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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Exceeds Our Lofty Expectations

 

As enthusiastic as I’ve been about Firaxis’ XCOM strategy remake since writing the GI cover story, my opinion has only improved since playing a decent chunk of it this morning.

XCOM’s core concept shines through beautifully. The tutorial mission wastes little time in introducing players to what XCOM: Enemy Unknown is all about, killing off three of your four squaddies within ten minutes. Learning the controls is a snap, and giving out orders on the 360 pad the demo used couldn’t be easier. More importantly, picking up on the base level of the tactical skills XCOM demands is a matter of minutes.

As promised, aliens have no qualms about murdering your troops. Leaving a squaddie in the open when aliens are about is all but a death sentence. Even worse, most cover doesn’t last long against alien weaponry – nearly everything is destructible, and even if a shot misses it’s likely to blow a hole in something. On the plus side, even the basic human weapons that XCOM operatives start with are more than capable of taking out whatever the bad guys are hiding behind as well. The first time you fling a grenade at a Sectoid and don’t just kill the malevolent little bugger but level the shack it’s hiding in, you’ll never want to go back to a game that lacks destructible terrain.

In a lot of ways, playing XCOM doesn’t feel like the slow menu-driven navigation that we commonly associate with strategy games. Moving squaddies around the gridless world is effortless and fast, executing actions is a few quick button presses, and the alien turn goes by in seconds. Little touches, like how you can move a second character while the first one is still animating her run, make the turns fly by. I’ve played a lot of tactical RPGs, and XCOM’s interface is the best I’ve seen.

The “ant farm” base where you return between missions and work your overall strategy is similarly easy to navigate. Choosing research and engineering projects, leveling up soldiers, dealing with the Funding Council, and the rest of the strategy portion is simple and easy. I love that nearly every decision you make has clear, significant benefits and drawbacks. Help China, and the U.S. throws a fit as their citizens’ panic level rises. Research alien weapon fragments, and the Sectoid corpses sitting on your autopsy tables keep their secrets to themselves. Build advanced scopes, and you’ve got no money for the hundred other uses for cash. The difference in equipping a squaddie with a scope or with grenades is huge.

The only thing I’m not a fan of that I saw today are the occasionally janky cuts to “glam cams” in combat, but Firaxis assures me that you’ll be able to turn those off entirely. Thank goodness for that.

In a second, hands-off demo, Firaxis showed off several endgame abilities and one of the legendary soldiers you can unlock. An assault soldier with ghost armor hauled ass across what seemed like half the map in a single turn, while cloaked, and grappled up to the top of a building to shotgun an unsuspecting alien in the face. A sniper with a jetpack took off and blew away two monsters behind heavy cover from his superior vantage point with a lethal plasma rifle. Sid Meier himself – the in-game model is dead on, except for the legendary developer being a hulking space marine instead of a mild-mannered kindly man of small stature – took control of an alien’s mind and had it eat its own grenade.

I couldn’t be happier with how XCOM is turning out now that I’ve gotten to play it for myself. I can’t wait to dig into the full game – and to play with all the awesome toys that result from XCOM’s efforts to turn the aliens’ own tech against them. Now that the show is over, I can say with no reservations that XCOM is my personal favorite thing shown at E3 2012.

 

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