PAX East 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

If you were expecting to get through this year without an alien invasion, we’ve got bad news.  They’re not only coming here, but they’re coming in droves, and with different classes that require a strategic approach.  And no, the Men In Black won’t save you, despite the arrival of a new movie and video game.  You’ll need to rely on good old-fashioned firepower to get the job done.  Fortunately, 2K Games and Firaxis Games are providing plenty of it later this year with the upcoming XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  The studio recently invited us to a PAX East showcase to give us an idea what the game is about.

If you’re a fan of the traditional XCOM games that came out for the PlayStation and PC years ago, we’ve got good news.  Enemy Unknown faithfully follows this tradition, relying on a strategic soldier placement system, rather than the usual run and gun tactics.  Oh, sure, you’ll still kill aliens, but you’ll need to formulate a plan first, lest you get shot with phasers and send members of your team to a quick demise.

The way the game works is through either movement, or movement and action.  With general movement, you’ve got more room to run and place your soldiers, including heavy combatants, snipers and other classes.  Sometimes the direct approach isn’t always best, so you’ll want to take advantage of items in the environment.  A gaping hole in a diner where aliens are holed out, for instance, provide the opportunity to perch a heavily armed soldier from above for a quick aerial attack.  Meanwhile, a munitions guy can blow a hole in the side of the diner, leaving the sniper plenty of room to pick off enemies.

Enemy Unknown has a great cinematic style to it.  You view everything from an isometric view, like in the original game, and can peer around the level for “hot spots” to place your soldiers.  Once you perform a military action, the camera angle changes to a close-up cinematic display, for both you and the enemies, so you can see the results of your action.  But be careful!  Once you lose a soldier on the battlefield – which is quite likely with the bigger strong-armed aliens – they’re gone for good, and you have no way to regenerate them.

XCOM’s gameplay leans back to a simpler time of tactics, but it’s an effective system that works really well, and you can change up as you go along, should something not be working or a soldier gets left out in the open, where they’re easily susceptible to firepower.  That’s just part of the game’s appeal, and the campaign as a whole will take you through hours’ worth of missions, with new content to unlock.  There’s also a possibility that multiplayer battles will make the cut, though Firaxis Games is keeping moderately mum on the subject.

One thing the team did show, however, is the new home base.  Here, you’re able to keep your finances in check as you battle aliens, accepting new missions, keeping power generators at maximum capacity, and working through a lab, where you can turn around alien technology to your advantage, creating new weapons and essential goods to push back the alien invasion.  Just be careful when it comes to mission selection, though.  Leave a country hanging too long and they’ll side with the aliens, leaving you out cold on some petty cash.  The less you have, the less effective you are in combat.

For a return to strategic form – and not a huge relaunch like next year’s other XCOM game – Enemy Unknown looks like a winner in our eyes, between the swell display options, great tactical gameplay and wide-open options in the underground base.  We’ll let you know how the finished product shapes up when the game ships later this year.  Just make sure you’re prepared for war.  Because it’s coming.