When Mythos Games and MicroProse released UFO: Enemy Unknown back in 1994, they couldn't have had any clue as to just how popular the game would go on to be. It's a title that has been lavished with more than its fair share of "best of" awards over the years, and it's a game that, for many, has never been bettered, even by later iterations from the same stable.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Xcom: Enemy Unknown (named after the Playstation port of the original game, which fused UFO: Enemy Unknown with the same game's American title, X-COM: UFO Defense) is being unleashed on a modern market with modern sensibilities.
Firaxis announced they were working on the game at the beginning of the year, and skepticism soon dissolved into anticipation. The studio behind Civilization has a rich pedigree, and fans quickly warmed to the notion that Xcom was in the best possible hands, all things considered. The stage was set, and all that was left to do was eagerly await the results.
Like its forbear, Xcom is a mixture of real-time base management, and turn-based combat. You're put in command of XCOM, an organisation funded by 16 countries seeking to repel the increasing number of alien incursions taking place across the planet. Whilst growing your (literally) underground operation, researching technology, building a fleet of Interceptor jet planes, and upgrading your facilities, you are tasked with directly dealing with the alien threat via a series of tense turn-based engagements.
The first thing that really grabs us are the visuals. There's so much to admire, from the styling of the units under your command, to the environments that you send them into. The soldiers are well animated, their equipment and weapons easy to identify from your perch on high. Each of the alien species on show is distinctive and menacing. Grotesque genetically mutated flesh fused with harsh metallic advanced technology. The maps where combat takes place are varied. A series of well designed and geographically distinctive locations are decorated with all the appropriate furnishings, and paying close attention to your environment means finding life-saving cover.
Your base of operations is a thing of simplistic beauty. Presented as a cross-section, the "ant farm," you can take in all of the different arms of your operation. The Situation Room reveals the state of panic in different parts of the world; let things get too bad in any one country and you might just lose their support, and with that their funding. There's also a market where you can recycle any acquired and unwanted assets into cold, hard cash. The other function served by this room is satellite placement.
Dr Vahlen and her team work out of the Research Laboratory, and it's here that alien autopsies take place, as well as investigations into the foreign technology acquired in battle. Dr Shen awaits your orders in Engineering. Here you can extend your base, and build the technology prototyped by the scientists under your employ. The Mission room allows you to see what's going on across the globe, and here real-time can be fast-forwarded, advancing the campaign along. We see satellites patroling the sky, Interceptors jets are sent to hunt down detected UFOs.
The Barracks is where soldier load-outs can be tinkered with, and characters can be customised. You can't change the gender and nationality of the soldiers assigned to you, and you can't pick their specialisation either, but apart from those prescribed details, you can tinker with your troopers as much as you want. Colour schemes and physical attributes can be altered, and load-outs can be adjusted, thus creating unique and distinctive soldiers, and you can name them.
Xcom is a game that embraces permadeath; when one of your soldiers dies, they're gone. Dead. Deceased. Kaput. No more. They are an ex-soldier. During a career, stats and skills are added to regularly, and so each character develops a singular purpose within a game plan, becoming essential to your tactics, and ever increasingly effective on the battlefield. That means, when one of your carefully constructed troops bites the proverbial bullet, you'll be losing out on all his/her accumulated experience and skills, as well as leaving a gap on your team sheet.
It's a system that brings a thick layer of tension to every combat scenario, as one duff decision can easily see one of your favourite units retired to the Memorial Room. Going with the original names, or assigning your own, means browsing a memorial wall full of fallen heroes and old favourites. Each a lesson learned, hopefully not be repeated.
Whilst the real-time base building and management elements form the outer-shell of the game, it's the turn-based battles that provide the game's body and soul. Pleasingly, Firaxis has absolutely nailed it: the combat in Xcom is outstanding in every respect.
Starting off with teams of four (this can be expanded to six later), soldiers drop into one of several different scenarios, and literally square off against a selection different alien species in a fight to the death.
Each soldier has a variety of options each turn, and may make one or two actions during it. A blue outline indicates a boundary. Move to another square within it and that soldier will still be able to fire a weapon as a second action, but move beyond it and you can dash anywhere up to a second, orange boundary that marks the limit of your movement and the end of that unit's turn. Move too far and stumble upon a group of enemies, and that soldier can't respond until the next turn. Careful, organised progress is essential, but it takes the loss of a few rookies to learn the lesson.
Another order for your troops is Overwatch, which keeps them on alert and waiting for the enemy to move out of position. Effectively it allows you to queue your shot to take place during your opponent's turn, and it's perfect for setting traps. Alternatively, if a soldier is under fire they can Hunker Down, giving them an additional defensive bonus.
A typical battle will see troops moving into a crash site, or through an urban environment, speculatively, sticking to cover and revealing as much map as they can without becoming too separated. A grey fog of war hugs the limit of your teams field of vision. Engagement from your enemy is never far off, and there are a variety of different species to tackle. Each requires a different approach and tactical rethink.
Sectoids, your classic "little grey men" are the first enemies to be encountered. We meet them in a warehouse during a heavily scripted tutorial that sees three members of your first squad of four meet an inevitable death. We learn how to move around the environment, and are given a practical demonstration on the alien's effectiveness in combat.
Our survivor is the first soldier to get upgraded. Returning to base ensures a promotion, and with it a specialisation. The classes are fairly generic; Sniper, Assault, Heavy and Support (as well the yet to be classified Rookie). Each reveals a basic skill tree, and with every promotion, a new skill can be unlocked from a choice of two.
We're quickly given more soldiers and sent back into harm's way. Over the next few missions we meet several different enemies. I won't go into too much detail here, because one of the best elements of Xcom is the suddenness in which new adversaries are encountered. One minute you'll be confidently rescuing civilians, taking down tired, old foes, the next your whole squad will be wiped out by a dangerous new enemy. It's brutal, it's harsh, but damn it, it makes the game compelling. It gives the war between you and your enemy a tangible edge. Even on the easier settings, you won't have it all your own way, and losses are inevitable. How you deal with these losses defines the Xcom experience.
As you upgrade your equipment, so your options grow on the battlefield. Weaponry power and range is improved, and with it your soldier's effectiveness. Gun fights can be nail-biting, as you wait out your enemies turn, hoping that your under-fire units can survive against the odds. Having good weapons and armour can mean the difference between going home alive, and going home in a body-bag.
The campaign fuses together the turn-based combat and the real-time management to near-perfection. The result is an exciting and explosive adventure that doesn't disappoint at any stage. The way you manage your resources in real-time directly affects your progress in battle, and so no stone can be left unturned as you seek out every advantage. The added threat of permadeath means that only the best equipment will do for your ground forces. It all hangs together wonderfully. We're entering into "best strategy campaign ever" territory.
Multiplayer takes on a slightly different form. A pool of points is available to each combatant to spend as they choose on troops and equipment, both alien and human. Finding the balance between numbers, units and equipment is key, and an individual build quickly forms as you settle into a well practiced style.
From what we've seen so far (opportunities were limited) the multiplayer has the potential to eat up hundreds of hours of time, such is the depth on offer. This game feels like it will have the legs to go on and establish a really solid community, with DLC likely to increase options further down the line. I think there's every chance we might witnessing the birth of a modern classic. We'll be covering the multiplayer in more depth in a future Frontline article, but early impressions are entirely positive.
Xcom: Enemy Unknown is an unbelievably deep game, so much so that it feels like we're only scratching the surface here. A replayable and throughly engrossing campaign is complimented by what looks like an engaging and exciting multiplayer. The combat is punchy, taught and supremely tactical, and it looks absolutely fantastic. In short, everything works. Firaxis has done a fine job in reimagining one of the most cherished titles in video game history. In fact, they might just have made the finest Xcom game ever.
Xcom: Enemy Unknown is being released on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on October 12. This review is based on the PC version of the game.