Say what you want about 2K Marin's upcoming XCOM reboot, but at least the massive backlash made 2K realise that there's a huge fanbase out there, ready and waiting for a worthy successor to Julian Gollop's beloved strategy game. With Firaxis at the helm, Enemy Unknown heralds an intriguing return to grand traditions, a game that looks to the past for the basics and art style, but refreshes the experience with smaller teams and a dynamic new take on turn-based tactics.
Firaxis came to E3 2012 to show us how your small squads will progress throughout the game, starting out outgunned and vulnerable, but eventually becoming more than human. Plus, Civilization creator Sid Meier turned up in the most surprising of ways... battle-armoured and ready to crush the alien menace with the power of his mind.
The custom-designed E3 demo (which almost certainly won't make it into the final game) started with a squad of rookies pinned down under a sustained enemy assault, wounded and desperately clinging to cover behind cars and rubble in an abandoned city street. Deployed to investigate a series of abductions, this under-equipped unit was in full-scale flight from a swarm of Chrysalids, one of the most feared and hated enemies from the original game. These scythe-bladed ravagers can slaughter a poorly-positioned soldier with humiliating ease, and the relatively small numbers of units you'll control in each level puts the focus on using every asset in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time.
Enemy Unknown has done away with Action Points and other typical turn-based contrivances, instead emphasising the basics. You'll move. You'll shoot. You'll take cover and prepare for assaults, all without trawling through meaningless bumf. Showing this slick new system in action, our demonstrator quickly ordered Beta Team to enter cover and activate Overwatch mode, designating firing lines and cover positions for all four soldiers within a couple of clicks. Shield tooltips and HUD overlays demonstrated which walls and cars would provide durable defence against enemy fire, and which terrain would present a tactical advantage. Brilliantly, there's plenty of scope for clever positioning and grand sweeping tactics - indeed, it will be essential for success - but you'll be able to concentrate on your manoeuvres without having to fight against an overly complex interface. It's an example of streamlining done right; sacrificing none of the series' depth and empowering gamers to dynamically execute their battle plans on a controller or mouse/keyboard combination. Once the turn passed to the aliens, beta squad automatically took down a couple of overly optimistic Chrysalids on overwatch, the plan coming together perfectly. For the time being.
Turn-based strategy is still a thriving niche, but has fallen from mainstream grace thanks, in part, to a lack of immersion and visual spectacle. Keen to shatter this preconception, Firaxis furnished Enemy Unknown with a dynamic camera that can be panned at any angle and zoomed into street level, showing off the action in a fast-paced, cinematic style yet still keeping players in full control of the situation. Decide to breach through a window, for example, and the camera rushes down to provide a beautifully-framed view of your soldier smashing the glass and vaulting over the frame. Throw a grenade and you'll watch it fly. When surveying the situation, you'll be able to survey the battlefields from any level; scouring rooftops for prime sniping nests or simply admiring your troops from the ground.
Rather than a sterile and hands-off experience, Enemy Unknown's combat is incredibly visceral - and thoroughly brutal to boot. This was aptly demonstrated by a Chrysalid tearing an unfortunate Beta squaddie limb from limb, followed by a floating alien commander using his psychic abilities to coerce another brave soldier to pull the pin of his own grenade. Taken out of context, any of these scenes could have been ripped straight out of a AAA third-person shooter, such is the level of detail in both texture work and animations. As well as a nifty demonstration of the graphics, this was a stark reminder that death is swift and permanent in Enemy Unknown, and players will need to keep a close eye on their troops if they want them to survive and grow through multiple missions.
Watching his fellows fall under the might of the alien onslaught, the last remaining rookie desperately pleaded with HQ for reinforcements. The scripted scene took us to the heart of XCOM HQ - which we'll be able to upgrade in a two-dimensional modular fashion between missions - at which point the commander gave Reaper Squad permission to deploy. Having emerged alive from numerous successful missions, this team of hardbitten elites became more than human, armed with both state-of-the-art military hardware and co-opted alien tech. Keeping your soldiers alive may be difficult, but your hard work, experience and painstaking mid-mission research will pay off with serious dividends.
Once Reaper Squad entered the fray via menacing stealth dropship, the initially overwhelming odds suddenly swung in humanity's favour. The squad leader was none other than Civilization creator Sid Meier himself, clad in jet-black Archangel armour and crackling with psychic force. Should you decide to empower your soldiers with psychic abilities, they'll be able to exert direct control over both battlefield elements and enemy minds, illustrated by Sid casually ordering the hovering commander to kill itself with a simple gesture. His squadmate used the Archangel Armour's thrusters to rise above the battlefield, allowing him to jump between distant cover points with ease or, in this case, sniping two Chrysalids in mid-air due to a perk entitled In The Zone. A stealth-armoured assault officer employed a grappling hook to scale a nearby rooftop, sneaking behind a sniper to assassinate the last remaining menace before taking up a sniping position. As your units survive missions and gain experience, you'll be able to customise and enhance them in any number of ways, vastly increasing your tactical options and damage output if you put in the work.
Of course, the slick and deep strategic combat is only a facet of the full XCOM experience. Between missions, you'll wage an entirely different yet equally fierce battle in political and financial circles, balancing the need to secure international funding with the ability to only assist certain countries at any given time. This world-shaping triage, deciding who to help and who to leave to the alien menace, ought to provide a thought-provoking metagame - not to mention massive replayability.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown will release for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 12th.