XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview – galaxy-saving choices that make Mass Effect seem a cakewalk

Before the days of focus testing, tutorials and learning curves X-Com: UFO Defence shipped with a 133 page manual, wantonly massacred your entire squad in every one of the first half-dozen missions, and was perfectly happy to let you make your own game-ending mistakes without ever attempting to set you straight. XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t need a manual but everything else is exactly as we left it eighteen years ago.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

So it’s 2012 and that means 133 pages worth of instructions are condensed down to a forty-five minute tutorial wherein – of course – three quarters of your initial squad are murdered by the alien forces in one of the only scripted missions from the entire campaign. Once the stabilisers are off you’re left to your own devices, given only the most essential advice and allowed free reign to bring about the end of the world with your incompetence. It’s a world where every decision is critical, where every move you make closes doors on other options and a world where dead means dead.

Before you send your forces onto the battlefield XCOM plays out in a pseudo real-time base management layer where you’ll equip your soldiers, develop new weapons, interrogate captured aliens, manufacture armour and equipment, launch satellites to expand your global reach, and await the siren which demands you engage an invading UFO.

XCOM Enemy Unknown PS3 screensBefore you even step onto the battlefield you’re making critical decisions – will you invest in armour or guns? Will you arm your airborne interceptors or your foot soldiers? Will you place your new satellite relay station next to the lab where you have room to spare, or next to the other relay control rooms where its bonuses are enhanced – a space you’ll have to mine out before it’s usable? What will you name your men? How will they dress for battle? It’s your squad you’re sending into the field so they’ll need names to help you remember who’s responsible for what, and names for you to mourn when you send them into impossible missions just to ensure bloody China won’t withdraw their funding from the XCOM initiative.

It’s a political game you’re playing – balancing the needs of different nations in the midst of an alien invasion. As the aliens’ war against humanity ramps up you’ll have to start ignoring the pleas of poorer nations and start favouring those nations you know you can retain as allies. The aliens will hit multiple cities at once and you’ll have to choose who to save and who to sacrifice, and every choice will reshape a campaign which plays out differently every time. You’ll sell scrap technology and alien bodies to black marketeers, pander to the wealthiest nations and send men and women to die in the name of funding a war you’ll fight man-to-man, one turn at a time.

Deduct a point from every critic or website you see refer to XCOM as an “RTS”; in fact it’s a Turn-Based Strategy game – the great dead genre which was killed by Real Time Strategy in much the same way action RPGs killed tactical ones and every other game killed point and click adventures. Over the last decade the genre has almost disappeared but XCOM stands a very real chance of reviving its fortunes with a friendly reminder – Turn-Based Strategy is exciting.

In XCOM it’s not about clicks per minute, how fast you can think or how quickly you can aim; it’s about how you think, about how you move your pieces and when, and about sitting back and watching as the CPU aliens pick apart your careful plans one piece at a time. On the randomised maps you’ll quickly move your support gunner somewhere safe where he can cover your advancing assault troops. You’ll get your sniper as high as possible and place her on Overwatch so she’ll respond if an alien unit is revealed on the alien turn.