Feature: XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN is due out next week, and it has a lot to live up to. The original is a beloved cult classic, but Firaxis aren’t just riding on reputation alone. Here’s five ways in which the developer is building upon the original game to make it ready for the modern age.
1. A fragile army
Perma-death is something that has always made the XCOM games lean a bit towards the hardcore crowd – the kind who don’t mind taking their time progressing through a level, moving from cover to cover and trying to protect their soldiers as much as possible. Well, perma-death is still alive and kicking in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but this time around difficulties actually matter.
In the original games there were difficulty options, but there were a few bugs that stopped them from working as they should. In Enemy Unknown you can go the easy route and you won’t have to worry too much about your squad dying, but on normal or hard you will find your toughened soldiers turning into fragile sacks of meat that can permanently die from a single hit from an alien.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown does have a real cover system, so your soldiers can properly utilize the environment and you will no longer have to guess if that short hedge actually provides cover. There is still the issue of battles being fairly unpredictable and randomized, so soldiers will die.
Once one of your soldiers dies, they are gone, permanently, and it is up to you to replace them with whomever you have available from a roster of recruits. It makes every decision you make carry that much more gravitas, and means you won’t just idly send your favorite soldiers into battle without making damn sure you’re doing your best to keep them alive.
2. A customizable army
One of the reasons I always hated losing a single soldier in the original XCOM games was because of how personal each soldier felt. They had a name, they had some background and they didn’t just feel like clones, despite the very limited technology at the time. Furthermore, each soldier could rank up and I always ended up having a small number of high rank soldiers that I absolutely refused to lose. All of that is still present in Enemy Unknown, but they added even more to make you care about each soldier.
Each soldier in your army now looks unique, has an actual background, and skill trees to accompany ranks. In the previous games, a soldier ranking up meant that their stats were improved and hence they performed better, but now it also means that you can select specific skills or bonuses as they progress. For instance, you can have a soldier that can learn to use rocket launchers or they may have a new ability available. Firaxis has made your army more customizable than the previous games and it still feels terrible to lose a veteran.
3. Science and engineering is go
Just like all of the XCOM games, Enemy Unknown has a big focus on engineering, manufacturing, and research. Your scientists focus on researching alien technology, which leads to new weapons, armor, and items, while engineers let you manufacture the new items that you research. Engineers do also have some new functions, but for the most part scientists and engineers work very similarly to the previous games.
One big thing that is different about all of this is how you obtain scientists and engineers. Missions have rewards and you may often receive new scientists or engineers as a reward, which is entirely different than the previous games. However, the way they function within your HQ is the same, especially scientists. While you do research weapons and items, you can also research alien corpses or live captures, just like the original, and those will lead to some unique discoveries.
4. The world needs you
In the XCOM series you have always had to protect the whole of Earth form alien invaders. Each game handled that in different ways, but Enemy Unknown goes right back to the first two games in terms of dealing with the threat to humanity. Each country pays your organization, XCOM, based on how well you protect them and if you fail to protect a country a certain number of times they will be lost entirely. If you continue to fail your duties to the world, and eight or more countries fall to the alien invaders, you will promptly lose the game.
Each country in the game provides you with a very specific income based on how well you protect them, but when you start the game you have to pick one country to start in and your range is rather limited. Your aircraft can’t reach anywhere on the globe and your satellite will not detect alien craft that are very far from your base, so from the start you make a choice to neglect a few countries.
However, just like the original, the game ramps up in difficulty over time and in the beginning aliens aren’t too aggressive, so you do have time to expand your base, get more satellites, and build new hangers before you lose contact with those far away countries.
Countries now also provide bonuses. Depending on where you build your base you will get different bonuses, with each continent promising you something unique to boost your chances of survival.You can still technically build your base anywhere on the globe, but you can no longer can you build multiple bases. Instead, you build multiple hangers throughout the globe and use satellites instead of radars. Also, there’ll be no building bases in the ocean like in Terror from the Deep.
5. The hardest route is also the most rewarding
Capturing aliens and alien technology is vital to researching new armor and weapons for your soldiers, but to do that you have to be rather careful. For instance, capturing aliens relies on you getting very close to them and knocking them out with a futuristic stun gun, which is especially tough when it is a very powerful alien that may need to be injured first before getting stunned. This works exactly the same as the originals, even to the point that you cannot properly capture without first building an alien containment facility in your HQ.
You also have to be careful when it comes to not destroying alien technology. If you kill enemies their weapons will often explode, so there goes that, and if you use explosives on an alien then you have successfully obliterated anything useful. When you approach a downed alien spacecraft you also need to be cautious, for every piece of that spacecraft could contain alien technology, so explosives are almost always a bad idea, but sometimes it’s just so hard to resist blowing down a wall in order to get a better look at a closed room.
If you play through the game carefully, collecting as much alien technology and captives as you can, then you will also get a higher score when you are graded at the end of mission. These grades aren’t just trivial, as countries factor grades in when deciding how much to pay you.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, from Firaxis and 2k, is due out next week for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.