At a glance...

Previewer Platform Publisher Developer Players Release Date
Matt Bailey Xbox 360 2K Games Firaxis 1+ (Online) 12th October 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

The thing that stood out to me when Firaxis were presenting XCOM: Enemy Unknown at Gamescom was that they are passionate about the original series. Aside from the fact that the developer has a reputation for great strategy games, fans of X-COM can be assured that Firaxis aren't cashing in on a known brand. This is their chance to restart a dormant franchise, and come up with a worthy successor.

I should admit up front that I didn't play the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (as it was known in Europe upon release) as I was too busy playing DOOM in 1994. I only came to appreciate the series when I started playing some of the many clones that have appeared over the past decade, filling the gap for a series which hasn't had a new entry in 11 years - or 14 since the last proper X-COM strategy game. If you're not familiar with it, UFO/X-COM is a mix of turn-based strategy and real-time management, splitting the two between the battlefield and your base respectively.

I'm not sure the car insurance will cover this.

I'm not sure the car insurance will cover this.

The reboot follows that setup, and between missions you're back at your base trying to stop the world from falling into a state of panic. While there you can carry out research using the artifacts you bring back from the action, which in turn provide you with new technologies to use. You can invest in new weapons and vehicles, and choose upgrade paths for your team. XCOM continues the series' tradition of permadeath - that is, once a character dies they stay dead - so it's important to keep your team alive if you want them to earn promotions and become more useful in battle. The tactical nature of the game allows you to succeed even with a team of newbies, but it's an awful lot harder.

Once you've performed your base operations, you get to choose where the next mission will take place. This is important for avoiding the panic that can set in when a nation is under alien attack. Multiple countries will be facing problems at the same time, and you can't be there to solve all of them, so you need to choose which nation gets your help, risking the country that wasn't chosen reaching panic and pulling out of the XCOM initiative, leaving you less resources to play with. Which places are taking enemy fire is randomised and this should allow you to give the campaign multiple goes without too much repetition.

Some alien-on-alien action

Some alien-on-alien action

Once on the field you're back to tactical turn-based gameplay, sending units one by one across the battlefield looking for the next bit of cover. Being in the open leaves you very vulnerable, but you can also gain advantage by climbing up some buildings and attacking from on high. When you take a shot, the game switches to a new third-person camera while you line it up, so you get a close view of whether you succeed or failed. Another part of the modernisation is the inclusion of in-game cut-scenes, with dialogue adding a human dimension to your team.

For a series which has almost exclusively been on the PC, I was surprised at Gamescom to be playing the Xbox 360 version of the game, and I was also surprised to find no issues in my transition from the mouse and keyboard to the gamepad. The reticle, which is used to direct your soldiers, is controlled directly using the left-stick, and the bumpers allow you to flick between different squad members. Actions were mapped to the face buttons, and the whole experience was comfortably intuitive.

Despite this, we didn't spot any aliens while we were in Cologne

Despite this, we didn't spot any aliens while we were in Cologne

My hands-on time was primarily spent with the campaign, getting a feel for the missions, which included storming a building and investigating an alien in an open town square. Firaxis were also showing off the multiplayer for the first time, which will feature a 90 second turn timer to keep the action flowing. It's still a very tactical game, though, and they emphasised that while one player might carry many more upgrades to their squad than the other, ultimately it will be the better tactician who wins. If you can out-think them with an interesting strategy it doesn't matter how experienced they are, you can claim victory. As a side note, it will also be possible to incorporate aliens into your multiplayer team for the first time, which should offer opportunities for new tactics which aren't possible in the campaign.

While I may not be a hardcore fan, it's clear to me that the series is in safe hands with Firaxis, a company with a great reputation in turn-based strategy. And more importantly it seems a welcome and long-overdue return for one of PC gaming's classic series, arriving on October 12th.

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