We go hands on with XCOM: Enemy Unknown to find out just how well the controls will make the leap to consoles.
Tactical strategy games have not exactly flooded the modern console market. Two possible reasons could be related to their slow-paced nature and dull appearance. To compensate, developers have added more action elements to these games (Valkyria Chronicles, for example). But it still begs the question: Can a traditional, turn-based tactical strategy game still work on consoles, even without real-time elements? XCOM: Enemy Unknown, due out this October, is hoping to prove the genre still has couch appeal.
We've seen XCOM: Enemy Unknown a few times so far. It's not to be confused with XCOM, 2K's in-progress tactical shooter based on the same franchise. No, Enemy Unknown is the game that remains far closer to the original source material. It's a turn-based tactical strategy game that has you commanding an anti-alien base of operations, defending planet Earth from the worst the universe has to offer.
Like the original game, you're still building out your base, deciding where to spend your research time and money in order to upgrade your alien-bustin' crew. It's that crew that you'll send out on missions, clearing out gas stations and shipyards of little green men.
Those missions make up the core of the game, and while XCOM will be coming to PCs later this year, it's also coming to consoles. So can this sort of isometric, turn-based strategy game really be much fun on a controller? Yes it can.
The key to making XCOM work on a console is making the experience as fluid as possible. A moderately skilled player can play through a turn in a minute, tops. Moving units is as simple as selecting them, moving the cursor within their movement range, and executing the move. Pathing is all handled automatically and the movement range colors indicate whether the run will take up one turn (allowing the unit to fire after the move) or two.
There's also a snap-to grid system which makes selecting the right location much easier. Another way of streamlining the controls is by showing cover before you move. Half-cover will show a half shield icon, while full cover shows the full shield. This lets you know just how safe that position will be from enemy fire without bogging you down with overwhelming stats or details.
If you're attacking, traditional XCOM elements like chance-to-hit come into play. Leveling up squad members will increase these stats and open up new weapons to attack with. The rocket launcher, for example, is able to take out an entire enemy squad, as well as the house they're standing in. Destructible cover is a big part of the strategy in Enemy Unknown and it'll work for you and against you.
There may be some worry that this is a dumbed down version of XCOM, thanks to this accessibility. I didn't feel that way while playing it. There were no franchise features that seemed to be missing. Instead everything was neatly tucked into the game, even the most hardcore elements, like making squad death permanent.
I was only able to play through the introductory levels of Enemy Unknown, but after the hands-on session, the devs walked us through a level from much later in the game. In it, we could see just how much squad members can progress. One was flying around the battlefield in a jetpack, raining down machine gun fire. Another, amusingly modeled after Sid Meier, had psychic powers, able to turn aliens against one another. How these squad members progress and which you take into battle is entirely up to you.
How amazing would this be on a touch device?
After the preview session, everyone seemed to come away pleased with how well XCOM made the transition to consoles. That said, we were also left thinking: How amazing would this be on a touch device? 2K and Firaxis aren't spilling the beans on an iOS or Android version, but it's safe to say it's in the backs of their minds.
XCOM Enemy Unknown is coming to PC, PS3 and 360 on October 9, 2012 in North America and three days later internationally.
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