When I told people that we had pinned our E3 Best of Show award on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I got some strange looks. We loved Dishonored, delighted in SimCity and were ready to get our shoot-n-loot on with Borderlands 2. Something about Firaxis‘ take on the classic alien invasion sim hit us as really special. I can tell you that after spending time with a preview build, and having a chance to hear from Lead Designer Jake Solomon and Lead Producer Garth DeAngelis, I couldn’t be happier with our selection.
The build we’ve got isn’t final, and if I spilled all the beans, I’d be redacted in a heartbeat. Still, the Council has given us the OK to share some highlights. The invaders are coming, and I can assure that despite what you think, you are not ready.
That’s one of the key elements that sets XCOM apart from every other strategy game I’ve played. There is an overwhelming sense of tension and doom with every decision. If you ever wondered if survival horror might work in other genres, Firaxis has answered a resounding “yes!”
The key concepts of the XCOM franchise are intact in this new iteration.
“This should feel like part of the XCOM universe, those original games,” Jake Solomon shared. “The mechanics have changed, but the core pillars of the design are the same: destructible environments, permadeath, consequences for all your choices, base building, the tactical layer and the big, deep strategy layer… that dark, a little bit scary tone. We’ve tried to maintain those.”
One of the things that has struck me in my time with the game is how attached I get to my team. I know that one false move, rushing ahead too quickly or simply choosing the wrong assortment of soldiers could end up wiping out veterans. One aspect of the design pulls your four- to six-person team together. I absolutely love the Move/Action system that has replaced time units, because of how it encourages squad-level tactical thinking.
In many tactical or strategic games, unit turns need to be grouped. For instance, if you start moving a soldier, you can’t delay its attack or wait until later in the round to reposition. XCOM fixes what I’ve always considered to be a broken design choice in the genre. By default, each of your squad members has two actions per turn. With the exception of snipers, each can fire after moving. Alternatively, and provided that the first movement was not too far, you can take a second positioning action. This allows you to keep your squad together and shuffle them forward to set up better coverage. This creates more freedom, but just like with every option presented to an XCOM player, there are consequences.
There are no easy choices in this game. What to build and when, whether to research weapons or armor and simply which country will receive your assistance when the entire globe is under assault aren’t rare conundrums. These pop up every single time to you return to base. Worse, you never know exactly which of your soldiers you’ll have access to when the next alert pops up.
Make the wrong decision, gamble with the life of a team member and you can land him or her in the infirmary for days… or worse.
“Permadeath is one of the features that makes XCOM,” said Garth DeAngelis.
There are few things more painful than watching a teammate you’ve named, nurtured and known over a number of battles meet her end. There is no coming back from that, and the best you can do is muscle on, take revenge and mourn back at base. Those troops who do manage to survive their brush with alien weaponry will find themselves in the infirmary. You can’t send someone on the injured reserve list into battle, which can be very problematic if you have to take on a mission when your ace Assault or Heavy has a day left of bed rest. Trust me, rotate in fresh blood. Show them the ropes, and you’ll be grateful later on.
In addition to the boots on the ground, you’ll also be answering to the Council, the coalition of 16 nations across five continents funding your work. Each month, you’ll have to report in. Perform well, and you’ll receive a bonus of cash and or technical manpower (scientists and engineers). However, allow the terror level to rise too much (which causes countries to become isolationist and drop out of the project), and things start getting harder.
In order to protect the population, you’ll need to have satellite coverage that alerts you to UFOs and abductions.
“The different countries have different benefits and different amount of funding. The United States and Russia are going to give you a lot of funding, but the problem is that you cannot watch out for both of them. They are on two different continents,” said Solomon. “You have to choose your ground. If you start spreading out too quickly, and let’s say you want to cover Russia and the United States, that’s fine. You can launch satellites over both those countries. But now, you’re going to have to protect both those countries with jets, so you’ll need even more jets. You’re going to have expand into Europe right away and that gets very expensive and very hard to maintain.”
More importantly, there is a benefit for focusing your forces in the early game. In addition to the starting bonus you’ll receive when you choose your base’s location, each continent has a perk for maxing out satellite coverage. These choices aren’t throwaway decisions. Each will play a major role in how the rest of your game rolls out.