10 Thoughts on… the XCOM: Enemy Unknown Demo (PC)

So, let’s get this out of the way up front: I LOVE the XCOM series. X-COM: UFO Defense was an amazing piece of work for its time, and Terror From the Deep, while more of an expansion pack than a full-fledged game, was still pretty fantastic. X-COM: Enforcer (an off-shoot third person shooter) was the last game in the franchise for a little over a decade, though games have popped up in the spirit of the original strategy games since then, albeit without the magic of the original games. Well, somewhere along the way 2K Games picked up the license and has actively jumped into working on it, with a first person shooter dubbed simply XCOM due out next year, and a game that stays true to the franchise roots, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While there’s a console demo supposedly coming at some point before release, the PC demo dropped on Steam not too long ago, and as a big fan of the series, I was very much interested in what Firaxis was doing with the series. Their work on Civilization has generally been solid, after all, so there’s certainly reason to believe that this could be a return to the glory of the old XCOM titles, if it’s handled right.

1.) While the upcoming FPS XCOM takes the series in a different direction, placing first contact sometime in the twenties or so, Enemy Unknown handles the situation similarly to how the original games did. First contact happens sometime in the not too distant future, a team dubbed “XCOM” is assembled to deal with it, and the government funds them to stop the invasion or die trying. Enemy Unknown handles it a little differently, however, starting the game during first contact, and it uses this event to introduce the idea of XCOM as a military force, as well as the foes the player is up against. The demo is significantly more plot heavy than the prior games were, which isn’t wholly a bad thing; while the possibility exists that the whole game could be plot heavy, it’s more likely that there’s a good deal of plot in the beginning to explain why everything is happening, which is acceptable. The plot itself is handled well enough, and while this leaves the first mission and a half or so on rails, it works adequately… so long as this isn’t an indication of how the whole game will work, anyway.

2.) Both of the missions the game throws you into are set at night, so the visuals, so far, are quite the contrast, with bright colors and effects on-base and dark visuals during the mission activity. The animations and character models look very nice, as do the combat effects, and the game doesn’t shy away from violence in the least, which is realistic in this case, if occasionally revolting. Still, the game isn’t gratuitous so much as it is attempting to be vaguely terrifying about exactly what alien first contact could mean and, honestly, on a visual level, it works. Aurally, the voice work in the game is… a bit more pervasive than it perhaps needs to be, but it’s very good, so far. The music is also quite fitting as it’s dramatic and powerful when it needs to be and subdued and calm when it doesn’t. The effects are appropriately futuristic and modern at the same time, and work as well as one would hope at this juncture, so from a presentation level, Enemy Unknown is delivering at this point.

3.) The first mission is a bit surprising in its layout, as it’s a complete tutorial; everything is completely spelled out for you as the player and there’s basically no “fail” condition to speak of. The game lays out the movement to begin with, and for series veterans, it’s the first change they’ll notice. In the original games, your characters had a general energy meter that dictated how far they could move without stopping; here, movement is broken into two action points. Moving a certain distance on the map (marked in blue) is one move, while moving into an extended zone (marked in yellow) is considered “dashing” and takes two bars. Moving one bar allows the character to act again that turn, while two bars ends their turn completely. You can see how many bars a character has left on their “Unit Flag”, the display that pops off of the active unit when selected, so you know how your movement options stack up. Interacting with the game world and moving your troops is a snap, also; left clicking selects options and highlights things, while right-clicking initiates the move action, which you’ll pick up in seconds and find easy to understand.

4.) The second point that comes up as worth noting is how the cover system is handled. In prior games, you’d just move somewhere and duck if needed (and if you had the points) and hope for the best, but here the game gives you a visual illustration of what sort of cover you have on all sides of a square. A blank space offers no cover, a half-full shield offers partial cover, and a full shield offers full cover, allowing you a solid tactical idea of what kind of protection a space can provide your trooper. Of course, cover can be destroyed by an attacker if it’s not strong enough, so that cover may not offer protection for long, but it’s still a good indication for when and how to move up when playing that offers some useful tactical advantages to the player.

5.) The bottom half of the screen offers up most of your action options for when you’re trying to do more than move around. The left side offers the option to cycle between troops and focus on characters and such, while the bottom offers an action bar that allows you to dictate what actions the characters should perform. You can flip on firing mode to take shots at enemies, engage “Overwatch”, which allows a character to actively fire on enemies that pass through their view (at an aim penalty of course), reload weapons, toss grenades, perform any other actions they are equipped for, and “Hunker Down”, or dig into cover to reduce the possibility of being shot. Different characters can carry different gear and abilities into battle, so your sniper can take headshots, your medic can use healing kits, and so on, depending on who you take with you, and all of these options appear in the bottom bar when the character’s turn comes up, for easy access and use.

6.) The bottom right hand corner of the interface is where the weaponry your controlled character is carrying appears, which seems to amount to some type of primary ballistic weapon (assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles) and a secondary support weapon (hand pistol, rocket launcher). You can click on the weapon icons to change between them as needed, then click the targeting icon on the bottom bar to enter targeting view. This pans into a third person, behind-the-back view that allows you to see the exact thing your character sees, which gives you a much better idea of how bad the shot is than a simple percentage ranking. You can see if anything is obstructing the view, how much of the target is visible and how far the target is from this view, which gives you a good idea of how viable a target is at the moment. You can tab between all potential targets until you find the most viable option, and with a simple click of the “Okay” button at the bottom your character will take their shot and either miss or make contact and injure/kill the opposing target. This is only applicable for ranged weapons, so far as the demo shows, as grenades are handled through an overhead view where you simply aim where you’d like the grenade to land and click to chuck it, which is more practical, if less realistic.

7.) The first mission you take on in the demo acts as a combination plot advancement mission and tutorial mission, and as such, it holds your hand to the extent that you can do literally nothing but what the game tells you to. This is fine in the sense that, yes, if you’re not used to the genre you might find all the options a bit onerous, but it’s a bit jarring to compare this to X-Com: UFO Defense, given how rigid the first mission is. For those who are new to or less experienced in turn-based strategy games, the tutorial is outstanding, as it gives you a strong primer in exactly what you can do, as well as some hints on how helpful tactics like taking cover and flanking actually are. For franchise veterans, however, it’s going to be a serious disconnect, due in large part to the fact that the entire first mission forces you to play its way for a bit, so it’ll take some getting used to.

8.) Upon completing the tutorial mission, you’re then asked to choose a location for the XCOM home base, much like in the prior games, though this time the choice isn’t about placement to maximize radar range as much as it is about the benefits countries offer you for building your base there. You need only choose a country to build in, while the game handles any placement involved in this thing, though, confusingly, the demo only offers you two choices from the available five (this is confusing because this choice impacts not a damn thing in the demo itself). You can choose to build in the US (but not Canada or Mexico apparently), which rewards you with cheaper aircraft and aircraft weapons, or Europe, which makes labs and workshops cheaper. The demo also shows that Asia (Foundry and training projects are cheaper), South America (interrogations and autopsies complete instantly) and Africa (increases monthly funding by 30%) are options in the final game, though whether they’re available from jump or you’ll have to unlock them isn’t apparent. Once your base is constructed you’re dumped into a basic tutorial of how to manage your base, which touches briefly on troop upgrading (promoting troopers allows them to develop new skills), research projects (select a project and your scientists will study it) and such. While it’s disappointing that it appears troopers cannot be outfitted with gear as you decide, the fact that your troops earn bonuses for surviving missions is a nice compensation for this thing that may mitigate this in the long run. The base itself is shown from a cutaway side view, and all of the main departments you can access, including Research, Engineering, the Barracks, the Hangar, the Situation Room and Mission Control, can be accessed from buttons around the screen, so base navigation is simple enough.

9.) After the aforementioned brief tutorial on base management, you’re then taken to Mission Control, where the game presents Terror Sites for you to investigate. The game places you in the position of having to choose from two Terror Sites to investigate, in the US and China. Both offer rewards (the US offers four scientists while China offers two hundred bucks), and consequences (the location you don’t choose will spike in panic), forcing you to make tough choices on who to assist to best balance your responses. This is theoretically in the spirit of the original X-Com, though Terror Sites didn’t often appear at the same time until later in the game in that case, so that’s not a wholly appreciable change at this point. Regardless, in the demo, both missions are identical: aliens have invaded a dock, and you have to go kill them. The mission gives you a couple tutorial guidelines for elevation before turning you loose to do the mission on your own, and it’s quite easy to bring everyone home alive (I did so twice in fact), largely because the missions, at least as the demo is concerned, are more linear than in the original games. This isn’t specifically a good or bad thing at this point, as the game could still do a lot with this sort of concept, but at this point the missions are certainly simpler, so it remains to be seen how that will play out. Post-mission you’re then introduced to a final cutscene that shows a downed alien ship as an implication of the enormity of the situation before the “COMING SOON” screen pops and you’re dumped back to the main screen.

10.) XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the sort of demo that leaves franchise veterans cautiously optimistic about the final product, not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. The demo shows that there’s likely a good strategy experience here, though it’s most likely going to be a bit less complex than series veterans were hoping for, sadly. That said, there are some good ideas here, and even if the final product is a bit less robust than the original games (which the demo implies is likely), if the final product is a bit less story heavy than the demo and the missions can become more expansive, this is likely going to be worth the asking price. We’ll see how that turns out in a few weeks.



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3 responses to “10 Thoughts on… the XCOM: Enemy Unknown Demo (PC)”

  1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

    I had no idea you were an X-Com fan until I read this. I thought I was the only person on staff that had frothing adoration for it, especially when no one else seemed interested in Shadow Wars for the 3DS.

    1. Mark B. Avatar
      Mark B.

      Well I DID buy XCOM: UFO Defense and Terror From the Deep on Steam, so.

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