XCom: Enemy Unknown multiplayer hands-on

The Cyberdisc floats in the open, left exposed by an inexperienced commander. It lists, smoking, damaged from a lucky plasma sniper shot earlier in the battle. A Chryssalid springs over onto the roof in front of it and the Cyberdisc unfolds like an aluminium blossom... and guns the Chryssalid down! Then a Thin Man strides forward like a daddy long legs and unloads its plasma rifle at point blank range. I hear a sigh from the Firaxis demo lady behind me as every shot misses. The Cyberdisc reduces the Thin Man to paste. Finally, a flanking human soldier gets off a careful shot and the Cyberdisc shivers like a wet toaster then... explodes.

Which is rather annoying. As that was my CyberDisc. And they're rather expensive.

The Firaxis demo lady cackles, quietly.

X-Com multiplayer has taken a lot from Total War, which took a lot from Shadow of the Horned Rat, which took a lot from the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game. For multiplayer, you start with a set number of points, which you use to buy your force with a maximum of six units on a side. As Jake Solomon, lead designer on the game, booms at me (his microphone is broken); “Ever since the original game came out, it's been a big fantasy not to just fight the aliens, but be them. We've fulfilled that fantasy.”

Tellingly, you can buy troops from both X-Com factions – human and alien. This gives you an interesting dichomoty; the alien troops tend to be extremely powerful, but only in limited directions and have limited customisation, whereas the humans are tremendously flexible but extremely expensive. All the Aliens have known weaknesses; the Thin Men might be uncannily mobile but they have no armour whatsoever; the Mutons might be tough, but are vulnerable to psychic attacks; when the Cyberdisc opens to attack, it's extremely vulnerable; and so on.

As a cost example, a single human sniper with top-end talents, ghost armour, a good sidearm and a plasma sniper rifle might come in at 8000 points. But a crap sectoid is only 400 points. So you could have 20 sectoids, theoretically, for the cost of one top-end human. Which is where the limit of six troops comes in. The point limit is also variable - our game was limited to 20,000 points – Tyler's was 10,000, but the set-up conditions

If you want to work out how tough enemies are in the single-player, looking at their multiplayer cost isn't a bad idea. A cyberdisc costs 4500. A thin man cost 1400; a floater 1300. A sectoid commander is expensive, as is a Muton Berserker. Other aliens are in between. A human costs 800. But that's a rookie, with a shitty standard weapon and no armour. Upgraded to a minimally safe degree, a human is 1600+.

Then it's a matter of choosing your troops, choosing your battle location (there were five or six in the demo we played) and giving it a go. You're playing each turn under a time limit – it's not huge, between 90 and 180 seconds from my experience, but it's enough to occasionally hurry you with a quick siren noise when the time's running out. “You will not get outclicked” says Solomon, referring to the APM-driven competition of action-RTSes like Starcraft. Most games of X-Com multiplayer, he says, take around 20 minutes. It feels a little like turn-based indie Frozen Synapse – but, of course, this looks better, as long as you count “Gears-of-War-done-by-the-Civilization-artists" as better. “A lot of games are going to have soldiers with big guns,” says Solomon. “but nothing like this.”

And your troops die. Easily. Like X-Com, two shots is normally enough to take down one of your non-elite units – your elite units might take one or two more, but that's it. My CyberDisc died after two hits (one lucky critical, admittedly.) Every Chrysalid I encounter died after one. Interestingly, the top-end human enemies, with their larger health bars, smaller profiles and tougher armour, are the biggest threat.

The Firaxis lady is either being overly aggressive or generous to this noob. Her troops are highly mobile, leaping over the buildings or flying high in the air, but not making great use of cover. (It turns out floaters with grenades are cheap ). Both her Chrysalids prove fragile, her Muton berserker survives long enough to get face-to-face with my Thin Man before being sniped. The surprising survivors are her Heavy Floater, which is annoyingly hard to hit, and her human troops.

I'm tempted to say that human snipers are overpowered, as they whittled down the advancing force almost single-handedly, but there's plenty more time for balancing. My own Cyberdisc, Drone and Thin Man die, along with a cheap second sniper I took, but the vast majority of my points, bound up in one 7000 point soldier with psionic armour and an alloy cannon (no, I have no idea what these do) and one top-level sniper are still on the field. It's a close victory, but it feels great.