The Average Gamer

Hands-On with XCOM: Enemy Unknown

When making XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis (Sid Meier’s Civilization, Railroads!) have spent an incredible amount of effort on immersion. In Nick’s previous post you’ll have seen the “ant farm” view of the XCOM station but it’s not all about playing God with your tiny minions in their identical Vigilo Confido uniforms.

Every member of the XCOM Initiative has a name. You can even give them nicknames if you like. Central Officer Bradford is your main man in the station. He updates you on all the new intelligence and presents your mission briefings. Dr Vahlen heads up the science team, suggesting areas of research and occasionally chipping in on the comm system when your team spots something interesting in the field. You’ll soon find yourself developing relationships with even the lowliest rookie as they line up under the Skyranger before each mission.

Playing Politics

You’ll find a range of mission types, randomly generated throughout the campaign. The three I saw were: basic investigation of an alien drop site; target extraction, where key personnel need rescuing from a hostile area; and terror missions where the biggest, baddest enemies are out in force to wreak havoc among the human population. Veterans of the series will be happy (read: horrified) to learn that the feared Chryssalids are making an appearance.

As the campaign progresses, the aliens will spread over more and more of Earth. Soon enough your limited resources will present you with impossible choices – extract a skilled scientist team from France or quell a terror attack in Korea? Abandon Korea and Asia could pull their funding from the multinational initiative. Lose the scientists and your research capability remains stunted.


Prior to each mission you can choose from the list of available soldiers but as the foremost experts in alien combat, you’ll have very little intel; mostly just the difficulty level of each mission and the panic level of the local area.

Poor recruit Kojo Khumalo was sent to investigate a crash site and watched his teammates die – David King, Maxim Ivanov and Rebecca Ben-David were picked off one-by-one by the aliens’ superior firepower. It’s hard not to feel for the guy as his empty Skyranger limps back to the base and you’re greeted with a mission summary concluding that he’ll be out of action for 9 days due to injury.

Even if you’re not in the habit of empathising with your characters, knowing that your one experienced Heavy is unavailable for over a week while sectoids are raising panic levels all over the world will make you take better care of your team in the future.

In The Field

In classic XCOM style, you control each of your four squad members in turn. Typically, you’ll have a move phase to position your soldier and an action phase. Rookies will start out with only the basic commands.

  • Fire: shoot at the enemy.
  • Overwatch: Stay in position and shoot at the first enemy to breach your line of sight.
  • Throw grenade: That is, assuming you equipped him with grenades.
  • Hunker down: Boost the effectiveness of cover but also limit your sight radius.

After their first mission, each soldier is randomly assigned a class – Heavy, Sniper, Assault or Support. These will determine their future skills.

Line of sight is important, as is defending your position. One of the fun features in battle is the ability to maintain supressing fire throughout the other faction’s turn. Let the aliens get too close to one of your team and they’ll set up a steady barrage of bullets that stops you from moving.

One good option is to sneak around the enemy, taking advantage of the flanking bonus. Watch out for your soldier’s path though. It’s easy to forget that your people will take the shortest route to their destination, kicking down doors and smashing noisily through windows if you don’t specify otherwise.

Meanwhile, Back in HQ

The initial location of your base will offer bonuses to benefit different styles of play. The XCOM initiative is a global taskforce so you can choose from 5 locations, each bringing different benefits:

  • North America: It’s 50% cheaper to build aircraft and aircraft weapons.
  • Europe: Build cost and maintenance on labs and workshops is 50% less.
  • Asia: Foundry and Officer training is 50% cheaper.
  • South America: Autopsies and interrogations take no time.
  • Africa: Monthly funding is increased by 25%.

Over in the barracks you can upgrade your characters through 7 military ranks. Promoting them through the ranks from Squaddie all the way to Colonel will unlock new powers at each level. You could choose to specialise them and, for example, pick the rocket-launcher perks all through the tree but it’s not necessarily the best way. Mixing things up won’t nerf your build and sometimes it’s good to have a versatile soldier in play.

You can also customise each soldier’s loadout with different types of body armour, 2 weapons and a support slot that can be used for frag grenades or more sophisticated gear once your scientists research it and your engineers build it.

In the science lab, Dr Vahlen’s research team will gladly pick over whatever your tactical team can retrieve from each mission – weapon scrap, alien bodies, anything they can find. You’ll be presented with a options like xenobiology (requires 4 alien corpses) or materials (requires 5 bits of weapon scrap).

When the research is complete, you’ll unlock new equipment such as the nano vest that a soldier can wear in lieu of a medi-kit or frag grenade. Further down the research trail you can equip your soldiers with flying suits and mind control powers.

Once the equipment is unlocked, your engineering team can start building units to supply the armoury, giving new options to your team’s loadouts. Research will take days and manufacturing will cost money so don’t expect instant upgrades. Equipment needs to be carefully planned and balanced.

Frankly, I’m blown away by the attention to detail and really looking forward to this. XCOM: Enemy Unknown looks like it will be a great strategy game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be released on 12th October for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Preorders will get the Elite Soldier pack which includes armour colour customisation, two extra aesthetic options and a blonde flattop soldier who will be familiar to all classic XCOM gamers. The PC Special Edition will include an art book, a fold-out poster of the base, an XCOM insignia patch (Ooooh, I want this!) and a digital soundtrack

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