XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview – The Sectoids Return

A few months ago, 2K Games rewarded some of the most patient gaming fans ever by announcing the first proper sequel to the beloved strategy game XCOM in well over a decade. Enemy Unknown is a return to form for the genre-defining franchise, and the first time that an XCOM game has been developed for both PC and console gamers. At a recent demo in New York, the Firaxis Games development team took some time to show off some of the similarities and differences between the classic and the update, as well as talk about just what Enemy Unknown has in store for fans and newcomers to the series.

The parked car resting at a stoplight was the deceivingly tranquil opening shot of the Enemy Unknown demo which seemed to downplay the severity of the situation facing humanity. However, it quickly became abundantly clear that this was no ordinary street, but one that had been overrun with Sectoids, the alien race that first appeared in UFO Defense, the first XCOM game. Humans are making their last stand to fend off the alien invasion, and it’s XCOM that’s leading the charge.

As the demo played out, the game’s designer, Jake Solomon, explained that Enemy Unknown follows very closely in its predecessors’ footsteps, by stating that, “no other game combines epic world changing decisions of the strategy layer with the intimate heart-pounding decisions of the combat layer,” which, for the uninitiated, is how a good XCOM game is played. It takes place in two different spheres of existence, the micro and the macro, which are very different, but wholly intertwined gameplay arenas. On the ground, you play as foot soldiers in the army to protect modern-day Earth from being ravaged by an unknown, alien assailant. Whereas back at Mission Control you make the world changing decisions of where to attack or defend next through troop deployments which influence the entire war. Neither the strategy nor the action is more important than the other, but in order to save the world, you need to master both.

Solomon walked through the first part of the demo by showing off just how complex the combat portion of the game was by dropping four soldiers (support, assault, heavy, and sniper) into battle against the Sectoids. The gameplay is turn-based, and moving your soldiers around the board is simple, with only really two options at any given time: move and attack or move an extended distance. As the four soldiers were shuffled around the board some of the strategies behind cover, support, and destructible environments became instantly clear as something as simple as an assault on three Sectoids resulted in an intense firefight. Once the lower level characters we taken down, we got a glimpse at some of the stronger enemies, the Mutons, and one of the new characters, the Berserker, a significantly stronger alien class, able to deal very large amounts of damage. During the process of taking down this second wave of aliens, the support soldier was killed to demonstrate that in XCOM when you die, you’re out of the game forever. This is especially important since you need to manage your teams for every battle scenario. However, with the right tactics (and a well placed sniper), even the intimidating Berserkers can be taken down.

Solomon segued from the battle scenario to the game’s other layer by making it clear that “if combat is the heart of XCOM, then strategy is the mind.” Before venturing to the next mission, we were given a tour of Mission Control, where all of the ins and outs of XCOM are managed, from character customization to researching alien equipment and building new ships. In order to grasp just how all-encompassing Enemy Unknown is, all you need to do is spend some time examining the intricacies of Mission Control, or, as the developers refer to it, “the ant farm.” The series has long been known for its attention to detail, but this update seems to go above and beyond particularly when it comes to customization, as well as bringing individual soldiers to life. Once you’ve allotted resources and tweaked your team, you can initiate the next mission and head back into the field, and from the demo’s glimpse of the next mission, it looks like it’s going to be epic.

Firaxis seem to have included all of the key elements of an XCOM game, and layered on some new ones to appeal to the modern day gamer. With a few more months of development time to go, and a team that are obviously huge fans of the original, Enemy Unknown stands a fighting chance to bring action/strategy games to the masses.

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