Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested)
Developers: Firaxis Games
Publishers: 2K Games
I'm playing a game with the phrase XCOM in the title and there's an Xbox 360 controller in my hands. That's not right. Strategy games don't work on consoles, at least not with any particular amount of depth. The phrase 'console strategy game' is something of an oxymoron, surely?
Well it rather depends in what context one is using the term 'strategy game'. For starters, turn-based strategy has been doing absolutely fine on platforms other than the PC, thankyouverymuch, and we've come a long way since UFO: Enemy Unknown back in 1994. That it's been nearly two decades since the original PC classic is absolutely crucial. This is not a remake, that cannot be stressed enough. The original is available on Steam right now, and it's still very much a cracking game - but it's also most definitely a game of its time. Firaxis, then, have eschewed the straightforward remake, instead breaking the structure of the game down into component parts, polishing them up, throwing away or upgrading bits that have perhaps rusted over time, and reassembled those integral elements to create what's looking to be an astounding homage.
Yet, although the game trades undeniably on nostalgia, with plenty for old school fans to revel in, Firaxis are fully aware that those die-hard fans are not enough. A game like this needs a bigger audience, and who would begrudge a studio with such a fine history in this genre the opportunity to put their game in front of as many people as possible. For that, as Lead Producer Garth DeAngelis explains, the studio needed to look towards console. Why can't there be a triple-A TBS game on consoles these days?
"UFO Defense was more of a classic PC title than anything else," DeAngelis told Dealspwn at Gamescom, "but we sat down at the beginning of the project and said 'We want to make the best game possible regardless of platform, and basically we love this franchise so much that we want as many people playing this game as possible too'. That means we can't just release it on PC. There are millions of gamers who we feel are waiting for something special on console, for a breath of fresh air unlike anything they've played on those systems before.
"There are a lot of shooters and action titles on the market, and we take certain cinematic elements from those games, like the over-the-shoulder viewpoint, and the cameras sweeping down onto the battlefield, but the depth in terms of gameplay, we wanted more than just super-hardcore PC fans to play that. It's a very deep game, it's a big game, and we think that there's an audience for a game of this magnitude. We looked at games like Skyrim and Dead Souls, and these are games that have sold really well on consoles, and we think we can provide another large experience to that demographic. So we approached it holistically, not just on mouse and keyboard, and split up the team, and the UI guys did a fantastic job of mapping the controls to the gamepad, and it feels natural whatever you're playing it on."
He's not wrong. Although the mouse is still marginally faster and easier to use, this is not a game where lightning-fast reflexes are necessary. Players can afford to take their time, and tactical contemplation is an absolutely mandatory if you want to succeed. Directing soldiers with the analogue stick is simple, intuitive, and accurate, with the game utilising an unseen grid for deployment opportunities. It's integrated incredibly subtly so as not to spoil the immersion, and combined with multiple distance options. You can go further if you're jut on the move, but should you wish to attack on the same tur, you'll need to be a little less adventurous in your ranging. Were the UI to be even remotely clunky, long periods of play would be unsatisfying and frustrating. After an hour, all I wanted to do was to play it for the rest of the day.
The tutorial is fantastic - with three early missions slowly guiding players into familiarity with the systems. It's a complex game with huge tactical depth, but there's nothing to be gained from erecting a barrier to gameplay right at the start. Three missions later, and you're on your own. By that point you will have taken out a marauding group of small aliens, recovered a suspicious looking artefact, named and upgraded your squad for the first time however you see fit, and abandoned a group of survivors to their deaths.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is huge. Various Firaxis team members put the game around the 25 hour mark, and the non-linear nature of the game - the persistent choices you'll be forced to make both back at base and on the battlefield in the missions you select at the expense of others - means replays are inevitable. Furthermore, if that wasn't enough, Firaxis have opened up the core game mechanics completely to allow for a spot of PvP multiplayer too.
"I think it's a statement of intent really," QA Supervisor Griffin Funk. "It's not like the team thought 'Oh, let's tack on a multiplayer component', it's more that if you had a game with this much core depth and tactical opportunity, why wouldn't you open that up?"
It's certainly a move that shows a strong level of faith from Firaxis in the strategic core that they've created. The multiplayer component is a bare bones mode - some light matchmaking, leaderboards and rankings, but that's about it. There are no unlockables, no real player progression aside from against your fellows in the rankings, all of the units are available from the start, both human and alien. Players have a limit of unit points with which to deck out their squad, and obviously stronger units such as the Cyberdiscs cost more than common soldiers. Rounds are, of course, turn based, but now there's a clock, a little like speed chess. Freshly familiar with the game's systems, I'm able to eliminate one of Griffin's soldiers, and I have his Cyberdisc on the ropes after exploring the verticality that such units provide.
And then his Chrysalids come.
Through some masterful flanking, aided by some moderate panic on my part and a couple of tactical blunders, Griffin's Chrysalids are able to ambush and impregnate three of my units. A turn or two later and their corpses come back as zombies, and so the descent into defeat begins. A sniper on the roof finishes me off, as the zombified remains of my own men come back to force my surviving heavy out of cover. He doesn't stand a chance.
"We wanted to make sure that we channelled most of our resources into that singleplayer experience, but if the gameplay has a large amount of strategic depth, you don't need much to make PvP interesting," lead producer Garth De Angelis tells me later in the week. "If I lose a game I'll be pretty angry for about ten minutes or so, but then I'll start thinking 'what if...' and going back I'll realise that maybe if I hadn't made that move perhaps I wouldn't have gone downhill so quickly. So there's still plenty to analyse and switch up. There's certainly more that we could do, but we wanted to keep it clean and simple for this first pass."
Griffin's laughter in victory is all that is needed to spur my mind on, going back over the many mistakes I made, furiously berating myself for a slip up on my third turn, for not being cautious enough. The PvP isn't designed to be a mode that caters to all, necessarily, but it will become a proving ground. This isn't a twitch-based game where you're pitting your own reflexes against those of another, it's a battlefield of the mind. If you win here it won't be because you built the biggest base or had a superior squad, it will be because you were out-thought, out-manoeuvred, and out-matched. It will be because you weren't good enough or smart enough. For many, this will be an afterthought that they never touch; for others, this simple gift may well be the most hardcore mode of all.