XCOM: Enemy Unknown multiplayer was showcased recently by developer Firaxis, and VG247’s Dave Cook went hands-on. He came away feeling nostalgic, and a little bit afraid.
It’s challenging, but inviting at the same time. Drill it down to base level and this is essentially a game of Worms but without the exploding sheep and horrible Scottish accents.
What is strategy? Good strategy could mean picking the correct load-out in your favourite shooter as situations demand, or it could mean picking a particular character at the right time in a fighting game. It’s subjective after all.
Victory in those instances can be pretty satisfying, but when you play a game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you’re not just making singular choices at a whim to achieve victory, you’re constantly forced to think several steps ahead.
That’s the beauty of XCOM’s multiplayer. It’s like being strong-armed into a terrifying game of speed chess where – if you’re smart enough – you can plan several steps ahead of your enemy and watch your plan unfold, crushing them underfoot. That is incredibly satisfying indeed.
Or maybe, just maybe, behind the fog of war and right under your nose, your opponent could be doing exactly the same thing to you and you don’t even know it. Before you’ve had a chance to figure out the ruse, your team are already in disarray and total failure is only a few moves away.
Fans of the original XCOM will already be accustomed to that sense of unease and the demand for smart thinking at all times. One stupid move or misplaced ability could create a weak spot in your defence, leaving you wide open for slaughter.
This new multiplayer offering is no different. At the start of each round both players are given the same point allowance that they must spend on human and alien units. The point cap is vital in keeping the game balanced, which is a smart move from Firaxis.
Stronger units cost more points as you’d expect, but even weaker units can be bolstered with a variety of add-ons such as medi kits to revive downed squad mates and weapon upgrades. Each choice is crucial to the make-up and success of your team.
So with teams selected we enter the game and take to a graveyard map that is small, but strangely atmospheric. Part of the tension comes – again – from that bloody fog of war. You have no idea where the enemy is, what they’re up to, or just how close you are to having some alien fist up in your poor soldier’s face.
The laboured approach is key, and it makes sense to spend your initial turns creating a perimeter in anticipation of where the enemy will strike first. You can spend Time Units moving across a far distance, or just take a few steps and enter Overwatch mode instead.
Overwatch is interesting because it puts your unit in a constant state of readiness. Should any enemy unit cross your Overwatch character’s line of vision, you get a free shot at them. It’s the equivalent of putting up an auto-turret for one turn. So no, definitely don’t go running and gunning if you want to last long.
Four turns of this pussy-footing around and still both teams haven’t come into contact with each other. But we’re definitely ready for the clash, with our light troops at the front, heavies and snipers in the back, as well as some floating alien Cyberdiscs hovering too high for the enemy to hit with ease.
How can we lose?
Well, ‘quite simply’ is the answer, as an hulking enemy alien rushes unexpectedly from the shroud and smashes our light gunner over the head repeatedly until they die. Then our opponent’s backline rolls into sight and we realise they’ve chosen a better assortment of units than us.
There is no time for dicking about now, as priorities shift and strategies change to suit the madness unfolding before us. Realising the alien brute is a melee-only class, we use our Cyberdisc to hover out of reach and pepper him with plasma shots.
He goes down after a few turns, but in that time the enemy has killed two more of our humans and revealed their own Cyberdisc. Retreat is now the only option. XCOM’s movement options are smart in that they allow you to snap units to cover, so we enter a game of cat and mouse with the enemy, moving slowly, staying low and going into Overwatch.
The tension starts to subside a little as this new defensive approach seems to be working, but in a moment of panic we reload when we should have Overwatched, leaving us standing right in front of the enemy’s Cyberdisc.
That moment when you realise you’ve royally messed up, and you get hat sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is another familiar feeling among XCOM veterans. It very much applies here. The enemy’s Cyberdisc pulverises our exposed troop in seconds and we want to kick ourselves.
Almost triumphant, our opponent thinks he’s got us on the ropes and starts rushing us, only to be ambushed several times by units in Overwatch. Now the score is about even, but the tension, that constant stress still won’t subside.
We use our flying Cyberdisc to hover over the roof of a crypt and out of the enemy’s line of site, emerging every so often to launch bouncing grenades. It takes longer, but it works and we kill off a few more enemies until only one remains.
Now it’s our turn to rush in. We sent our remaining troops in for the kill and even though they’re badly beaten up, they swarm the remaining heavy gunner and claim victory in one final turn. It’s truly exhilarating stuff
Although XCOM multiplayer is turn-based it’s always against a tight clock. In each small window of time you must remember to reload guns, check lines of sight, mentally note hit success rates, change between fire modes, and much, much more.
It’s challenging, but inviting at the same time. Drill it down to base level and this is essentially a game of Worms but without the exploding sheep and horrible Scottish accents. But it’s shame that so few games challenge the mind so profusely yet still manage to be fun.
This is what makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown a nostalgic experience, because – and it sounds trite – they really don’t make them like they used to, and that bodes very well for long-time fans of series indeed.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown launches on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 across Europe October 12.