PAX Prime 2012: Hands on XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Redefining Strategy

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my favorite title at PAX: East 2012, and after finally getting my hands on the game at PAX: Prime I can say that all those fuzzy warm feelings I felt back in April were very well deserved.

Memories: Back in 1994, I was exposed to XCOM for the very first time.  The original XCOM: UFO Defense, published by MicroProse, was an impossibly difficult turn based strategy and simulation game with a level of depth and customization that my teenage brain wasn’t quite ready for.  The summer of 1994 was spent riding my skateboard, eating a disgusting amount of pizza rolls, and playing the heck out of XCOM.  It wasn’t a healthy time, but it was an awesome time.  While my friends were collecting “stars” and other bobbles, I was customizing an elite squad of super soldiers for missions against ruthless alien creatures.  XCOM had a number of less stellar sequels and then simply faded away… until now.

Panel Highlights: Almost twenty years later, the XCOM franchise is set to return with the help of Firaxis games, best known for the strategically brilliant Civilization series. After spending some time listening to the development team talk about the challenging task of bringing XCOM back from the dead, I was happy to learn that a good number of the developers were huge fans of the original XCOM, much like myself.   The XCOM panel was a breath of fresh air due to its honesty and humility.  Much of the panel was spent discussing not how awesome the game was, but how many mistakes were made along the way.  From terrible in-house voice acting to naked old man aliens, it’s a miracle Enemy Unknown exists at all.  At one point early in production lead designer Jake Solomon was so discouraged that he went to Sid Meier exhausted and defeated only to be re-inspired  through the creation of a pen and paper prototype of the game that he and Meier would work on in secret isolation .

Hands On:  After being treated to a short video that showcased some low level heroes getting annihilated by aliens, we had our first chance to actually PLAY Enemy Unknown.  As a matter of fact, we were told that were the first public group in North America to get our mitts on it.  The initial tutorial level was a bit “hand holdy” and required me to perform a series of predetermined tasks before I could advance.  Moving behind cover, sprinting, leaping through windows, and going into “overwatch mode” were all explained within the first few minutes, and I immedietly noticed how incredibly well everything moved and felt.  Strategy games aren’t typically toted for their graphics and presentation, but WOW XCOM sure looks pretty.  The UI and character animation both have a unique look that harkens back to the orginal XCOM.

Truly awesome unit customization options.

Feels Good: Unlike a number of other turned based strategy games that rely on a player’s imagination to explain the story of the battlefield, XCOM is incredibly visceral and often looks more like an action title than anything else.  As the players units move throughout the map, the intelligent camera follows their progress and postions itself in the coolest and most cinematic way possible.  For example, when a player’s unit take a well aimed rile shot at a distant alien, the camera will zoom in close to show the solider squeeze the trigger and quickly cut to the reaction animation of the alien being blown to pieces.  While this may sound like “no big deal”, few turn based strategy games have ever pulled off such a great “feeling” combat system.  It’s amazing.

All Your Base: A huge portion of the XCOM experience consists of base building and customization.  While I didn’t get to spend a great deal of time the XCOM HQ, I did get a chance to upgrade one of my units, begin some research, and customize my platoon right down to their haircuts and voices.  As units level up and gain experience they’ll slowly gain proficiency with certain weapon types and abilities.  If you’re brave enough to bring an entire team of stealthy snipers, you can do that.  While base-building, research, and customization may take a back seat to the crazy strategic battles that XCOM has to offer, it’s still very well constructed and a whole lot of fun.

Nerd Appropriate:  In a market flooded with shooters, platformers, and puzzle games, it’s refreshing to see a brand new take on something old.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown has the capacity to rekindle people’s love for turn based strategy, and for this we owe Firaxis a big hug.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set to release on October 9th 2012 for consoles and PC.