PAX East 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a True Return to Form

April 9, 2012

The return of the X-COM franchise was something that was met with an out pour of extreme joy with an even larger amount of caution and skepticism. When the first game revealed turned out to be a first person shooter a lot of fans were understandably less than excited. However when 2K Games played their other card and revealed that there was another title in production that had more in common with the original games and was being done by none other than Firaxis the joy returned in full force.

I got the chance to watch a live demo of the second title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown at PAX East and let me tell you right now, fans are going to be happy with this with no doubt in my mind. Read on to see why this game jumped incredibly high on my want-list and why it’ll be on yours as well. 


I don’t want to keep you waiting and wondering so lets get to the best part right away: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is without doubt a true return to form to the original series. The core feeling of the original game is fully intact here with some changes and updates, but not enough that you won’t recognize it. Turn-based movement, permadeath, the XCOM base and much more all return albeit in a new and updated fashion. This is truly an XCOM game in every aspect.

The demo I saw started in front of a gas station with a squad of four soldiers which is one of the first big changes you’ll notice. Your squad in XCOM: EU is limited to four soldiers in the beginning and can be upgraded to a total of six. This is of course a drastic reduction in the size of your force from the original but was a very deliberate move by the team.

Their reasoning was that losing one soldier out of a squad of fifty wasn’t too big of a deal no matter how much it really sucked, as it didn’t ruin your chances of success too strongly. With this smaller focused squad if you lose a single soldier the battle changes for the worse instantly and can ruin a plan in moments.

Turn based combat returns though again in a slightly different fashion than the original game. Gone is the grid based movement replaced with a simple click and move system. Each soldier can do a limited number of actions on their turn depending on their role and what the actions are. When you want to move them you just tell them where to go and what to do when they go there. This might sound a little too much of a change but in action it works amazingly well.

Our squad had four different specialists in action: support, assault, sniper and heavy weapons. In the demo we saw they had the sniper climb onto the small roof above the gas pumps while the soldier and support took up positions behind a car and the heavy went behind another car in the middle. Then the enemies appeared where the fans all rejoiced: the sectoids.

At this point the heavy used one of his special abilities and laid down suppressing fire on one of the sectoids which stops it from moving out of its location. The assault used their own special ability and threw a grenade at the car. The others had no good shot so the human team ended their turn and it was the aliens turn.

After a few moments the grenade exploded blowing up the car next to it, a gas pump, and of course the sectoid. Down to two, one of the sectoids took cover behind a nearby car and took a shot at our heavy weapons specialist which missed. The other retreated into the gas station and activated a mind meld on the one in cover.

The support specialist easily flanked around the alien in cover however and took it out with a clean shot and the others moved up. The last sectoid was hiding inside a building however and it required some real teamwork and strategy to take it out. After a combination of suppressing fire and popshots, the sniper was able to take it out and that was that.

At this point a trio of new aliens appeared in the gas station: a new unit called the berzerker and a pair of mutons, another returning enemy. To demonstrate poor strategy as well as why the berzerker got its name the player moved the assault soldier to the front door of the gas station. The berzerker promptly charged at him and tore through the wall, killing him instantly.

Down one soldier the player had to think fast to take command of the situation. To that end he decided to take the quick and nasty choice and had the heavy weapons user take the berzerker out with a rocket launcher. This did a wonderful job both of destroying him and blowing a huge hole in the wall which allowed the sniper to take out one of the mutons. However at this point nobody had a shot on the last remaining muton which was in an incredibly well covered location. Attempting to attack from the front would mean certain death.

Fortunately the support specialist was in the process of flanking around the side of the gas station where they discovered a ladder which lead to the roof. As they made their way across they finally reached an opening in the top which put it behind the now exposed and vulnerable muton. A quick shotgun blast to the back and this situation was over: mission accomplished.

After this we returned to XCOM headquarters which is another returning aspect of the original game which has been changed. This time around you only get one base but they make up for that in the way it functions. The base itself is fully customizable however you want it and has the well earned nickname of the Antfarm due to its appearance.

The different upgrades and rooms you can build all have different bonuses and rewards associated with them. We were told however that you won’t be able to research and upgrade everything in the game, so you’ll definitely have to pick and choose what you want. What was really cool is that throughout the base you could find your soldiers wandering around. Some were working out, lounging, grabbing a bite to eat or sleeping. Just a nice visual touch.

Shortly after this the demo ended and the team took questions from everybody watching and dumped a lot of information on us. Aerial combat will be making a return though there wasn’t much information on that and we weren’t shown anything. Each level is as destructible as we saw at the gas station with holes being blown in the walls and cars blowing up.

There is a unit in the game that is similar to the robot tanks from the original called the SHIV (Super Heavy Infantry Vehicle) which is incredibly expensive and powerful, though it can’t be upgraded in the long run making a leveled soldier better in the long run. Upgrading is done with materials recovered after the battle and killing an enemy with explosives causes them to not drop anything.

While your squad is limited to a total of six the number of reserves you can have is unlimited. Your soldiers can all be upgraded and customized and of course level up and get better the more you use them, making it all the worse when you lose one in battle. The team highly recommends fans continue the old practice of naming your soldiers after friends and family members.

Perhaps most importantly, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game you can lose. Failure is an option if you don’t take the right actions and fail to stop the invasion.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the sequel fans of the series have wanted and it’s for all of you. Newcomers will find an enjoyable experience here as well but great lengths were taken to make sure they did this right and made a proper entry into the series in the eyes of the fans. With no solid release date at this time we’re going to all have to wait and be patient, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown is definitely a game you want to keep an eye on.

John Colaw

John is what you might call something of a badass. When he's not writing about games or playing them, he's playing in the Kansas City band "Documentary" and drinking as many different beers as often as he can. He's a huge comic nerd in the best sense of the term, with a particular love for the Creator Owned movement.

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