Like other strategy gamers out there, I was happily pleased with the announcement of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. More recently, I was thrilled when the demo came out on Steam. 5.8 gigabytes later I had a little dose of happiness waiting in my Steam library.
And I’m not kidding about little. The demo for XCOM: Enemy Unknown is very short, just enough for you to get a handle on the way things work before reminding you that this is a preview and the rest of the package is still locked away in a hygienic vault somewhere.
5.8 gigabytes for two levels is steep but I can happily say that I’m happily awaiting the October 9, 2012 release date based on what I have played so far. Happily.
I’ll admit that I never played the original X-COM. I’ve heard of it plenty, but it was before my gaming time. That and I neglected to try it out when possible at that one point in time where I touched upon other oldies but goodies like SimTower and Theme Hospital. Enough about me, though.
One thing I can say about XCOM is that the actions and maneuvers you take make sense when taking the environment into consideration. Units in turn-based combat games tend to have goofy orientations and movements but X-COM manages to maintain an air of refinement. When you order a unit to butt up against a wall for cover, that unit will do so and conveniently lean for cover.. up until it gets flanked by a small alien guy with a green laser pistol. Those headshots sure are lethal. Opening doors and climbing rooftops works the same way.
As you continue on the demo’s path, you are immediately introduced to the brutality of the aliens and the finality of death. Let’s just say that more than one of the members in your squad won’t be coming home to pasta tonight.
Combat is calculated in percentages. Sometimes your goon will land a pivotal shot that ends the extraterrestrial, other times he or she will fail spectacularly. You can add to the success rate with careful maneuvering on the battlefield. Here’s a helpful hint, height is a great advantage. That or a rocket launcher. Either way works.
Speaking of your squad, each member can level up as they gain experience in combat. They also split into different proficiencies based on how well they handle a sniper rifle, rocket launcher and so on. In one demo I saw (not this one), you could eventually train a psychic to control the aliens and have them blast each other apart. Fun!
Turns are split between the AI and player in such a way where you’ll make all your moves before the AI makes all its moves, and so on. This kind of system favors the offensive since flanking is such an integral part of the game and you can move decent distances each turn.
Enemy aliens range from telepathic little people to cyborg torso-nauts and some shifty looking human-like aliens I saw at the end of the second mission in the United States. I really can’t say what they did, because I decided to lob a grenade before they had a chance to surprise me with any new tactics. After all, I aim to preserve my ranks. The head scientist in my lab requested me to capture one but I laughed it off as the shrapnel eviscerated them.
Once you’ve finished a mission, you’ll be able to head back to base and plan for the missions to come. There, you meet the ant farm. It’s a nifty cross-section view of the game’s base. Here the developers opted to go with something more unique instead of the more expected top-down isometric view that’s become the standard view for strategy games. The demo is restrictive so I wasn’t able to actually explore as much as I’d like. I wanted to break new ground and build new areas but I was sanctioned to follow the orders of the nice lady on the intercom. That guiding voice will be how players know that their attention is needed somewhere on-base. Even commanders have to follow orders, I guess.
After the deliberations have ended and all of this upper level planning is done, you’ll be able to pick your next mission objective based on any emergent data. From there, your chosen squad hops onto a plan and books it to China to harass some aliens.
Coming away from the demo, I had three thoughts. The first was “Wow, 5.8 gigabytes for two levels?” The second, more prescient thought was that Enemy Unknown might get scarily repetitive. Admittedly, I was not privy to a officially sanctioned preview and can only speculate from the demo. With what I played, I hope there’s a lot more going on when it comes to the game’s base, because the on-foot combat wasn’t as worthwhile as I had hoped. It flowed well and it played better but there’s a missing element I can’t quite put my finger on.
On one hand, the environments looked great and really brought me into the atmosphere of a commander leading an elite group against an enemy. On the other hand, I could mentally strip that all away. And when I did, I saw an embellished digital board game. You know that no-frills map view in Civilization V? That’s what I saw in my mind’s eye. Alas, that’s more a problem for the genre and my own bias than anything else.
Oh and my third thought; XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a potential that I’d love to see fully realized. We’ll have to wait for its release before we know if that potential is met. I hope it’s as good as the original, because I’d like to see what the fuss was all about. On the whole, I look forward to playing this game, even if the character models look plucked from The Sims.