Editorial note: XCOM Enemy Unknown is not to be confused with that really shitty XCOM game we previewed a few years ago. Sweet Lord was that game bad.
Whilst at Multiplay’s i46 this summer, I was very fortunate to get an early heads-up on the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I heard good things about the original games so I was, of course, very excited to get playing. And though the machine I was using suffered an unfortuante, catastrophic failure* that ended my demo prematurely, I think I was able to get the jist of what the game is about.
XCOM plays like an old-school turn-based strategy game in the same style as chess if all the pieces could move the same and had guns. In a turn, you have two points you can spend by taking actions such as moving to a position or taking cover. You could, for example, move to a position far away with no cover, or move to a closer position and be well fortified. The act of moving forward and getting into cover seems to be the aim of the game as, oddly, there is no combat at all in XCOM. As I never got to the end of the first level, I can only assume that the mission is complete either when your squad moves to a certain position or when all of your squad are in sufficient cover, both of which are very interesting takes on the current state of strategy games.
Another shocking revelation is that, despite what is shown in trailers, there are no aliens in XCOM. In fact, there are no enemies at all, so the subtitle of Enemy Unknown makes more sense. The game actually feels somewhat unfinished as there’s little on screen apart from your squad and cover to get behind. No aliens, no way of using your weapons, no civilians running from terror, nothing. There were a couple of alien ship-like things hanging around in areas inspired by a crash-style motif but everything feels pretty dead. This is, of course, a direct commentary on modern police forces: they’re nowhere to be found when trouble actually starts but eight turn up at once as soon as things have died down.
From what I saw initially, I can only assume that XCOM is following in Spec Ops: The Line’s shadow by advertising to the public’s expectations and then flipping it all on the player’s head when they start playing. The commentary on police forces is noted above, but what else could there be? Political commentary on dual party systems of government (it is, after all, an election year)? Revelations shown through discovery of abandonned technology to further interest in modern science and engineering in today’s youth? Proper crime scene investigation and quarantine technique? They could even take the normal alien invasion storyline and turn it around so that the aliens, unsightly and foreign as they are, have actually come to earth to search for help as refugees only to be sectioned off in ghettos and shanty towns in a stark commentary on racial discrimination, xenophobia and apartheid which, for my money, would be an interesting story the likes of which we have never seen before.
Of course, my experience was atypical. The only way for everyone to truly find out is to load up Steam and check out the demo that was released in the last couple of days, play through it and find out for ourselves. Pre-orders are currently available and XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set to release on the 11th of October on PC and Xbox 360.
* Later attributed to close Aesir proximity