PAX East 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown Breaks Down The Alien Invasion

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X-COM: Enemy Unknown LogoWhen the X-COM franchise began, I was six years old.

It’s a storied franchise going way back to the original X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, which is widely considered one of the greatest PC games of all time. Sure, there have been a couple of misses in the series, including the mediocre third-person shooter, X-COM: Enforcer in 2001, but it’s a beloved brand nonetheless. And it’s for that reason that Firaxis Games and publisher 2K Games appear to be taking great care with the upcoming release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and making sure that it gets back to the strategy roots that made the franchise so famous in the first place.

In development now for about four years, Enemy Unknown is not to be confused with the FPS that is also currently in development by 2K Marin, XCOM. While the two games share certain aspects simply due to being from the same franchise, Firaxis associate producer Pete Murray emphasized that they are “separate experiences.”

Murray, who took a group of us through a guided demo of the game, explained the story of Enemy Unknown, which is simple enough: you’re the commander of a secret organization (the titular X-COM) tasked with protecting earth from an alien invasion. The demo we were walked through was described as “an early build,” but it was enough to give us an idea of the gameplay basics.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown Gas Station Alien TurnWe started with a mission in which Murray was given a four-member squad and tasked with clearing a gas station of alien enemy forces (composed of Sectoids and Mutons, both returning units from the first X-COM). His squad consisted of a support unit, a heavy weapons soldier, a sniper, and an assault trooper.

Players aren’t always constricted to four-unit squads, however. By researching upgrades – a feature that I’ll explain later – players can have up to six-man teams, but no more than that. “This makes for a more compelling tactical experience,” said Murray, who pointed out that the original X-COM allowed players to have massive squads that were upwards of 20 units.

“It’s less compelling with bigger squads,” he continued. “At that point, you’re just shuffling guys around. Now, you’ve got to make each one of them count, especially with squads of four. Losing a squad member has a much bigger impact when you’re losing 25 percent of your team.” And this is a feature, he said, carried over from the Enemy Unknown’s predecessor: when a squad member is incapacitated during a mission, he or she is done for good. “He’s not unconscious. There’s no recharging health. This is a permanent death,” he said.

As soon as we began making our way through the demo, our guide pointed out the game’s isometric view, turn-based action, the use of fog-of-war, and his handful of soldiers. “This is classic X-COM,” said Murray.

And indeed it was, because careful strategy prevailed as Murray cleaned house. “For each unit’s turn, you basically have the option to move them really far, or move them a short distance and perform an action,” explained Murray. After moving his units to cover (planned routes are marked accordingly to show where players can direct their soldiers to cover), he made use of intelligent positioning and proper use of his squad members’ unique abilities to eliminate the enemy.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown Gas Station AssaultFor instance, the support gunner can lay down suppressing fire, which, while it does not actually do any damage to the enemy, it prevents them from moving during their next turn. So Murray performed a “combo” by pinning down an alien with his support unit, and then having his assault trooper toss a grenade at him. Come the alien’s next turn, all he could do was fire a desperation shot from his fixed position before being blown to bits.

Meanwhile, he had directed his sniper to use his grappling hook to climb up onto the roof of the gas station for a better vantage point; like the original X-COM, there is vertical movement in Enemy Unknown. Getting his sniper into the proper position took time, however, as that particular unit has to make a choice each turn to either move or fire his weapon…he can’t do both. But once he was up on the roof, it was easy pickings for the sniper.

But it’s worth noting that while the pure, tactical, turn-based action is still here in Enemy Unknown, it’s anything but slow (or boring). Each time a unit is given a directive, the game switches from the isometric camera angle to a close-up, more cinematic position to view the action. Even certain moves, like using the support unit’s suppressing fire ability, are performed in real-time, with the soldier continuously firing in bursts throughout your turn as you continue to map out the rest of your units’ moves.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown Muton Crashing Through WallThere’s also a more action-intensive feature in which units can actually forgo their next turn to take a shot at an enemy unit that runs out into the open during their turn. At one point, Murray directed his heavy trooper from one spot of cover to the next. As she ran out, the game shifted to slow motion and showed a Sectoid popping its head out from cover to fire at her when she was exposed. No unit is ever safe.

In fact, Murray showed us that the hard way when showing off the game’s destructible environments. On one side of a wall, our support soldier was taking cover. On the other side of the wall was a Muton berserker, which has the ability to attack through walls. It was a rough day for the support soldier when the Muton smashed headlong through the wall and instantly killed him, but at least it was an impressive feature to behold.

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