It was almost 20 years ago in 1994 that gamers first experienced the unique blend of genres that was UFO: Enemy Unknown. This hugely significant title successfully fused together science-fiction and horror with varying types of strategy gameplay. Developers Firaxis Games have decided to remake and re-imagine this classic while updating certain elements for today's gamers. Will they be able to keep long-term fans satisfied and successfully introduce the XCOM universe to new players?
Our hands-on time with XCOM: Enemy Unknown began with an introduction to emphasise the key elements of the series and how closely the developers have stuck to those core themes. Arguably the most important facet of the series is that the player must make choices. These choices are incredibly important and have direct and meaningful consequences and Firaxis wanted to focus on this aspect. Whether it was on a micro-level during a particular battle or on a much larger scale during the construction of your base, each choice needed to be difficult and challenging.
The story of the game focuses on an alien invasion of earth by a mysterious and incredibly dangerous extraterrestrial force. Humanity as a whole is threatened by a technologically superior aggressor and it is down to the shadowy XCOM Project to come to the rescue. This enigmatic organisation is the last hope for the human race and must use the most advanced scientific and military technology to make an almost impossible last stand. It's a classic science fiction storyline and one which has been handled with style and aplomb.
Our preview began with a lengthy playthrough of the opening missions of the game. Your role as the Commander of XCOM is initially daunting but carefully introduced. You begin with the creation of a base and immediately the choices begin. Initially you have to choose whether to set your base in either the United States or Europe, each with differing bonuses. Being immensely patriotic (and favouring the research benefits) we chose Europe and were soon engaged in a mission investigating potential alien activity.
Flying there in an advanced troop transport it wasn't long before our squad was on the ground and the game's heavily tactical, turn-based combat system was introduced. Generally you will have four soldiers in your control during a mission and it is up to you to dictate their actions and keep them alive. The action is cover-based and stat heavy, but feels engaging and tense. Moving between cover is straightforward and simple, with clear colour-coded arrows and lines communicating what is and isn't possible during your turn.
Progressing through the opening mission was straightforward and quickly introduced core concepts. The game does lack some visual flare but retains the dark, modern-future aesthetic fairly nicely. It's a dark and violent title with mutilated and eviscerated civilians strewn over gore-sodden streets. Character animations are pleasingly hyper-realised and little sequences play when kicking open doors and crashing through windows. These little moments are cleverly integrated and flow seamlessly. One of the highlights was the updated but familiar soundtrack, an oppressive and fitting electronic score by series' composer Roland Rizzo.
Sure enough combat soon began against our alien opponents, with a tense and brutal fight. These may seem unusual words to describe what could be seen as slow-paced turn-based combat, but the action was very engaging. Flanking the enemy was important and gaining any advantage was essential. Grenades in particular were key to turning the tide of battle and it is possible to use height advantages to get above your enemy and keep the damage focused on them. Cover was also destructible so keeping on the move and planning ahead is a vital skill.
Keeping your soldiers alive is something challenging and even potentially heartbreaking. While it seems difficult to imagine forming such a strong attachment to virtual soldiers, building up your forces is a real investment. Anyone that dies due to your careless movements or tactics will be gone forever, losing all the experience and time you put into making them into an elite trooper. Later in the game veterans of the extraterrestrial conflict will be critical in defeating the tougher aliens and valuable in helping rookies to gain experience safely in the field.
After the battles were over we returned to the XCOM base where we began to upgrade our facility and begin researching the alien artefacts and Sectoid bodies that we recovered. As this is an X-COM title, research is a huge part of the experience and making the decisions about what to focus on is another area where difficult choices must be made. There are many subtleties and complexities when constructing your base. Careful planning can be useful in maximising bonuses (building adjacent labs gives a +10% research bonus, power stations next to one another give extra energy etc).
However, there will be times when your best laid plans go awry and you'll have to suddenly pump everything into one area you hadn't thought of to get what you really need.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown's emphasis on decisions extends to your choice of missions, as you can only tackle one at a time. By neglecting certain countries and areas of the globe you risk losing support from nations as they withdraw funding from the XCOM project as their panic levels increase. It's a careful balancing act as you try and undertake missions that will provide the most valuable resources you need while simultaneously trying to stop chaos and disorder jeopardising your plans.
The finale of our time with the single player element of the game was a more complex mission in a container port. With our four operatives (a heavy class, a sniper, a support and an assault trooper) we set about exploring some deserted buildings before being ambushed by several Sectoids. Using everything we had learned we spread our forces out. Two troopers were sent to cover the left and right flanks respectively; another provided firepower in the centre and our final operative climbed a nearby building and began attacking the aliens.
It was a tense and challenging battle. The enemy AI felt competent and threatening and they began to focus fire on the roof, destroying the cover of our only veteran trooper. Thankfully the rest of our squad performed and used several grenades to dispatch the aliens. Progressing further, working slowly and steadily we pushed two further Sectoids into a building before using our Heavy troop's unlocked rocket launcher to demolish the structure, killing them. However the victory was somewhat hollow as our explosive fire had destroyed their weapons, giving us less technology to research.
The single player component of the title is already feeling polished and addictive. The layers of strategy and tactics look easy to grasp but difficult to master. With four different difficulty options available, there is a wide range of possibilities. Firaxis boasted that only a single player from their tests has been able to complete the campaign on the most punishing mode, which is designed for X-COM series veterans. Ouch.
When the multiplayer mode was announced we were initially a little hesitant. After getting time to play it and seeing how it has been implemented, these worries have gone. Multiplayer begins with you receiving an allocation of points that you then spend on selecting your troops. Immediately you have to decide whether to go for a small number of elite, expensive troops or a greater number of cheaper, less effective ones and aim to mob your enemy. However a mixture of these is also an equally viable strategy.
In multiplayer you can freely mix alien and human units, which is initially a little strange seeing XCOM snipers fighting alongside hulking alien monstrosities. Balance is very important and this is done through the point system, ensuring that each individual human or alien has distinct strengths and weaknesses. With over two years of development on the multiplayer aspect Firaxis is confident that the gameplay is fair and entertaining.
Each player receives 90 seconds ensuring that the rounds are quick and fast-paced. The timer also gives all players a level playing field and stops speed equating to skill. The map we played was rather small and combat at close-quarters, making movement a key element for victory. Each attack had us holding our breath for that distinct hit and inevitably there were some huge disappointments as some of our more valuable units were hit with clever grenade tosses. Flanking not only improves the chances of a successful, accurate hit but also whether or not it will be critical and deal greater damage.
With such a vast number of unit combinations available to players it seems that XCOM: Enemy Unknown's multiplayer will have plenty of longevity and it is unlikely you will face the same set-ups too often. With our short time on this portion of the game it was difficult to see what the most valuable tactics were and our seemingly equally-balanced squad of both cheap and expensive units was roundly thrashed by a horde of low-cost aliens. However, we enjoyed the experience and it feels that this multiplayer portion is not simply a quickly knocked together addition.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown stays true to the origins of the series and the turn-based combat feels comfortable and refreshingly different to most of the fast-paced easily disposable gameplay of so many other strategy titles. The choices do genuinely seem to be meaningful and after an hour of the single player we were already planning carefully ahead. XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels promising and accessible for new players while still giving veterans what they want from an X-COM game.
With a release in October it won't be long until you're facing overwhelming extraterrestrial odds. Make sure to have some tissues at hand when you manage to mis-click and send your most advanced veteran to his death. Firaxis have already warned us they've tried as hard as possible to make XCOM: Enemy Unknown a challenge and we can't wait to take it on.