XCOM: Enemy Unknown — Definitely Not Halo Reach 2

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Firaxis Games / 2K Games

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown launch trailer for a Halo Reach 2 teaser. It’s a slick, one minute, 38 second guns-and-aliens action brief — a festival of body armor, jetpacks, green plasma and explosions.

Trancebeat punctuates the money shots. Detonations bloom in slow-mo. Near the end, some guy wearing what looks like the segmented soot-black nano-suit from Crysis scowls, conjures a spiky orb of energy, then flings it at a throng of husky aliens.

You’re half expecting a squad of SPARTANS or even Master Chief to show up.

(MORE: 5 New XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screens Explained)


That’s probably as it had to be. Hanging a camera over the battlefield as soldiers clomp from cover point to cover point like animated chess pieces, their routes prefigured by electric-blue vector lines — you might as well film croquet.

I mean, turn-based. Can you believe it? A turn-based game after all this time. And as of Tuesday next week, it’ll be on consoles, too.

What’s XCOM? Some of you know. Okay, I’m guessing a lot of you do, especially if you had a PC and an appetite for offbeat “you go, I go” strategy gaming in the mid 1990s. But in case that just looks like all-caps shorthand for “sitcom,” imagine the X-Files before that show took off (the original X-COM, subtitled “UFO Defense” in the U.S., was released just a few months after Chris Carters’ spooky series premiere). Like that, only with the government onboard.

As in the original, you assume command of a “secret paramilitary organization known as XCOM,” working like Mulder and Scully (or as them — you can customize your squad members’ names and abilities), only with massive governmental resources, to fend off a global alien invasion. You do so by recruiting and training your very own super-soldiers, researching alien tech salvaged from battles, outfitting your base with new facilities and squaring off against new threats as they pop up around the globe.

Granted, that all sounds kind of preposterous: Aliens with vastly superior technology start poking around the planet while a governmental organization steals that tech, assimilates it and somehow musters the wherewithal to throw the invaders out? Please. It almost sounds like a Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin disaster flick.

But the backstory doesn’t really matter. It didn’t in “UFO Defense,” after all. It’s much more about creeping through buildings, trees, or over rooftops after dark, hunkering along curbs, park benches, water fountains or inside empty buses, wondering when some sectoid or muton or floater might pop into view, wielding a crazy extraterrestrial weapon that’ll drop any of your squad members dead with a single well-aimed shot.

Design lead Jake Solomon’s XCOM reboot promises to bring all that back, dressed to the nines. I’ve been playing the final version on my PS3 for a day or so, and…that’s probably all I can say about it for now. Or maybe I’ll just refer to the demo, which debuted last week, and admit that I’m positively tickled.

I love panning around the battlefield, sizing up cover and wrestling with decisions like “hide in this vehicle” (better cover) or “climb on top of it” (better view-range). I love reloading from save points and fiddling with different flanking maneuvers. I love that dead means dead if you play in “iron man” mode. I love poking around my bustling base, scrutinizing research projects, having to choose whether to equip soldiers with med kits or grenades, or just zooming out to watch the whole thing working like a high-tech ant farm.

And I love that it’s all as quick, precise and satisfying to manipulate with a gamepad as a keyboard and mouse.

MORE: Sid Meier Talks XCOM: Enemy Unknown Remake’s Action, RPG Angles