XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview – Close Encounters of the Best Kind
Ben “Smokes” Richardson
Sure, I could talk about the pretty but largely cosmetic base-building. Or that gut-punch feeling you get when losing a treasured soldier, which has already been extensively documented elsewhere. Or the gripping, horrifying atmosphere — you never know what new devilry is lurking around the next corner.
When it comes down to it, though, XCOM is about the dice-roll — that moment of uncertainty after you tell a squad member to take a shot, but before you find out what happens. It’s the spinning roulette wheel, the dealer reaching for the flop in a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em.
Like any good gambler, an XCOM player is in the business of percentages. Most of the game’s mechanics — equipping your soldiers, leveling them up to unlock new abilities, moving them carefully through cover into advantageous flanking positions — boil down to that little red number that comes up when you draw a bead on a hostile alien. You want to take high-percentage shots, and ensure that the aliens can’t take high-percentage shots against you, pulping some valuable veteran in heart-wrenching slow-mo.
The essential fun of this process cannot be overstated. It easily transcends the creeping stink of console controls, which burden the PC version with unnecessary confirmation buttons and other awkward UI twinges. Likewise the occasionally uncooperative camera, or the aggressive cut-away renditions of buildings with multiple floors.
I get the sense that the game’s true fun will be found in XCOM’s toggle-able “Ironman” save mode, which forbids re-loading when something goes wrong. Gambling simply isn’t as exciting when you can renege on that 90% certainty that somehow managed to miss, or that improbable alien shot that critical hit someone to death from halfway across the map.
What’s certain is that XCOM is a lock for my year-end “best of” list. Though much is owed to the genius of the original XCOM games, Firaxis deserves credit for sticking to their guns and creating a pure strategy/tactical title in a time when that genre has fallen far out of favor. In doing so, they showed that turn-based combat can be just as nerve-wracking as the most immersive, realistic experiences out there. Which will probably end up taking a back seat when it comes to play-time this fall, in favor of the Enemy Unknown.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out October 9, 2012 for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Stay tuned to Game Front for our full review upon release.