XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Dissecting the Strategic Layer

Senior editor Kevin VanOrd delves into Enemy Unknown to see just how deep it goes.

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What would you say to Sid Meier if you got the chance? Would you wax philosophical over Sid Meier's Civilization and Alpha Centauri? Would you ask him about the inspirations that led him to make some of PC gaming's greatest achievements? Would you genuflect?

Meier might enjoy the first two options; hero worship, however, doesn't seem to be his kind of thing. We visited Firaxis' Maryland studios last week for a top-secret look at the upcoming XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and the strategy gaming legend was humble and forthright--not a deity to be praised, but more the kind of guy you want to invite over for beers and boardgaming. That's particularly apt, given that some of the work that went into building Enemy Unknown's strategy layer involved translating it into a board game to see just how fun it was.

XCOM isn't "Sid Meier's XCOM," but he knows his game systems, and his involvement with the upcoming strategy reboot has been key. But Meier is not a one-man show, and indeed, he acknowledged during the tour that not all of his ideas were winners. Lead designer Jake Solomon and his erudite team seem pretty confident, however, that the ideas that have made it into Enemy Unknown are the right ones.

Of course, what matters most is the game itself, and we had plenty of time to play and chat about XCOM: Enemy Unknown during the visit. There's a great deal to report--aesthetics, strategy, interface, depth--but the most important takeaway from this visit is that you can play Enemy Unknown with friends and strangers over the Internet. Yes, indeed: XCOM is both a single-player and a multiplayer experience, and you can read our multiplayer breakdown right here. But it's offline where you discover most of the game's depth, and we got the most thorough look yet at Enemy Unknown's strategic flexibility.

You might know of Enemy Unknown's tactical turn-based skirmishes, but that is only part of the alien equation. The strategy layer is the other keystone of this invasion story. Your strategizing occurs at XCOM headquarters, where you make global decisions and conduct research, choosing what to build and how to upgrade your base. You view the base from a cutaway view that might remind you of an ant farm--though here, the ants are scientists interrogating captured extraterrestrials, and combatants sweating off their excess weight on treadmills. From this view, you excavate downwards and outwards, making room for more facilities, and receiving bonuses when similar facilities are built next to each other.

What are these facilities? Well, some are for resource generation. For instance, building a thermal generator over a steam vent allows you to generate power. In another facility, you can grill captured aliens for information, which not only advances the narrative, but also confers technological bonuses. (You also get the evil satisfaction of knowing that the invading SOBs never live through the interrogation process.) There are other alien facilities to build, though Solomon didn't divulge too much where this subject was concerned, as he feels it's best that players discover the surprises on their own. But he did point out that the strategy layer wasn't initially meant to be as involved as it ultimately became.

And involved it certainly seems to be. Consider the satellite system, for example. This system allows you to launch satellites from your headquarters and deploy them over certain countries around the world. Protecting those countries earns you cash--but the flip side of this is that if you make alien contact, you must engage the enemy. You must build jets to protect the satellites: once those satellites are shot down, you're blind to alien movement, and panic levels in the country you are to protect rise. But you aren't always on the defensive: you can take the fight to the aliens by intercepting their own ships, which results in five to 10 seconds of gameplay.

By the time you near the end of the game, you'll have accumulated a good deal of alien technology. But of course, you need cash, scientists, engineers, and soldiers too. UFOs provide alien elements that are also used as resources to power exotic weapons and ships. If you're in need of cash, you can sell the tech that you scrounge from the battlefield on the "gray market," but the quick cash might come at the cost of making important discoveries. The takeaway: expect a deep and challenging game that grants a great deal of room to tinker and experiment.

Firaxis may want XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be challenging, but the studio also wants it to play fair. And to that end, Solomon announced that one element from earlier games in the series hasn't made it into the newest game: namely, base invasion. Base invasion was in at one point, but the team ran into a big problem: it just wasn't fair. In Enemy Unknown you have only a single base, and thus, invasions could be a game-breaking experience. It was difficult to keep the feature and still make the game feel fair and fun to play--and the team was adamant that they shouldn't make the AI cheat. Firaxis kept base invasion for quite some time during the development process, but it became clear that it simply wasn't working.

An alien invasion story weaves its way through all the strategizing, of course, though you shouldn't expect a whole lot of aimless exposition. XCOM: Enemy Unknown co-opts its backstory--that is, it uses familiar cultural touchstones and allows players to fill in the blanks. The Firaxis team worded it better than we ever could: "Why spend untold minutes telling our own terrible story when we can use pop culture as a backstory?" And so Enemy Unknown presents familiar flying saucers and thin otherworlders with big almond-shaped eyes, the round designs and unnatural colors contrasting with the geometric human designs and architecture.

Enemy Unknown also has some of the cheesy camp feel of the previous X-COM games, though its own characters take the circumstances wholly seriously. It's hard to miss the sense of whimsy throughout, though, from heavily accented scientists to the bright color palette and broad unit animations. For more on the game's units, check out our multiplayer rundown--and of course, you needn't wait too long to try the game for yourself: XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be available on October 9, 2012, a scant two months from now. Yes, the wait might be excruciating if you're a longtime X-COM fan. Alas, it takes time to plan an alien invasion down to the last detail.

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Kevin-V

Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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81 comments
PeskyQuietMan
PeskyQuietMan

Theonly downside to the 360 version is having to use the controller instead of a mouse. If my pc was powerful enough i would have gone for that version instead (and its about £15 cheaper)

chaosclown17
chaosclown17

Glad I got my pre-order  in early, less than four weeks away, you excited?

Spunkermonkey
Spunkermonkey

Im not to broken up about the base invasion part being gone, that got annoying in the old game most of the time. Unless they let u build alot of base defenses I think i would rather have it out of the game..

Daelyn75
Daelyn75

The one base thing bothered me as well, until I read on the official boards from people quoting the devs that it's not exactly like that. You get one main base to train your squads, and do your research and manufacturing, however, you will be able to build multiple interceptor launching points around the globe, depending on if you can afford to build them and pay for the upkeep.

 

Essentially, that's how I played the original XCOM anyhow. I think at times I made another base just for manufacturing due to space constraints, but if it can be done in the one main base just as well in this re-imagined version, then it really doesn't matter to me.

 

Anyhow, I hope anyone that reads this will feel better about the one base thing.

jimrhurst
jimrhurst

Wow.  All the bigtime fans of this game should be old timers like me and Kevin V, right?  So are we really _still_ so immature that we have to go all Chicken Little about them removing base invasion?  "My life is over!!!"

 

Base invasion was a tough fight in the original game.  And the threat of it kept you always worried.  But I would never say the game hinged on that single thing.  In fact, I frequently found base invasions to be rage-quit inducing nightmares.  This is a seasoned development firm that knows turn based games better than anyone still working in the business.  They said they tried and tried it but it didn't work.  And somehow we don't trust them?  Jeez.  At least try it before you crucify people's hard work.

 

For myself, I'm totally stoked that they are making this.  Waiting for a decent, actually turn based XCOM game has been decades of disappointment.  Its a little bit campy looking but much improved graphically, and most of the best gameplay elements seem to have been kept.  It could turn out to be terrible, but its the most promising effort I've seen since TFTD.

spencerdtracy
spencerdtracy

Long time X-COM fan, since the first Enemy Unknown, I can't wait.  I sure am glad this version is coming out now instead of the FPS that isn't really X-COM.

AlphaWolF_J
AlphaWolF_J

first day pick up for me :)

but for those who cant wait give UFO aftershock a try its as close as i got to a decent xcom game thats why i still own it i guess.

Ischriswoods
Ischriswoods

So looking forward to this! High hopes, indeed!

EXODYS
EXODYS

So many mediocre UFO games have been released since the original X-COM, but seeing as the strategy veterans from Firaxis is working on this upcoming game I am definitely looking forward to its release :D

Bhemont
Bhemont

This game cannot come any sooner.  I've always wanted to play a semi remake of Ufo: Enemy Unknown for a while now.  I hope it has similar features.  One thing that kind of bums me out is; there is no coop campaign, or so it seems. 

Atheosis
Atheosis

There are a lot of people stuck in the past it seems.  If this game was 100% the same as the original what would even be the point?  Better graphics?  People need to let game designers actually design games, and wait to judge it until they actually play it.  Even direct sequels made a few years after an original game usually change things.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  You never really know until you play the game.

 

And besides, any turn-based strategy fan should just be excited that a quality title in the genre is coming out soon.  I mean that happens so rarely anymore...

Gooseman321
Gooseman321

@Kevin-V Citing the difficulty regarding base invasions is idiotic since the original X-Com was essentially impossible to beat even on easy. You always had to save and load important battles! Really epic and tough battles were a big part of the fun. Building choke points in your bases for defense was awesome. X-Com is supposed to be really, really hard! Casually removing this feature is an insult to the franchise. The truth is they probably figured they could save development time by scrapping BI. It interfered with their stupid "Ant-Farm" base feature that never should have been implemented in the first place(Base layout didn't need changing). They also probably figured it would help streamline the game for console game pads. Guess what? Console gamers aren't going to buy this game! The only people who remember X-Com are geezers like me. What's up with the cartoon graphics too? This game is supposed to be scary remember? Fail. I guess once again it will be up to the fans to produce a proper X-Com remake. I think there is one on Kickstarter right now that is fully funded. Hopefully that will be good. They have committed to keeping all the original features. Such a shame they won't listen to the fans. Then when these games fail they say "Well, I guess nobody want's TB strategy". Pathetic.

Omega13_the_End
Omega13_the_End

The one base thing is in place since depending on where you decide to set up shop, you get a regional bonus (Like in South America, where you get a bonus to interrogrations.)

But, I can understand why some would be disapointing, seeing how single base means more decsions on what to build and what not, though isn't the point of the game to make tough decsions in the face of an overwelmig threat?

nyran125
nyran125

i bet you Sid meiers ideas were awesome. I bet he would of put multiple bases in...... the young developers should of let him speak. Imagine Civilization with only one city!, be terrible and an injustic.

 

You better be able to at least put the base wherever you want on the whole planet and have radars or satallites over areas YOU choose and its not like a crappy unlock system or anything.

jimstein
jimstein

"All your bases belongs to us"... so but em back in! I fear the "no base invasion", and "only one base" is a mistake... but I have not lost faith just yet. 

Phoenix1980dk
Phoenix1980dk

I can't wait for this game, Come on take my money already.

jonboyisme
jonboyisme

No base invasions!?!? And only a single base!??! Booooo! This is rediculous. Here I thought they were remaking an old classic, not disecting it. I have been so excited about this game until now. For shame, Sid. For shame.

zdods
zdods

On the down side it is way too colorful and there is no base invasion whatsoever. But I hope at least the atmosphere has been preserved. What made UFO: Enemy Unknown so good was the atmosphere more than anything to me.

Trenchman
Trenchman

I did like using several bases to help protect other countries, but it sounds like satellites will be used to cover them instead.  Although, I will miss setting up separate bases for research and production, even though I had to ship good between bases a lot, but I'm looking forward to this game.  If this game is half as good as the first X-Com games I'll be buying it right away.  I would like to try it out before I buy, so it'd be nice if there was a demo, but I'll probably throw down some cash for this game when it comes out.

Gwarpup
Gwarpup

NoooOO.. The took out Base Invasion. I kinda knew they would.  How could you do the isomentric tactical combat from a side view of the base?  Unless it had a seperate map to fight on.   I will really miss having to juggle defending my base with doing everything else that reaches an almost overwhelming fevered pitch that was so frantic and memorable in the originals... sigh..  Well everything else sounds Fantastic!  #1 game anxiety.

salemonz
salemonz

Ah crap, one base? That's a bummer. Game looks fantastic, but base invasions were one of my favorite aspects of the original. I named my troops, invented side stories for them. When aliens invaded my home, it was a chance to win it back, room by room. Or if I lost my research or production base, that would set me back a lot. Oh well.

damieonavich1
damieonavich1

im confused about the the invasion? when was the ever hard? in the old days when my based was invaded, they wasted their timesince i murdered them all. I did like having more than one base and tranfering my stuff from one to the other but i guess making things easier for the "impatient" young bucks you have to appeal to everyone. whatever but still looks alot of fun.

ZOD777
ZOD777

I really hope you can name your soldiers, and that not every soldier of a class looks identical.  Still, the one base thing kinda stinks, but being able to excavate and create a layered base is neat.  I am not sure that makes up for having to launch intercept missions from the opposite side of the globe at times due to the lack of multiple bases however.  I am only slightly optimistic about this release.  I am afraid that they may have altered the game for the better in only a few areas, but we shall see.

executorbalin
executorbalin

One base.  No invasions. No time units. Gamepad controls.  Yeah this is gonna be great!  I can't wait! (morons)

Louis
Louis

One of the greatest games rebooted by one of the best developers. I. Can't. Wait!  Sad to see base invasions removed, but I'll trust them that they made the right decision. October is gonna be great!

ajac09
ajac09

omg does this mean the canned the crappy one!?! I CANT WAIT TO GET THIS!

Atheosis
Atheosis

I really hope this is successful on consoles (I'm sure it will be on PC).  If it is, I feel like we could see a whole new genre of games for consoles.  I mean a modern version of Chaos Gate on the 360?  Yes please!

FoeCrusher
FoeCrusher

Still sounding good, not a slavish rehash but refreshed a bit. 

lonewolf1044
lonewolf1044

Can't wait for this version to come out. The other remake while a noble attempt just didn't seem right and I forgot it's title.

keyb0red
keyb0red

Firaxis Games .. me LOVE YOU LOOOONG TIME!!!!!!!!

Colekern
Colekern

I'm proof that you don't have to be a hardcore fan of XCOM to be interested. I'm pretty much sold, I just have to wait for the reviews.

GarGx1
GarGx1

There couldn't have been a better choice for a re-boot of the real X-Com than Sir Sid and his Firaxis team, if they can't do it right no one can. Everything I've seen so far makes me firmly believe that the game is going to be first class 

Witchsight
Witchsight

Among other things, id really like to know what the jet interceptions are like... Its been hinted at here and elsewhere but i can never tell how different theyve become.

picho86
picho86

This is the only AAA (if it is AAA) that I'm excited about. To see people who really know what they're doing, and who have passion for this franchise work on this game really warms my heart :)

Duskyjr
Duskyjr

I want this game like a fat kid wants cake!! I hope this game does well so more of this comes to consoles but that may be far fetched. But here is hoping. Pave the way Firaxis!!!

Kayweg
Kayweg

"But he did point out that the strategy layer wasn't initially meant to be as involved as it ultimately became."

It's that line in particular that reinforces my optimism for this game. ;)

ziproy
ziproy

Day one purchase

MasterTheHero
MasterTheHero

Been trying to pre-order this thing on Steam since day 1, cannot wait!

ZakMcKracken
ZakMcKracken

Exciting stuff. I am such a hardcore fan and have been disappointed by remakes too many times that if this doesn't turn out well, I will sell my PC and take up painting...