Shoot Unknown in the face with XCOM’s demo

It was an ordinary 4AM morning like any other, this author going about his nocturnal affairs as he had been the past couple of days (nights?). Body ready to tangle in sweet communion with bed, I was unprepared for what was to follow while closing my laptop’s lid: a simple tweet appearing, announcing the release of a certain XCOM: Enemy Unknown demo. This changes everything.

Enemy Unknown is 2K and Firaxis’s reboot of the much-loved XCOM franchise, the turn-based combat and base building winning the hearts of many aspiring commanders. I’ve only had the opportunity to play one title previously, leaving me with enough fond memories to promptly purchase the XCOM Collection when it went on sale. While the initial reveal of an XCOM reboot was met with lots of cautious excitement, reception slowly warmed up as more details emerged; it has turned into full-blown anticipation for the game’s release, with pre-orders already halfway through unlocking Steam’s third-tier rewards.

Go ahead and grab the 6GB+ demo from Steam to give it a shot yourself. Otherwise, read on as I delve into trying out the missions, entering new and unfamiliar territory while getting to shoot Unknown in the face.

The poor victims in the opening cinematic must have had it rough, going about their regular lives just as I was. Next thing they know, they’re forced into an encounter with deadly, armed aliens, undoubtedly intent on conducting all manner of unwelcome probing. Forced to defend their lives and physical integrity, these brave individuals put up a fierce fight, inflicting heavy casualties down to the last soul. Victorious, the sole enemy survivor left the structure, content with the murder visited upon this new species. First contact was an abysmal failure, and these astoundingly violent humans were keen to begin their tread down a road named ‘Genocide’.

…what, you mean the humans are supposed to be the defending heroes against an alien invasion here? Oh.

Players take on the commanding role of a secret, international project called XCOM, tasked to defend Earth against alien aggressors. The demo starts out by introducing ground combat: a turn-based system with the player starting first, moving individual members of your squad via an isometric grid, slowly peeling back the fog-of-war. The 3D environments provide you with a new cover mechanic, destructible environments and more importantly, line-of-sight. If you’ve ever played Valkyria Chronicles then you’ll be very familiar with how things work.

Ground combat isn’t restricted to outdoor settings either — this is modern human civilisation and there are plenty of structures for you to navigate through. You can choose to go for a shock-and-awe tactic, smashing through windows and kicking doors down, alerting all to your presence and hoping the aliens wee a little before they get gunned down.

Alternatively, you may choose the more civilised route of silently opening doors, allowing you to check if there are any enemies inside before doing anything rash. I almost always prefer to take the safer route when given a tactical choice but I believe there will be moments where speed is of necessity. These windows and doors also serve as useful firing points during an engagement, keeping your squad out of harm’s way.

To assist with your tactical assessment is your camera’s ability to rotate around the map or move up and down to view multiple levels, if any; great for when a building has a roof for your sniper to perch on.

Each soldier has two action turns and aside from that, there is no strict order for you to adhere to. You can choose who gets to act first and whether they should move, shoot or carry out an activity from their available set, such as providing overwatch support, tossing grenades or even healing a team member. Some actions, such as reloading or dashing, take up the full two turns. You’ll have to bear these considerations in mind when planning your attack, ensuring that nobody gets flanked or left to fend off enemies alone.

Unfortunately, your first taste of combat is entirely scripted, meant to function as a tutorial; you’ll only get to click according to the game’s wishes and the whole affair was frustrating to say the least. This is likely intended to ensure the flow of scripted events in that opening level, but was it necessary? This hand-holding approach to designing tutorials needs to be shot in the back of the head and buried deep in the forest — nobody will miss it.

After getting to watch three-quarters of my squad die horribly at the hands of these guerrilla aliens, I’m asked to select where to establish a base of operations. Each region has its own bonuses and all of Asia is, sadly, lumped into one group. I’m hoping that they’ll expand on the selections available in the future to really give some added depth to the choice of locale – it’ll be interesting to see morale drop from being stationed out in the middle of the desert or arctic regions. Perhaps face infrastructure difficulties in a less-developed area? Or even have my soldiers elope with the locals and never return because they rather not screw with aliens.

Taking a departure from the former titles, Enemy Unknown will only have you building a single base. The ‘ant farm’ view allows you to zoom in and out, building structures adjacent to one another. You can’t randomly place labs all over the place too – well, actually you can but you’re far better off thinking twice since these have potential bonuses too. For example, labs adjacent to each other gain a bonus to their research. While the demo does present you with the view and base layout, it’s all scripted once again and you don’t even build anything, rendering the whole region choosing pointless.

I’m sent to the barracks to promote the lone survivor. Clicking yet more highlighted buttons, I notice along the way a range of ways for you to customise each individual soldier. They’ll increase in rank, gain new abilities and perform better on the field with each mission – but once they die, they’re gone. If I’m allowed to set their names and portraits then things would take on an interesting twist indeed, as is usually the case when you begin to care for the characters.

After awkwardly staring at newly-promoted Corporal Garcia in his full combat garb, I’m whisked away to the science labs to speak to one of the main characters. She informs me about what her team can do and if I wanted to focus current efforts on alien weapons or material. Opting for the latter in the hopes of getting better armour—because dammit I want to keep my team alive—I’m then told that any alien salvage I come across would be of great use for the researchers. Having been relegated the new duty of corpse and garbage collector, the siren wails for my attention: back to the mission room, lackey!

There have been developments. More specifically, there have been alien abductions. Of course there’ll be abductions, it’s what aliens do. In any case, XCOM has to choose between assisting the United States or China. Two great world powers with impressive military strength to boot, and they can’t handle a few alien abductions? What next? Decide which country an island belongs to?

Now the interesting thing here is that helping one of these nations will net you a reward, while at the same time the other will face an increase in panic levels. Neglect a region for too long and countries will start leaving the council.

The next mission, with a predetermined group of soldiers including lucky ol’ Garcia there, hands the reins over to me and was an immensely enjoyable experience for it. Moving forward was a suitably tense issue, always checking to make sure I’ve got all my guys covered. Not long after, my rooftop sniper grabs the attention of a pair of aliens who immediately begin firing, the pricks. I move shotgun-guy into the building to reinforce Cpl. Garcia while rifle-dude went onto the roof just in case. With my squad now in position, I endured a volley of weapons fire. The aliens also established a visible mind-link with one another, probably to stream trance and dubsteb or something.

My sniper wounded from that attack, I now return the favour: Garcia bashes the door open and lays some suppressive fire onto the aliens; shotgun-guy smashes a window to fire through it, wounding one; while the sniper lobs a grenade from his elevated position and wipes out the other (and a forklift truck). The cinematic kill-cams felt entirely at home. Rifle-dude merely felt sad at his exclusion.

I won’t spoil what enemy variants you’ll come across next but the engagements were also incredibly fun. Garcia nearly died from a flurry of clear shots, surviving thanks to the ministrations of rifle-dude who also happens to have some first-aid training. Who knew you had to be qualified to spray a can?

Clearing the mission gives you a couple of scenes that tease about what’s in store and, much to my disappointment, ends the demo. I went to replay it and discovered, to my horror, that I cannot simply go straight to the playable mission. I sat through the tutorial hand-holding though, because the game is good – very much so. I may be a little biased in my love for these sorts of strategy/tactical games but I’m happy to say that I’m not the only one.

Firaxis Games have done a good job of bringing the game up to date. It’s not sporting a jaw-dropping level of graphical fidelity but it serves its purposes well, setting the tone and atmosphere for the games. I’m a little bothered by some of the animation quality on the models and a few textures here and there but it can be easily overlooked once you’re playing. What I need to mention, however, is the accompanying soundtrack: Roland Rizzo is the audio lead for Enemy Unknown, a man who’s been crafting his music magic for XCOM since the start. It’s very much sci-fi, warmly embraced by my headphones. I can’t say much about the sound design as, to be honest, I was too engrossed in the game, but nothing felt out of place aside from some of the voice acting.

I wish there’s more to share about the game mechanics in general but the demo really didn’t provide much more than that. All we can do now is to wait until its October release: 9th for US and 12th for everyone else. You can pre-order via Steam for USD$49.99 right now, which will reward you with two levels of pre-purchase items.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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