XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

Graham Smith at

X-Com preview

It’s not only your soldiers who will take cover.

At each level-up, you make a decision about which of two class-specific perks to grant your recruit. It means you’re making fewer choices than in the original game, but each choice is far more significant.

Popeye falls in to the Assault class, and so you give him a passive perk. Now every time he sees an enemy, the percentage chance of him scoring a critical hit goes up. In the next ten or twenty hours, you’re going to take Popeye on a dozen missions. You’re going to micromanage every piece of equipment he carries, every step he takes, every shot he makes. You’re going to tailor the equipment available to him by the research options you’ve chosen back at base. You’re going to shape the team around him, so that he has a Sniper for support, or a bunch of other Assault guys, or robotic heavy weapons platforms as his sidekicks. He’s going to have levelled a bunch more times, and you’re going to have picked a bunch more perks for him.

He’s now your favourite toy out of all your toy soldiers. You’ve thought about him as much as you have your Khajiit in Skyrim or your Monk in Diablo III. Remember that. We’ll come back to Popeye Doyle in a moment.

Jake’s mission has loaded, and his squad are standing outside a petrol station. It looks like America, but the setting is generic enough that it could be anywhere. It also looks nice, but not stunning. It’s much less cartoony than the original game’s low resolution sprites, but the game’s artists aren’t aiming for gritty reality either. The characters and models look chunky, sort of like action figures.

X-Com preview

The new ‘Man in Black’ alien is almost human.

One by one, Jake orders his recruits to move up nearer the petrol pumps and take cover. He only has four soldiers along for this mission. With research, that can be upgraded to a maximum of six.

Time units, the resource that allowed you to perform actions in the original, have also gone. Now, each soldier can move once and perform a single action per turn. An action is anything from shooting a weapon to hunkering down behind something that’s part of the new cover system.

Almost instantly, one of Jake’s recruits spots a couple of Sectoids. We’re introduced to them by a short, in-engine cutscene. The Sectoids look less childlike than in the original game, but they’re clearly inspired by the same source material: they’re grey, skinny, with big heads and bug eyes.

One Sectoid scuttles inside the petrol station, while another takes cover behind a nearby car. Jake finds his Sniper, and using a special grapplehook, has her climb on to the ceiling of the petrol station. She’ll come in useful later.

X-Com preview

I would rename her ‘Buddy Russo’.

Back down below, a few shots have been exchanged. The Sectoid inside the building is using a special ability to form a psychic link with the one taking cover outside, boosting its stats.

These are Sectoids, however, the weakest alien in the game. Jake has his Heavy lay down suppressing fire, and orders his Assault soldier to toss a grenade inside the vehicle. As it explodes, the camera cuts in close for the second time to show the Sectoid’s death. It’ll do this a few more times to mark each kill and each new alien introduction. It’s a minor intrusion.

The Assault soldier now bursts through the front door of the petrol station and takes down the remaining Sectoid. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to speed: the noise made from crashing inside has alerted some Mutons in an adjacent room. These are another classic X-COM alien. In the original game, they were big and brutish, but looked like Mexican wrestlers in unitards. Now they’re more menacing, wearing bulky metal suits and blessed with big shoulders and lots of muscle, but they’re still recognisably Mutons.

They kill the Assault soldier.