Firaxis is on a mission with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It wants to demonstrate that it can create an engaging, exciting RTS that can be easily played on consoles, without providing an experience that appears ?dumbed down? on PCs. After the game?s reveal back in March, I was able to sit down and get to play the opening stages. And first impressions - from a console gamer?s perspective - are very positive.
The game?s tutorial does its job in introducing the various functions of RTS play, but it?s all wrapped in a rather nice narrative that feels like you?re engaged in part of the opening titles rather than ploughing through arduous hint screens. The setting is Germany, and an unknown pod has crash-landed in the centre of a populated city, transforming civilians into frozen statues of their former selves.
You enter as a pre-set XCOM squad that?s set out to investigate. While I was playing on a PC machine for this demo, it was hooked up with an Xbox 360 controller, so I couldn?t really get a feel for how experienced mouse-clickers would cope. However, it?s clear that Firaxis has pad controls down pretty well, which bodes well for the console versions at the very least.
Selecting units can be performed using the Left and Right Bumpers, and movement is made with the Left Stick. XCOM is a turn-based RTS game, and so you have all the time in the world to make your play. A hexagonal cursor can be moved around freely around the map, which snaps to any cover points you may want to take advantage of. If you?d rather, you can plonk yourself in the middle of the street, but you probably don?t want to do that.
Units can make two moves per turn - this can be a combination of movement and attack, or a double-dose of movement from cover to cover. You can also use up two moves in one go by performing ?double time? - which involves your soldier dashing a great distance further than normal to cover an extended amount of ground.
Enemy Sectoids appear, and your first contact with the aliens don?t go down so well. You?re led into an ambush, open to fierce attack. And attack these bastards do - killing the majority of your team in the process. This introduces you to the selection of counter attacks you can provide - nestle up to cover and press the Right Trigger to open a menu that allows you to open fire on targets, engage in suppression fire to help teammates, lob grenades or ?hunker down? to double your cover.
The tutorial mission ends with all of your soldiers dying except for one - this bad mofo becomes one of your primary soldiers in missions going forward, thanks to a promotion and increased stats. After choosing your XCOM base location (with different perks to your funding and research gained depending on your selected continent), you get to see the ?ant hive? that is your base.
Toying around with soldier loadouts, names, promotions and perks will lead you to the Mission Control room, and your first real mission. And this is where the game stops holding your hand and ceases kidding around. Almost immediately after you?ve settled in, you?ve got a massive choice to make. Two major cities are under attack - one in the US, and one in China - and both require an urgent response. You can only choose one, though - and there will be consequences for the country you leave behind.
Each country has a five-bar panic meter, you see, and every time you ignore a call for help this meter gets filled up. Fill it up too much, and the country falls to the alien invasion and drops off of the international council that funds your endeavours. At this early stage in the game, there are no massive repercussions for ignoring one particular country. But as your actions start to have an effect on the world map, you may find yourself painted into a difficult corner later on thanks to a string of bad choices.
I?m very much looking forward to all the different situations that could come out of this. Firaxis developers tell me that there will be other variables to consider besides keeping panic levels down - the council may put pressure on you to take a rather dubious mission over the rescue of a city, or it may come to pass that investigating a certain country could yield rewards that will give you a technological edge over your alien enemies. It?ll pose challenges to budding diplomats everywhere.
Some of the situations you?ll get to experience are called Terror Missions - these are big, bad monstrous invasions that can cause catastrophic damage. Not just to the cities involved, but to your wallet. Ignoring these could mean the difference between a happy country and instant surrender.
My experience with XCOM: Enemy Unknown ended with a hands-off demonstration of one of these Terror Missions in action. This will be a demo showcased at E3, and features a squad of XCOM soldiers getting their butts handed to them by a number of revamped classic baddies. Among them are Crystalids, which can kill in one attack and transform perma-dead characters into zombified enemies; explosive Floaters; Sectoid Commanders, which are powerful enough to take control of your soldiers if weak enough; and big hefty Beserkers that take a lot of firepower to kill.
Thankfully, there is a contingency plan for incidents like this - a league of super-armoured XCOM soldiers that are fully-equipped with the latest armour and gadgetry to counteract these tough alien scumbags. Amazingly, one of these soldiers happens to be none other than Sid Meier himself. Listed as ?The Godfather?, our Sid can perform mind control on enemies - which is then demonstrated by forcing a Floater to eat his own grenade.
As well as showing a bit of humour with the Sid cameo, the hands-off demo was a good example of just how well advanced you can make your soldiers if you play well and get enough cash and research to back you up. Archangel armour that allows you to fly, invisibility cloaks that help you sneak up on a baddie... the possibilities are tasty indeed.
We can?t wait to play more of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and see exactly how complex saving the world can be - and to see if PC purists will be able to get as much of a kick out of it as console players.