XCOM Enemy Unknown Preview

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XCOM Enemy Unknown is a big name for fans of the X-Com series of games as it is supposed to be a modern day remake carrying over the classic formula and revamping it for modern tastes. Is the game successful at doing this? This is an answer that I hope to have answered for you by the end of this preview.

The things that fans of the classic X-Com games are looking for in this rebuild are the things that made the classics so great for them. The ability to manage their own squads, being able to manage a base unique to their play style and being able to tactically take on a mission and have the results depend upon the players own playstyle and intelligence against a foe that is almost equally as smart as themselves. It is almost secondary that the game be set in a sci-fi setting and being against an unknown invading alien force, but it wouldn’t be X-com without them.

Playing the remade XCOM Enemy Unknown is like playing a game that carries the X-Com soul (or spirit) but gives it a new body and brain functions. What I mean by this is that the game has a completely new aesthetic to it. The Aliens are a lot more menacing to look at, the human units are much more detailed and brilliant and the UI is much more simplified, but in a way that seems to be more intuitive than it was in the past.

What I remember from my few playthroughs of the classic X-Com games is the amazingly clunky user interface, but the robust amount of options that it presented. Fortunately, the team working on this title have removed the large amount of fluff material from the UI and have kept the options that really mattered during combat. In the build I played, you could not loot alien corpses during a mission, and I’m not sure if this is subject to change. What I really thought was improved with this game was the way they implemented what would have been UI options in the past. The best example I can think of is the elevation switches. Now all you need to do is use the corresponding control option to switch elevation, rather than having to select floors on an overly clunky UI.

Combat in this game is an incredible breeze. I remember in past games, you had to manually equip certain items, like grenades, if you wanted to use them in battle. Now, instead of doing so, all you have to do is enter your unit into combat mode and select the grenade option then select where you want it to land. Once again, this is an example of a much more simple interface enhancement that really increases the playability of the game. In the past, you would have to open your inventory, take the gun out of your agents hand, put the grande in his hand, time the grenade, select the range and then finally choose where you want it to land. Now, it’s quick, easy and and incredibly fun.

One feature that you have probably heard of is the dynamic action cameras and the like. Basically what I mean with these (I can’t recall their exact names) is where the camera will switch to a dynamic camera which highlights your units attacks and other pretty badass moves. The first thing I did when I started this game was to see if there was a way of turning these off as I didn’t immediately think that they could add to the overall X-Com experience, only detract from it. I figured that I should probably leave these options on so that I had an actual basis for which to complain. After actually seeing the camera in action, I’m quite glad that I kept it turned on. It was simply amazing and I couldn’t believe that I had initially wanted to disable it. There is just something incredibly satisfying watching a grenade fly into a diner and blowing out the walls and any aliens unfortunate enough to be within its radius.

The camera activates for many parts of the non-combat and combat aspects of a mission. For instance when an Agent is double-time moving to a piece of cover, the action cam will follow them in a dramatic fashion, incredibly adding to the intensity of the action. The camera activates for most things but it never feels like it is taking over control of the game (unlike Skyrim which was freaking annoying), it just feels like it’s part of the action and this is how these things should be done. And of course, for players who like to retain their overhead god-view of the game, you can turn these off and still play it the way you like.

What a lot of gamers probably wont immediately notice are the small details for each of their characters. One of the things I noticed with each of my Agents uniforms after a few missions was that their uniforms reflected which country they were found from. This is indicated by their countries flag being reflected on the back of their armour. For example, if my Agent was from Poland, he would have the Polish flag on his back. It is small details like these that are littered throughout the game and players will appreciate once they notice them.

Say you are a massive roleplayer and you really like to play a role with your games, some people do and there is nothing wrong with it, sometimes even I get really into games and start cackling maniacally at whatever it is that I’m doing. Let’s say that you were playing the role of a US based XCOM unit that only had US units. You can easily modify any Agent you acquire by renaming and adjusting their features, as well as altering their country of origin. Of course, I actually quite liked the mixed team aspect as it gave me the feeling of a more global organisation, rather than one country saving the entire world.

Much like the previous X-Com games, it is very easy to become attached to your favorite units and having them die on you is an incredibly hard experience to take. And just like in the classic games, if an Agent has died, he or she is dead forever. Sure you might receive an Agent with the same randomly generated name, or you could rebuild them yourself (roleplayers, you could have one soldier that just refuses to die) but it still wouldn’t feel right. Nothing can replace those moments that you shared with those agents.

XCOM Enemy Unknown, being a turn-based tactical game, is the kind of game that gives the player a lot of breathing room in terms of thinking ahead and planning their responses to the enemies moves. What I particularly enjoyed about this game are the vast amounts of options you have at your disposal that are both obvious and unobvious. For instance, as you progress through the game your units gain abilities as they level which can be used on the field to increase your chances of winning. These can be used in obvious ways, for example, lobbing a grenade into a room to quickly clear it of all threats, or in unobvious ways like using a rocket launcher to blow a wall open and revealing all enemy units to fire.

One thing that I found that I had to keep in mind was that my Agents would always choose the shortest path to their destination, which may not always be the smartest route. I remember this one instance where I was attacking a group of Aliens hiding out in a building and I was trying to flank them by holding their attention at the front of the building and then sending other Agents out around the back. Unfortunately, one of my Agents decided that it was perfectly acceptable to sprint through the building to reach this destination. She was lucky to have not taken any damage. This was actually quite an intense thing to watch happen too, I had that dramatic camera thing going and the whole time I was wetting myself hoping not to lose that particular Agent. Please keep in mind that this preview was running Alpha-level mechanics, so it might be more intuitive in the future.

I actually really liked how there were multiple ways of breaching a building in this game. Unlike the previous X-Com games where you could only really use doors, in XCOM if there is a window that your Agent can smash to get into where they’re going much quicker, they will bust their way in to get there.

One thing that was briefly touched on in our preview session were different types of Agents. Unfortunately for our playthrough we only got to test a limited amount of them, but a hands-off demo showcased a few more units. One of the more interesting looking units were the Psionic type of Agents. Players might remember the Psionics from the previous X-Com games as they were accessible through various weaponry. In XCOM, these come as special powers that are usable to gain a fair amount of advantages in combat. One example we saw in action was a mind-control ability which was used on an Alien creature to lob a grenade at is own feet and blowing itself to pieces. If you opt not to make an enemy commit suicide, you are able to control them for a limited time and take use of their unique skills, which could also be useful.

Base building. This game, like the previous games, has you managing your own XCOM command center. What is different this time around (at least in my playthrough) is that instead of having nameless grunts that do all your engineering and science stuff, you have specific characters that manage these areas that you essentially use as a menu to research or build whatever it is that you have acquired throughout the game. This probably sounds bad on paper, but you are still able to assign more scientists and engineers to your stations like in previous titles to increase your work output, the characters are essentially a way of putting a face on what you’re doing and personalising your staff a little more than in the past.

Actually having different characters interact with you in the base increases the feeling of running an organisation, rather than just managing one. It’s a hard thing to describe here because I’m probably not the best at describing my feelings, but, I felt like more than an accountant and strategist, I really felt like a general or something, someone who knows his people and has a personal history with them. I felt like I was Gendo Ikari heading NERV, which is a good thing in anyones book.

One of the things that appealed to most of the classic games fans was the fact that missions were randomly generated to some degree. In our preview we were unable to play any of the main game components, but were playing on the tutorial campaign (which felt like a full campaign on its own, I never finished it) which was a pretty fixed experience. We had some choice on which missions we took, but the mission path was the same for each person playing. What we had was a kind of give and take system where two countries would be invaded by aliens at the same time and we had to choose between which one we wanted to save. Each country offered different rewards and players had to work out if the trade-off was worth the sacrifice. If you choose to go with one country over the other, the other countries state of panic increased and if it increased too far, it would pull out of funding your program. So it’s really a risk verses reward thing, is it worth losing the USA as a financial backer to gain access to more engineers? Something to think about.

I’m still interested in seeing what the Tactical and Strategy modes are, they are (what I assume to be) single player components of some kind. I’m also interested to see if there is a kind of free-play mode and a story-mode in the full release version as we could only really access the tutorial story for the playthrough that we were doing.

I have to admit then when I first heard about the rebooted XCOM franchise, I wasn’t too excited, nor was I any kind of optimistic about it. After seeing what looked like a completely horrible experience as a shooter, I had little hopes for the tactical relaunch to be much better. Fortunately, playing this Alpha build of the game has really (AND I MEAN REALLY) ignited my hopes for this game. It is INCREDIBLY fun to play, it feels just like an XCOM game should. The improvements made to the games systems and mechanics are brilliant and I am really pegging this as a game that everyone must get this year when it is released in October.

As I said earlier in the preview, XCOM Enemy Unknown has taken the soul of the classic X-Com games and given it a new brain and body, which is really what a reboot, or re-imagining of a series should be. Heck, even some sequels are unable to pull this off. AND THIS WAS ALPHA WHICH MEANS THAT THE FULL GAME IS MOST LIKELY TO BE MUCH BETTER! It’s official, I have made myself even more excited for this game just by writing this article. I might go and buy the classics on Steam as my Dad owns all the discs and stuff. Once again, FUN! THIS GAME IS FUN! Heck, after seeing this in action, maybe the FPS version will not be as bad as I first interpreted it to be.

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Gaming for as long as my memory serves me, probably longer.
  • Guest

    Destructible environments isn’t a new thing in XCOM. You could always shoot/explode your way through walls, hedges, alien hulls, whatever. Its what made the HE packs useful.

    • xWINDWAKERx

      It was never stated that this was a new feature.

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