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[PAX] XCOM: Enemy Unknown Hands-On

At the very end of the first day of PAX, I managed to get into the last showing of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the day. I had demanded to be the Twinfinite staffer who got to see it before the show, which doesn’t honestly make much sense. I’m not much of a strategy gamer in general and I have only a passing knowledge of the original XCOM games, but I have had a tangible hunger for XCOM: Enemy Unknown for quite some time. Since I showed up during the last demo session of the day, I lucked into being able to play the first 45 minutes or so of the game. Now my hunger has turned into a fervor. I need more.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the strategic reboot of the original franchise. Taking the aspects people loved from the original game — upgrading both human and alien technologies, permadeath of soldiers, and sheer depth — this reboot makes all of that feel fresh again. Fans of strategy games should be looking at this very closely.

The hands-off portion of the demo showed a lesser team of soldiers being picked off one by one courtesy of the alien forces. Showing off some impressive combat scenes, all of the unfortunate commandos were murdered in unique ways. Some were taken out up close and personal, some were simply gunned down, and another was possessed by an alien opponent, forcing him to “eat his own grenade.”

Somehow happy with what had just transpired, the demo-ers then brought in their bigger guns: a group of marines who had been upgraded to the point of being a force to be reckoned with. One of these was, who else, but Firaxis head-honcho, Sid Meier himself: an intergalactic badass with potent mind control abilities, able to get revenge for his fallen friends.

The new group of veterans made short work of the alien oppressors. Some of the soldiers had stealth capabilities, which could sneak up on the aliens and eviscerate them quickly. That’s something I’ll say about Enemy Unknown from what I’ve seen so far: both you and your enemies can die quickly. A single bad turn can end in losing several soldiers who previously had full health. The same goes for the enemy.

The demo ended with a giant alien showing up and destroying a nearby building. As the marines looked up to answer, fade to black. Good stuff. But then came the better stuff. I got to play it.

Starting out with a strict, rigid tutorial (go here, go there, shoot this, grenade that), the game painlessly walks you through its fairly complex systems. Having played a significant amount of Full Spectrum Warrior, I felt decently comfortable with the controls (the demo I played used a 360 controllers), but I can say that it will probably control better with a keyboard and mouse, though none of that has been shown as of yet.

As I said before, I have only a passing knowledge of the original XCOM, but this demo remind me heavily of a more complex Fire Emblem. Moving characters to strategic positions, the game will then show you the percent chance of hitting and the damage done before you attack. Lose someone, they’re out.

After a quick mission or two, the game left me to my own devices, which proved to be a mistake. In the first mission I was left alone with, I rushed ahead too quickly, getting two of my soldiers killed in the process. I was pretty bummed about that. I should have used that rocket I was saving.

Leveling up is done at the base of operations. Gaining experience from missions allows you to add skills to your marines to make them more effective in battle. Upgrades can be done to either advance your team’s human tech or advance their proclivity in alien weapons.

The mission structure struck me as interesting, seemingly mixing in randomized skirmishes with bigger story missions. The game will present you with several cities under siege and it will be up to you to choose a city to protect. Protecting a city will keep it safe, while allowing a city to be attacked can result in it withdrawing from play entirely (the ramifications of which, I wasn’t able to ascertain in the demo).

Honestly, everything I saw about XCOM: Enemy Unknown was fantastic. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full game. I went in expecting it to be one of my favorite games of PAX and I was right. It will be available on October 9 here in North America on 360, PS3, and PC.

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