XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Preview
by Mark R
If you know me personally, or have read enough of my musings on GamingLives, you’ll know that I have a deep-seeded passion for UFO: Enemy Unknown and still cite it as my favourite game of all time. It may have blocky graphics and a somewhat dated vision of the future, but the gameplay is highly-polished and well thought out, with years of replayability on offer, thanks to the terraforming and random nature of the mechanics.
You may also know that I almost choked on a Sectoidburger when I saw the first teaser for 2K Marin’s XCOM first-person shooter, wondering what it had to do with the brand other than using the word “XCOM” in the title, and hated what I saw of it at E3 in 2011. Then we had the announcement that shook the entire Enemy Unknown fan-base to its very foundations – Firaxis, the studio responsible for the near-perfect strategy franchise, Civilization – had signed up to produce a remake which would stay true to the original in almost every way, including retaining the turn-based approach. Many had attempted to re-capture the magic of the 1994 original, some being fan-made while others were legit studios with retail releases, and all had failed in one way or another.
The initial excitement surrounding Firaxis’ involvement was quickly dampened when it was reported that they were stripping out the micromanagement that made the original game so compelling, suggesting that it was going to be dumbed down for what many regard as “the console generation”, although subsequent reports suggested otherwise, and our presentation at E3 showed that very little had been removed. In order to fully satisfy this concerned niggle, however, some serious hands-on time was required.
Thankfully, with an hour of dedicated hands-on time at this year’s Gamescom, we’d finally get to see if Firaxis’ re-imagining would live up to their promises, and with Jake Solomon having been very vocal about his love of the original Enemy Unknown in the past, it was interesting to soak in his enthusiasm as he took over the second part of the presentation. With the multiplayer aspect of Enemy Unknown now officially unveiled, as well as the news that the guys at Firaxis had been playing it for a couple of years… and how they managed to keep that quiet I’ll never know, it was time to head through for one of the most-anticipated aspects of this year’s Gamescom – getting to experience the gameplay for the first time.
My heart died just a little bit as we were ushered through to a well-kitted-out room only to discover that our session would be on the Xbox 360 rather than what I would class as the native platform for any self-respecting strategy title – the PC. This momentary sadness quickly turned to excitement when it was clear that we had a free rein to do whatever we pleased with the preview build and, although the thought of going head to head with other journos under the guise of one of many alien races was more than a little enticing, it was the single-player campaign that would undoubtedly be swallowing up (if all went to plan) the rest of my life, and so that’s where our story begins.
Starting off with the now-ubiquitous tutorial mission, we are introduced to our first alien cousins after an explanatory cut-scene details the events leading up to the creation of the X-Com project. It would be fair to say that the tutorial was more of a semi-interactive demo rather than involving any real gameplay, with all-but-one destination marker blocked off for each of the moves so it really was impossible to put a foot wrong in terms of unit placement or even weapon choice. With this being a somewhat spoon-fed affair, I used the time to try and familiarise myself with having to control a turn-based strategy game with a controller rather than a mouse and, it’ll come as no surprise, that it really doesn’t compare at all.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the way it handles with a controller, per se, but it just felt un-natural to someone who has always used the PC/mouse combination for all strategy titles to date. The mechanics themselves, on the other hand, were so much better than expected. One of the greatest concerns from seeing countless trailers and b-roll was that it could end up being more about QTEs than actual gameplay, as it was never quite clear how the cinematic experience blended with the top-down strategy style. This niggling question was answered before my finger even left the trigger after lining up a Sectoid cranium in my sights, as the top-down view switched to that of a spectator showing various camera angles as the little grey guy dropped to the floor. Within an instant, it was back to the standard view and, in that tiny moment, my faith was restored. It was, it has to be said, beautifully executed, and didn’t detract from the immersion or action in any way, serving more of an extended viewpoint than a diversion.
Once the tutorial mission was over, our first real glimpse of the familiar X-Com gameplay came as the Geoscape appeared, and we were tasked with selecting a region for our base. Each of the territories available came with their own pros and cons, with some offering greater scope for research and development at the expense of fire power whereas others may offer very little in the way of R&D and would instead benefit from a much quicker turnaround in terms of manufacturing. While this is an entirely new approach to the base building aspect, with only one base available to you throughout the entire game, it does make the decision one that can’t be taken lightly. As with any tactical game, it would still be possible to switch tactics to an entirely different play-style in the same way that a rogue RPG character could also be trained up as a heavy armour melee fighter, but it would take a little longer to achieve the desired results without the benefit of the pre-defined perks.
Kitting out your units prior to embarking on a mission is exactly what you’d expect, and hope, from a game that relies so heavily on forward thinking – each soldier is there for you to interact with, select their arsenal and even which perks they’re going to be using, but there wasn’t a single Sergei Voronin in sight, sadly. It’s at this point where tactics come in to play – do you send your best units, and by best I mean the soldiers you’ve managed to build up over many missions, or go with the more cautious option of filling your Skyranger with a squad of rookies? On one hand, you’re not risking any of your high-ranking soldiers and will help to strengthen and train your new recruits, but this could also result in the entire squad being wiped out if the enemy has an overwhelming advantage. Take your best guys for a more powerful attacking stance and you risk losing all those hours of training and building up… and the moment I lost Commander Walter S Skinner in the original Microprose still haunts me to this day. Permadeath can be soul-destroying, and these decisions can’t be taken lightly.
In terms of actual gameplay, however, once you have your units deployed on the scene it’s a very different kettle of fish. The loss of the time units is one which had so many X-Com fans up in arms, crying that this was the most important aspect of the gameplay and that Firaxis had ruined any chance of their game being any good. Thankfully, that’s not the case. If anything, the way it has been structured means that it’s not actually noticeable that you don’t have time units. You almost DO still have time units, in fact, except that they’re just handled very differently. You can still send your unit to a specific area, leaving enough time to defend themselves should one of the enemies pop up from behind a melon cart, or you can opt to use their entire turn with a long move, allowing them to be placed at great distances away from their starting location but at the expense of any means or attack or defending themselves. While it may not show an actual ticker where you can calculate “well it’s four TUs per square and I need to move these eleven squares so that only leaves me with twelve TUs which is only enough for an auto-shot”, it’s exactly the same principle. Diluted, perhaps, but only in theory.
After a mission is successful, or otherwise, the remaining squad heads back to the base and takes stock of what was picked up at the terror site. This may be live aliens, alien corpses or the much-needed alien artifacts. It’s at this stage where the micromanagement really comes in to play, with decisions on whether to concentrate on building more advanced firepower for the squad by researching alien tech and sending the results over to the workshops for manufacturing.. or concentrating on intel by probing (not literally) live aliens for information to better prepare against any further incursions. While the terror sites and airborne attacks were very much the cornerstone of the original Enemy Unknown game, it was the tactical base decisions that were perhaps the most rewarding and I probably spent more time pouring over stats and juggling researchers than anything else.
One of the most daunting prospects of Firaxis’ reboot was how much the base configuration had changed. No longer were we able to see everything at a glance and have everything contained within a reasonably small area… now we were looking at what had been dubbed as the Ant Farm – a side-on cross-section of the base where everything was spread out and on various upper and lower levels. Sitting in front of the actual game though, rather than looking at static screens or vidcaps, it was an entirely different story. It actually worked. And, it has to be said, it worked well. If something cropped up that needed your immediate attention, the quick-jump button at the top of the screen became highlighted for that specific area so that you were able to move straight to that exact room without having to look for it. Similarly, all of the available facilities could be accessed at any time by going for the quick option of using the button-bar along the top, or taking the more scenic route by traversing the various areas, all of which were pre-populated with people going about their business, be it running on a treadmill, manufacturing in the workshops or performing much-needed research in the labs.
My time with Enemy Unknown was so immersive, and so fluid, that I didn’t even notice that I’d gone massively over time until someone tapped me on the shoulder to say that the Borderlands 2 presentation was already ten minutes in and that I should probably head along. As someone who would sway between cautious excitement and utter fear every time another nugget of information surrounding Firaxis’ reboot was released, I was more than a little hesitant as I took my seat in that room. Even considering I was playing on a console, with a controller, I was captivated from beginning to end and honestly didn’t want to put the controller down. I could quite easily have spent the rest of the day in that seat, forging a way to a new beginning, free of all alien threats and forgotten that there was an expo going on with 275,000 people rushing around like excited children.
In short… Firaxis have done an incredible job and, while I can’t imagine their take on Enemy Unknown will ever knock the original off the top spot of my all-time favourite games, there’s every chance that they may end up sitting alongside each other, looking down on the rest of my gaming memories with a smug sense of accomplishment.
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