X-COM: Enemy Unknown – NYC Preview Event

Last Thursday, PS Nation was invited to attend a first look at gameplay and a one on one interview for the upcoming game from 2K and Firaxis, X-COM: Enemy Unknown. Why is this a big deal and why does the X-COM name generate such a buzz around the gaming world? A little back story is in order.

In 1994, Microprose released X-COM: UFO Defense for PC’s in North America. Known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, the turn-based strategy game is now a staple in nearly every list of the top games ever made. The game is set in the (at the time) near future of 1999. Abductions and UFO sightings are on the rise and eventually, confronted by this major threat to the planet, a group of nations joins together to form X-COM, short for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit and this is where you come in. You’re in charge of X-COM and it’s up to you to research new technology, outfit and expand your base, equip your soldiers and send them out on missions.

The level of detail is what made X-COM stand out above all other strategy games at the time, that and the sheer terror of the missions. One of the cooler aspects of the game was the ability to name each individual character in the game. Whether you made up a bunch of names or used friends and family, it added a connection to the soldiers that’s rarely seen in games. It really mattered in X-COM because when one of your team is killed, they’re killed off for good. It can be especially tough when you build up a character over hours of gameplay and suddenly they’re gone. It made every encounter with the aliens a critical series of decisions and ramped up the adrenaline in what could have been a slow and plodding strategy game.

So what does all this mean in the context of the new game? You may recall the excitement on blogs and forums a few years ago when the first X-COM game was announced, and of course the disappointment when we all learned that it would be nothing like the original. Well now the excitement is back. X-COM: Enemy Unknown is based entirely on the original and from what I saw, it’s everything a fan of the original could hope for.

It’s great to see Firaxis at the helm here. Known for their long time work on the Civilization series, Firaxis knows strategy games, and while you’d think that would be enough, fans of the series will be thrilled to know that the development team also includes a handful of ex-Microprose employees who worked on the first X-COM back in the 90’s. After seeing a lengthy demo of the new version, I spoke with Garth Deangelis who told me that at the start of development, the entire team was brought into a room and everyone had to play through the original game and beat it. This was done to give them all an understanding of what the original was all about and why it evokes such strong emotions in players. Within the first few minutes of the demo, I knew they’d taken those lessons to heart.

The new game is now set in the modern day world, but the art style and gameplay are thoroughly old school X-COM. Veterans of the series will be delighted to see designs that evoke the old PC game. When the soldiers first loaded on to the transport ship, I was giddy. It looks so similar to the original transport ship yet still updated and new. I had my concerns about how the look of the original would translate to modern consoles, but the designers did a bang up job.

The alien races, of which we saw two of the original eleven, were both wonderfully familiar. In addition to the Sectoids, who look much like the Greys of standard alien lore, we got to see the updated Mutons. Essentially the elite warrior class of the aliens, the Mutons require heavier weaponry to bring down. Not content to leave it that though, there’s a new alien called a Berserker. As if the Mutons weren’t bad enough, getting troops in too close to the Berserker is pretty much a death sentence. They can break through walls and pound your soldiers into the ground with ease. These, like a number of enemies throughout the game, will require some real thought and tactical planning when attacking them.

A big change in the new version is how your soldiers progress. In the original, you could build up your characters how you saw fit with no real discernible classes. Enemy Unknown establishes a strict series of classes but adds new Skill Trees for each class with dozens of abilities, passive and active, unique to each class. This can add more meaning to each encounter as more and more specialized soldiers are put in harm’s way. It also adds another layer of strategy as you learn how to combine the abilities of different characters in the heat of battle allowing you to take advantage of situations and terrain giving you the upper hand.

The battle we saw took place at a gas station that could have been in any town. Using the pillars by the gas pumps along with abandoned cars for cover, the first battle began to take shape. Movement is no longer grid based, but as you trace a line away from your character, you’ll be able to see the limits of their movement in a turn. We watched as several soldiers were moved into position behind cover. After the aliens had their turn, also scrambling for cover, the battle began. One soldier was deployed to provide suppressing fire, pinning the Sectoids down while another soldier moved to flank them. Crossing directly into the Sectoids’ line of sight allowed them to get off Reaction Fire, giving up their turn. This was all shown from the alien’s point of view and in slow motion. It was everything my imagination showed me when playing the game nearly twenty years ago. That’s really one of the high points of the update, being able to move right down onto the battlefield, in a third person view behind your soldiers and see what they see, watching individual shells fly out of your guns. I was giddy watching it all happen and fans of the series are gonna love this.

The real and significant consequences of your actions on the battlefield make X-COM what it is. Moving into a new situation with so many unknowns can be a terrifying prospect, especially when encountering a new alien species. You’ll need to quickly figure out what’s most effective when dealing with a particular race and sometimes at a great cost. It’s why the name X-COM is so revered and why I’m so excited for this update to the original.

Going out into the field and fighting the aliens is only half the battle though, and fans will be pleased to know that the deeper planning and management is here as well. Between missions you’ll be back at your base or, The Ant Farm, as the developers put it. You’ll see a wonderful cross-section of your underground base and you’re able to pull back and take in the whole thing or zoom right in to individual rooms. Seeing your soldiers, your actual soldiers from out in the field, working out on the treadmill, or grabbing a beer in the bar is such a cool addition and another way to instill a deeper connection with the player.

While in the base, you’ll visit the Research Labs, just like the original and allocate resources and scientists towards creating new weapons & gear or reverse engineering any captured alien technology. The Engineering section is here as well, allowing you to create the new equipment or excavate further and expand your base. Choices are at the heart of X-COM and every choice has consequences. You’ve always got limited funds which could grow smaller as Governments make secret deals with the aliens and cut off your funding. It’s a balancing act that you need to successfully navigate throughout the entire game to be successful which is another thing that made the original so good.

The Geoscape dominates Mission Control at the heart of your base. It’s essentially a 3D model of the Earth which will show alien incursions in real time that you’ll need to respond to and it looks just as good as it did in the original. Another cue taken from the original is the fact that the frequency and location of alien incursions will happen randomly making every play through of the game a unique experience. It’s exciting to see the level of detail and the feel of the original so faithfully recreated and also updated at the same time. The demo ended with a group of soldiers coming up on a downed alien ship and a huge smile on my face.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown will be released Fall 2012 as a disc based game for the PS3. I asked about Move Support, this being a turn based strategy game that traces it’s lineage to the PC, but it won’t be included. There will definitely be DLC down the line as the developers already have a few things in mind. From what I saw, fans of the original X-COM will love this update to the timeless classic. For newcomers, if turn based strategy games that require critical thinking are your thing, you’re gonna love it too. Now what I’d really love to see is the original PC version available on the disc as well and playable on the PS3. I know that may be asking too much so I’d settle for the original PlayStation version… make it happen 2K!

Developer Deep Dive Video

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  • Aaahhh.. can’t wait. I hope I won’t be missing the move support, but to be honest it wasn’t that great in R.U.S.E. and I’m not missing it at all in Civilization. So in my opinion it won’t be a big issue here as well.

    • Yeah, I’m not too worried about Move.  It’s turn based strategy so I figured I’d ask.  It looked pretty straightforward in terms of controlling your soldiers so I’m sure it won’t even be missed.

  • YoyoMcDingdong

    Loved the original,sounds like this may be pretty good.

  • I remember the original on PlayStation. It was very involved with deep, intricate menus. It was crazy how much detail you could do, from base and weapon management, to outfitting your soldiers. A little off-putting, but the game wasn’t for everyone. It had its fans. People that enjoy strategy ended up loving this game.

    •  I never got to play the PS1 version, but I’d imagine that the conversion from PC to PS1 was probably not the best.  It seems like it would be difficult to offer all the control and the layout you had on the PC.

  • Seriously looking forward to this.  I’m a big fan of “turn based” to start with…  add in aliens, mind melding and exploding gas stations and I’m in!

    •  Oh I think you’re gonna like this.  It’s very deep and they’re building off of one of the best games ever made in the genre.