XCOM: Enemy Unknown multiplayer preview

Tyler Wilde at

When a volley of bullets shreds one of my soldiers, I'm terribly disheartened. He'd been hunkered down in a concrete nook formed by the steps outside a police station while my other team crept around the corner. He was the backup, set to burst through the front door and yell "surprise!" if everything went to hell inside. Instead, my opponent spotted him and flicked him off the board, leaving an ugly gap in my plan.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the first game in the near-sacred strategy series to feature one-on-one multiplayer. I played three rounds today, and they were all tense. The turn-based, tactical squad skirmishes feel like the last desperate moves of a close chess game, where one mistake can turn my check into my opponent's checkmate.

Two squads of up to six take turns moving between cover, shooting, and using their special weapons and abilities. Every action is a tricky cost/reward decision, and right now I'm pinned: do I use the turn to move one soldier to half-cover and shoot, with another suppressing, or forfeit gunfire to sprint to a safer, more advantageous position? As the turn timer ticks down, I start to panic.

I calculate and re-calculate my next move, looking for every exploitable mistake. When my turn timer runs out and my enemy takes control, I anxiously watch as he pokes bullet holes in my maneuvers. I get a little lucky, though -- as one of his units jetpacks to the safety of the police station's roof, my sniper catches a glimpse. Because I put her in Overwatch mode, she has a chance to shoot. Cue slow-mo and we both watch and wait for the shot. It hits. Plasma and blood go everywhere. Woo!

And then I lose. I made too many mistakes, and my team was pinned against the police station, taking fire from inside and out. Before each match, players are allotted points with which to build and customize their squads. Do you want come-as-they-are aliens, customizable soldiers, or a mix of both? In that round, I sacrificed body armor for better weapons, but played too defensively. And, except for my sniper, I lacked specialists when I needed them. If I'd had a medic, he could have saved my back-up plan.

I could've spent hours customizing my squad.

I decide to stick to defensive play, but set up a better-suited team: two snipers with the best gear I can afford, a super-armored heavy weapons guy, a medic, a close-quarters shotgunner, and an all-purpose soldier. The new team spawns on a street corner, huddled together. In my first turn, I move the troops into V-shape, matching the right-angle of the street and using abandoned cars for cover. My snipers in the back toss out beacons which reveal more of our surroundings, which is very helpful: in the last round, I kept forgetting that I can only see what my squad can see -- if an enemy leaves their line-of-sight, he disappears from the playfield. A lapse in attention can mean a nasty ambush.

I again use my snipers' Overwatch skill, making the street corner hostile to enemy scouts, and start moving the rest of my units toward high ground in the center of the map -- a raised town square with better cover (cars tend to explode, which is unfortunate for anyone using them as a hiding place). My plan changes when one of my snipers makes contact with a flying saucer. Then the other spots a terribly large fellow (see image below), who does what he looks like he does: goes berserk. Unfortunately for my opponent (sorry, Dan Stapleton, not this time), he's having trouble getting his unfamiliar alien squad to cooperate, and his turn timer runs down before he can inflict much damage.

I scramble everyone into action. My snipers use their headshot abilities for increased damage and my soldier dashes to better cover, his ability allowing him to shoot even after exhausting his two movement actions for the turn. My shotgunner is caught in the open, so I target the brute and hope she takes him down with her special double shot. In the end, my tactical decisions only go so far -- except with grenades and rockets, which I can direct, my troops are the ones aiming. If I've given them advantageous positions, the dice are loaded in their favor, but there are no guarantees. The camera closes in for each shot, and the soldiers linger in their sights, giving me time to tense up before the hit or miss result. When an 80 percent chance shot hits, I did my job. When a 20 percent chance shot hits, they're heroes.

I clean up the map with only one hiccup -- I forgot to tell anyone to reload, and they all empty their magazines at the same time. Like every mistake, that one could have been fatal. Lucky for me, the enemy is in disarray, and as I'm being ushered out of the hotel room one of my snipers scores the final kills.

When XCOM: Enemy Unknown's multiplayer mode was announced last week, I was bothered that I wasn't playing it. Today I'm bothered that I only got to play three rounds. I'm pretty sure it's good, but I'm anxious to find out if it's the kind of good that'll keep me playing for months.