing when your team can comprise of both humans and aliens. The host establishes a point count which is the currency you spend on recruits. Will you go with high firepower and heavy armor with a low squad count, have a larger party with moderately powered weapons, or go for something in between?
After deciding on a class for one of your character slots, you can customize that character further whether you have a specific sniper skill in mind or if you want to trade a grenade for a medpack. 20000 points can disappear quickly across six squad members though it's fun to tinker with different weapon, item, and ability settings to make the most of those points. How Firaxis assigns point values to units is how they've managed to balance XCOM’s multiplayer; it'll be interesting to see how creative consumers will be in making the best possible squads.
There is an unsurprising fog of war element to these matches where your map view is only as revealing as your best reconnaissance abilities. Firaxis went with the sensible level design approach of not copying and pasting story maps but instead recycling assets from those locales. Expect a ton of cover spots including crates in train yards and vehicles in diner parking lots. Learning the maps through repeated play will obviously be a huge help, though there is a pleasing sense of unpredictability each time since the game will randomly decide where your squad starts out each time.
That also doesn't include the anticipation and unpredictability of how your opponent decided to form up her squad. Not exactly rock, paper, scissors, not exactly Magic:The Gathering, there are countermeasures to most every kind of ability and soldier in Enemy Unknown. If you have a feeling you opponent will use flying aliens with sniping abilities, having a cloaking ability will help a lot in getting an edge.
Our own Eric Eckstein had a chance to jump into a multiplayer match of his own at gamesom 2012 this week, and brings back this report from the front:
In my playthrough, I created a squad with a Sectoid, Sectoid Commander, Thin Man (some guy in a suit who spits poison, what???), a Chrysalid (which can implant other Chrysalids in humans), and two soldiers. I was totally ready to own, started off the match and had my Alloy Cannon-wielding soldier grapple up to the nearest rooftop. Suddenly, a Heavy Floater appeared, some monstrous alien robot-looking thing, and it took a shot at him, almost killing him.
Thinking he was a goner, I wanted to take it out with me so engaged Rapid Fire, which allowed me to shoot twice…and blew the creature away. Luckily, the next round, the enemy missed him and I was able to get away but not before a Muton Berserker came crashing through a wall and smashed his face into the ground.
Revenge, however, was all mine, as my Sectoid Commander successfully mind-controlled the Brute and I took him inside a building to start fisticuffing the rest of the enemy team. The more I play XCOM, the more impressed by how easy it is to pull off actions and how cinematic it feels when big actions play out.
The invasion begins on October 9, 2012 when XCOM: Enemy Unknown ships on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.