Fans concerned by the direction 2K Marin appears to be taking with its reboot of XCOM as a first-person shooter should be equally relieved by Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a re-imagining of the seminal 1994 turn-based strategy game UFO: Enemy Unknown.
Firaxis is the ideal studio considering its strategy gaming heritage, and a portfolio of titles including Civilizations III and IV, Sim Golf and Alpha Centauri. XCOM: Enemy Unknown aligns with its isometric 3D turn based expertise, but with a suite of new features, brings the series into the modern era.
The game’s opening animation sets the tone, detailing the activation of the XCOM (eXtraterrestrial COMbat) project as the first and last line of defence against a global alien invasion. So far, so Men in Black. Players assume the role of the XCOM commander, and the opening tutorial drops an XCOM team into Cologne, Germany as it investigates some suspicious alien activity.
Turn-based games have fallen by the wayside since videogames became a more immediate and interactive experience, but as with their boardgame brethren, the enjoyment is found in thoughtful placement and strategic execution. The selection of a unit within a squad of four highlights the area of movement, with two ranges available – a short stride to reach a close position and subsequently issue a combat command, or a sprint further out while sacrificing any further actions for that unit.
On the Xbox 360 controller, the left joystick moves the destination reticule while the right sweeps over the rest of the level, and though darkened areas that give an impression of the squad’s visual range. Strangely, rotating the camera is clumsily handled by the d-pad, a minor issue but nevertheless one that cumbersomely intrudes whenever trying to change perspective.
Environments offer a varied array of buildings and debris to use for cover, and multi-levelled structures that provide height advantages. Later tech such as jetpacks and psychic powers go a step further to make the additional vertical plane of combat more relevant.
Wrapping up the tutorial level brings players to XCOM command, an underground compound with multiple rooms viewed in cross section, much like an ant farm. Here is the science lab, engineering, barracks, the hangar, and the situation room. Most of these areas serve as cogs in the XCOM machine, from researching alien technology obtained in a previous mission, sending it to engineering to weaponise it, then equipping it on the team in the barracks.
The control room provides a global overview of the game - not just of how different countries are dealing with the alien invasion, but also how tightly affiliated they are with the XCOM project. What missions are carried out in certain countries will determine how committed to the project that country is – the more help they receive fending off the invasion, the more resources they’ll throw XCOM’s way, and if the project neglects any country too much, it may stop supporting the XCOM project altogether as the national panic levels rise.
The remaining hands-on time with the game showcased missions in the US, UK, and China. Missions varied from straightforward search-and-destroy to search and rescue missions, where the priority is escort a VIP back to the extraction area.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is shaping up to be a true return to form for a genre that has faded over the years, a worthy successor to one of the greatest games of all time, one that should satisfy the most dedicated X-COM fans while providing something fresh and original to a new audience.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown releases on October 12 for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.