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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview

Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: October 9, 2012

It's probably telling that we were given Xbox 360 controllers to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown on by Firaxis. The game was running on PCs which sat awkwardly on the coffee tables before us, but when we reached for the keyboard we were politely asked to use the controller instead.

'What's up,' we thought. 'Isn't this a strategy game?'

It is. And it's also important to draw a distinction between this and the other XCOM reboot as well, for those of you who might be confused. This XCOM is a turn-based, squad-based strategy title, not a first-person shooter filled with fashionably retro hats. This is the XCOM with this trailer, not that trailer.

As far as the strategy goes though, the Xbox controller doesn't much get in the way and there's definitely enough of the old X-Com in the new XCOM to be recognisable. The start of the game establishes you as the head of a new global taskforce, whose job it is to protect the earth from alien threats and to obey the direction of politicians who keep their faces in shadow. You build a base, recruit soldiers, outfit them with weapons you've chosen to research - then direct them into battle against the alien threat.

Unlike the other XCOM though, Enemy Unknown doesn't feel as much like a re-imagining as it does a remake; there are recognisable threats and the action feels more fairly weighted against you than you'd expect of a modern shooter. Your soldiers can be effortlessly taken down by the alien threat, with the tutorial mission ramming this home by forcing you to shepherd your squad to an assured destruction.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview
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As the same suggests, it's the mystery of the aliens which makes them such a menace to fight; the first time you kill a thin alien at close range then you'll immediately regret it as he detonate into a poisonous cloud. There's no warning that this or other events will happen; forced to adapt blindly, you must find your own bearings. As aliens touch down on multiple cities at once you must scatter your forces as best you can, aware that the consequences may haunt you later.

You can't know everything, nor be everywhere at once and, like the X-Coms of old, XCOM: Enemy Unknown's greatest success is that it communicates such tragedies with the most scarce of information.

Things have changed under Firaxis' control, however. The colour palette has been scaled back to a more stylised and casual, almost cel-shaded look that resembles the other XCOM with deliberate closeness. It's a far cry from the look of original X-Com games and one which, combined with the new cross-section method of displaying your HQ to you and way that your heads of department all talk down to you, makes XCOM feel like it's taken a step towards a simplicity that's intended for the console market.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview XCOM: Enemy Unknown Preview
Click to enlarge

'Bloody hell, it even has a formalised cover system,' we think, realising that soldiers who don't actively duck behind some sort of shield incur significant penalties.

A longer look at some of the later levels reveals this isn't the case however, as XCOM significantly ups the complexity once you get access to some of the more advanced gadgets and more desperate battles. A hands-off section is performed wherein a team of specialist commandoes start to liberate a city; grappling hooks lift them onto rooftops, psi-abilities make friends out of foes and snipers create their own vantage points by jetpacking into the air. A dozen species of alien jostle for screen space, from sly greys to looming chrysalids.

If the opinion we've presented so far seems to alternate, from arguing consolification to complexity, then it's important to end by noting that we take at least a half-step back towards simplicity. That Xbox 360 controller in our hands is a powerful reminded of who XCOM: Enemy Unknown is being targeted at and developed for, after all - though that doesn't mean there isn't room for compromise.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is being developed for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. It will be published by 2K Games and released October 9, 2012.

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