Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Preview: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I have a confession to make, one that may damage my street cred as a dedicated PC gamer – I never played the original X-COM: UFO Defense. I do own it, though; one day during one of the many Steam Sales, the entire X-COM series was on sale for cheap. Knowing that many regard it as an important milestone in gaming, I figured I ought to pick it up. But I've never actually sat down to play it.

(I tried! Honest, I did; I booted it up once but was immediately pulled away from my computer before the menu even loaded. Of course, I then promptly forgot about the game and left it running overnight. It wasn’t until the following evening, when I returned to my computer, that I found the game had been running the entire time. My Steam account tells me I’ve logged thirty-five hours of X-COM: UFO Defense but I know the truth. Now you do as well.)

In light of this shocking information, I’d please ask that you hear me out. Because, though I never did enjoy the masterpiece that everyone tells me UFO Defense was, I’m still a fan of the X-COM series. Specifically because of the upcoming reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

“But Nick,” you may be asking. “If you’ve never played the original X-COM, why would you care about a reboot?” That’s a very good question, imaginary reader; one that I’m here to answer!

Anything I Should Know First?

(Before I get started, I just want to apologize in advance: when talking about an original game and its subsequent reboot, things can get a little confusing. I’ll try to refer to them by their subtitles for clarity!)

First off, as I mentioned above, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the original sci-fi strategy game X-COM: UFO Defense. This has largely divided the world of gamers into two factions: those who are excited to see an old favourite reinvigorated and updated to the current gen; and those who feel that UFO Defense should be left alone, that the game never needed to be rebooted. Considering the steady trend of needless reboots and rereleases that have inundated the market for years, I can’t say I blame those who view Enemy Unknown as needless cash grabbing. That being said, however, Enemy Unknown looks to be bringing some high-quality graphics and updated gameplay, something that the admittedly dated UFO Defense suffers from a lack of.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the game is being developed by Firaxis Games, the makers of the Civilization franchise. Thus it’s not unreasonable to expect some great things from them and from this project; indeed, the promotional material for Enemy Unknown makes the Civilization series look fairly dull by comparison (though perhaps that’s just my inner sci-fi nerd speaking). Just check out this screenshot:

Even aliens can't stand against the destructive power of a frag grenade! I hope...
Fans of Civilization V will recognize the same outlined bubble detailing how far your unit can move this turn but the rest of the scene is a step beyond anything you’d see in Civ. It’s a much smaller scale than the grand strategy that Civ encompasses but with that smaller scale comes a greater need for detail; now we have to be able to see each individual unit in combat, see each piece of cover and witness the destruction alien lasers can offer. Considering Firaxis Games has never had to offer this much graphical detail, I’m very excited by what I’ve seen so far – and can only imagine what else is awaiting us once the game is released.

Anything Else?

As a bit of a sidenote, the announcement of Enemy Unknown was a bit of a hot topic in journalism circles; not specifically because they were rebooting the X-COM series, but mostly because the announcement took the focus away from another X-COM reboot that had nowhere near enough fan support.

XCOM was a title announced at E3 2010 that was met with almost entirely negative reviews. The reason? XCOM was developed as an FPS, something that fans felt was a betrayal to the source material. 2K Games received quite a lot of flak for the announcement and spent two years trying to promote a game that no one really wanted.

Jump to January 2012 and Enemy Unknown is officially announced in the print publication Game Informer. It’s interesting that 2K waited so long to announce the strategy version of XCOM that they apparently had in development since 2008, especially considering the initial negative buzz the XCOM FPS created. Of course, I don’t publicly prescribe to conspiracy theories so perhaps I’ll just leave you to make your own assumptions about 2K Games’ motives.

What Do We Know?

As a reboot of a classic franchise, the basic concept of Enemy Unknown is fairly common knowledge: you are the commander of an international agency known as X-COM. Your mandate: to protect the Earth from extraterrestrial threats and to collect and reverse engineer alien technology. To do this, you must construct a base of operations and put together a team of operatives that can respond to any alien-related crises that happen around the globe.

This is the Earth. Prepare to scan the heck out of it to find alien invaders!
Enemy Unknown looks to be staying very true to its predecessor: the premise of the game remains the same, with each element of the original returning in some fashion. Base construction, researching new technology, promoting and equipping your soldiers, turn-based combat, capturing aliens to experiment on; all of these things and more are staples of the XCOM series and are things that will be returning -- and being elaborated on -- in Enemy Unknown.

As I mentioned, the essentially broken into two portions: being in your base, the XCOM HQ, preparing and seeking out your next mission; and being out in the field, leading your troops to stop the alien invaders and bring the soldiers home safely. These two portions of the game interact with each other in a very symbiotic way; you will start by equipping your soldiers with the gear available before sending them on expeditions around the world. While in the field, you will encounter aliens and recover their technology to take back to your base, where you can research it and create new technology which you can equip on your soldiers, and so forth.

While the basic premise of the game remains much the same, the execution and presentation is what has been updated. The base construction, for instance, has taken an all-new approach to both layout and function; instead of the top-down interface that the previous X-COM titles featured, Enemy Unknown has decided to go with an “ant farm” approach, giving the player a side-on view of the base. Check out this video for a better explanation:

It’s a pretty ingenious way to display the base and, as the developers aren’t shy to point out, is a completely original idea to be implemented in this style of game. There’s also the matter of so-called “efficiency bonuses”, small boosts to your resources awarded to you depending on if you construct your base in a certain manner. Throw in the passive animations of the base, showing your soldiers and scientists wandering around, and the whole thing combines to be an impressive and deep experience that will make every playthrough different.

Speaking of which, an important thing to note is that Enemy Unknown, much like the previous X-COM games, is a title that is based on the prospect of multiple playthroughs. It will be common to spend numerous hours on a single savegame, trying to beat back the alien invaders, but it will be equally common to have all of your soldiers eliminated in a mission and be forced to start over from scratch. The difficulty curve may be something that puts some people off but veterans of the X-COM series regard it as one of the selling features. I guess just keep that in mind when considering Enemy Unknown as an addition to your own catalog!

Getting back to the gameplay, the combat system seems to be vastly improved from that of UFO Defense; not only are the graphics improved (as would be expected when comparing games released decades apart) but the actual gameplay itself looks like it has gone through a serious overhaul. Where some people (myself included) find the interface for UFO Defense dated and cluttered, what we’ve seen of the combat interface for Enemy Unknown is slick, classy and easy to understand; even for Firaxis, a company that lives and breathes turn-based strategy, the interface appears to be a step above what we’ve seen in Civilization.

And I Care Why?

A reboot of a classic and much-beloved series is something to pay attention to, if only to see how the veteran fans react. Beyond that, Enemy Unknown looks to be a very interesting and well-executed strategy game, something that the industry has been seriously lacking in recent months. I’m also  a big sucker for science fiction, especially if it pits humans as the underdog in a battle for Earth (thank you SG-1), and Enemy Unknown veers away from the sci-fi tropes inundating the video game industry these days.

Pinned down on a bridge, hiding behind a taxi while aliens shoot particle laser blasts over your head. Life doesn't get much better!
Playing Enemy Unknown is also a good way to brush up on the premise and get excited for the XCOM FPS that should be coming out next year. Even despite the fact that fans of UFO Defense and its sequels decried the announcement of an XCOM FPS, everything we’ve seen of the game thus far looks quite intriguing; the premise is that you are an FBI agent in the 1960s tasked with investigating strange happenings around the United States, all of which eventually are tied to aliens. You live in this Mad Men-era setting, using revolvers and deductive investigation to track down and ultimately get rid of the aliens. It’s sort of like BioShock, only with aliens instead of gene-altered freaks. How is that not cool?

On top of all this, Enemy Unknown is going to be the very first XCOM game playable on console. Not only is it being released on PC -- as any good strategy game should -- but it is also being released on 360 and PS3. So for those of you who’d prefer to get your alien-killing on from the comfort of your living room, have at it!

What Should I Do Now That I Know?

Enemy Unknown is released on October 9th and it just recently became available for preorder on Steam, if you want it for PC. Not only that; if enough people preorder Enemy Unknown through Steam, you will receive additional rewards. Enough people have already preordered for everyone to receive some extra customization packs for your soldiers but if more preorder, you can get things like XCOM-themed hats for Team Fortress 2 (oh boy) or even a free copy of Civilization V! Buy a new game, get another great game for free? Seems like a great deal to me (especially considering Civ V is currently $30 on Steam)!

Otherwise, there’s plenty of time to run out to your nearest retailer and lay down the cash to preorder yourself a copy! I don’t think there’s going to be any preorder bonuses for the console versions but Enemy Unknown will probably be best played on PC anyway. (Oh, wait: my PC Master Race was showing. Haha!)

Last Remarks?

As I said at the beginning of this preview, I have never played the original XCOM games. That being said, Enemy Unknown has jumped to the top of my most anticipated titles in the coming months. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen a strategy game that has so captured my attention and I’m extremely excited to give it a try. I’ll give you guys a proper review once I get my hands on a copy but, from what I’ve seen so far, I’d highly recommend getting yourself a copy on release day!

Keep an eye on Loading Checkpoint over the next few days: we’ll be putting up a preview of Dishonored, War of the Roses and Resident Evil 6 over the next week or two, and we have lots more in store as well! Things are only just getting started again so be sure to stay tuned!

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