XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview: Combining Classic Gameplay With Modern Graphics

Back in 1994, everyone I knew was playing a little game called X-COM: UFO Defense. We argued over who was best, exchanged complicated strategy ideas, and basically just geeked out over an amazing game. Eighteen years later, I was sitting in a closed booth at PAX East 2012 watching Firaxis Games Associate Producer Pete Murray demo a game that looked pretty modern but felt oh so classic: XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I don’t know how many of you remember it, but the original title of X-COM: UFO Defense was UFO: Enemy Unknown. If that’s not coming full circle, I’m not sure what is.

If you were one of those hardy souls who played the original XCOM, take heart. The demo I saw is very reminiscent of the first game. Nevertheless, Murray stressed that this is not an HD update of the first game, but instead a “re-imagining” of it. Enemy Unknown is set in a present-day Earth where aliens are swarming over the planet. The world is in danger and it has turned to you, the commander of XCOM, to drive back the threat. Member nations provide your funding, so it’s important to keep them placated. If you don’t provide a sufficient amount of alien protection, they’ll pull out of the funding council. Lose enough funding, and you lose the game.

As the demo began, we were shown a game interface that looks remarkably old-school. The isometric perspective and the ‘fog of war’ are retained, and the action is presented in all its turn-based glory. The environments you’re running around in are destructible as well, so no cover is completely safe. The graphics very stylized, but not cartoonish. You may recall the developers saying that they wanted to characters to resemble action figures; I can report that they were very successful. As you can see from the screens throughout this article, this style means that even with upgraded graphics, the game still retains that classic feel.

Classic aliens have returned as well. In the demo we saw, the XCOM team was taking on Sectoids and Mutons, as well as a larger alien called a Berzerker. As your XCOM team encounters these aliens, you’ll go right into turn-based combat. Each turn, a character can either move, act, or elect to double move. Double moving means you can get closer to the action, but it also means that you’ll be unable to attack when you get there. There’s an action bar to show you what options you have available, and it will also provide information such as how likely a shot is to hit the target.

Combat also requires that you think strategically as well as tactically. In the example we were shown, a support soldier kept the aliens pinned down with suppressing fire while the sniper used a grappling hook to reach an elevated position. Making good decisions in combat will be key, because once a soldier dies, he’s dead forever. While you can train up a replacement (using a deep, RPG-style system) you’ll be spending money and time to replace the experience you just lost. You’ll also lose any special equipment that soldier was carrying, making the decision to give that rookie an experimental alien weapon a weighty one indeed.

Of course, XCOM isn’t just about combat. It’s also about managing your team, researching new tech, expanding your base, and keeping all those funding countries happy. The base interface in Enemy Unknown is quite elegant. You’ll see a cutaway view of your underground complex. Each section that you construct has a specific purpose, be it research (Science Lab) training soldiers (Barracks), or constructing new tech (Engineering). As you work around the base, you’ll be paged to sections that require input from you. It’s eerily reminiscent of being called to the principal’s office in high school, but a lot more fun.

Overall, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that will tickle the fancy of any old-school gamer. Firaxis seems to have digested many of the things that made the original title so much fun all those years ago, and incorporated them here. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about this game, and we haven’t gotten any hands-on time with it, but for now it appears to be headed in the right direction. With an anticipated fall release, you can bet that we’ll have a ton more info at E3 this summer. Until then, watch the skies.

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