We honestly never knew tactics games could be this fun. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis Games’ modern revival of a classic PC franchise, has us enraptured with its slick graphics, cerebral turn-based strategy, and an intriguing single-player campaign. But while fighting AI aliens is all well and good, the fun factor soars in the game’s multiplayer mode, which had us itching to play just one more round. The best part? Multiplayer lets you wage tactical war with a squad of aliens, humans, or a combination of both. Like Men in Black or District 9, there’s something magical about seeing man and Martian team up and take names.
Like the best competitive mind-games, Enemy Unknown’s multiplayer is strictly one-versus-one. We’re not complaining, as this limit reduces wait time and removes random variables like getting ganged up on. When creating a match, players can decide the game’s point value, turn length, and location. Point values regulate the makeup of your squad, but it’s a system of astonishing freedom. You’re given 7,500, 10,000 or 20,000 points to work with, and must decide which units you want and what gear they’ll be packing. Point-wise, 10,000 seemed to be the go-to average, with the 7,500 and 20,000 point limits for those wanting shorter skirmishes or longer attrition-based matches. If you feel like going nuts, there's also the No Limit option - just be ready to face some seriously stacked squads.
The better the pick, the more points it’ll cost you – and, as an added strategic wrinkle, you can assemble your squad from anywhere between one and six combatants. Trying to maximize your per-point efficiency is almost a game in and of itself: With so many weapons (Plasma rifle or rocket launcher?), armor types (Carapace or Archangel body armor?), and class types (way too many to list), the possibilities for squad compositions are staggering.
Five maps were available during our demo, each with different terrain and cover to mix things up. The smaller Bar map had us busting through the windows of a bar-and-grill to frag aliens, while the eerie Graveyard stage forced us to disrespect the dead by using tombstones and mausoleums as cover. The maps feel like they’re just the right size: not so big that it takes multiple turns to encounter the opponent, but not so small that you’ll immediately know where they are at the start of a game (thanks, in part, to the appropriately sized fog-of-war).
Turns are based in 45, 90, 120, or infinite second intervals; at 45, you’ll be scrambling to move all your units, let alone put thought into their actions. Infinite turns risk waiting on your opponent for hours; 90 seconds feels like the Goldilocks “just right” for EU’s pacing (it’s also the currently intended turn duration for ranked multiplayer matches). Each of your units gets two actions, divided between movement and weapon or ability use. You’re encouraged to stay mobile throughout a fight, as firing your weapon will immediately end that unit’s turn; alternatively, you can make a mad dash to cover and move double the distance.
Cover is key during combat – bracing yourself against a wall or obstacle logically makes you less likely to take fire, but every piece of cover can be destroyed. It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but thanks to Firaxis’ use of intuitive, color-coded shield icons, you’ll know exactly how safe you’ll be when moving into position. The same goes for attacking: As you’re taking aim with your weapon of choice, you’ll get a reading of your chances of hitting, the critical strike percentage, and how much damage an effective shot will render.
Our time with the multiplayer demonstrated the feature that makes this XCOM so accessible: Overwatch. This is a little bit like turn-based strategy auto-pilot – a tap of the Y button (we played on the Xbox 360) tells your unit to remain alert, ending their actions for your turn. The kicker is that if an enemy unit moves within line of sight of your Overwatch-ed warrior, your trooper will automatically take a potshot at the exposed enemy. This greatly streamlines play for those who want it; if you’re not confident about your opponent’s next move, putting your units in Overwatch mode is a safe bet that doesn’t require any huge risks for reward. That said, you won’t be able to do anything fancy in Overwatch – if you’re thinking of chucking grenades, firing off rockets, or using psionic mind control abilities, you’ll have to do that by hand.
On the next page: Aliens attack!
But we haven’t even gotten to the best part: what’s it like playing as the iconic XCOM aliens? For starters, these units can’t be customized like human soldiers, and thus cost a fixed amount of points. That’s not to say there’s no variety between them – with around ten unique units to choose from, no two extraterrestrials play alike. With their insane mobility, freaky mind powers, and technological prowess, mixing a handful of aliens into your squad composition gives it that much more flexibility to take on whatever the opponent’s packing.
Sectoids, the bulbous-headed gray dudes you’ve seen in previous XCOM trailers, are the equivalent of alien cannon fodder, scampering around with decent firepower and diminutive health (though Sectoid Commandos are far more threatening). On the other end of the strength spectrum are the Mutons, hulking behemoths that come in the plain or Berserker variety and soak up damage like true tanks. The Heavy Muton Berserker was our personal favorite; his brutal bull rushes can break clean through cover to pummel foe’s faces. Even better, when it gets shot at, it gets angry, indignantly thumping its chest with a brash fury.
For scouting, alien armadas can use Chrysalids and Floaters (not that kind) to scope out the competitor’s location. Chrysalids are spindly creeps that can skitter around a map at a startling pace or climb buildings to get a better view of the action. As an added bonus, when a Chrysalid performs a killing blow on an unfortunate human soldier, it’ll impregnate them with chest-busters that’ll bolster your forces. Floaters are essentially legless living jetpacks, capable of launching to any point on the map as long as they’re outdoors – perfect for flanking.
The most intimidating alien was the Cyberdisc, whose ridiculous strength was balanced by a hefty point value. This hovering disk looks a little like a chrome coffee table when it’s dormant – but once provoked, it springs open into a beast that looks like a cross between a purple-and-white lionfish and the turrets from Portal. Able to take to the skies and fire at the puny mortals beneath it, Cyberdisc’s ultimate ability is the menacing Death Blossom (a much-loved Last Starfighter reference). Spinning into a white blur, the Cyberdisk fires its neon-orange laser in every direction, frying any units unfortunate enough to be nearby.
With such imaginative creatures and easy-to-learn controls, EU’s multiplayer is something we can see consuming our free time in much the same way Civilization does. The tense tactical gameplay (complete with great musical cues when you make contact with the enemy) works wonderfully on an Xbox 360, something that most strategy games have struggled with. There’s also a hilarious anxiety to making your shots – much like the classic Worms series, you can’t help but laugh when you miss what you thought was a sure-shot, or accidentally drop a grenade at your own feet.
Between the action-flick-esque single-player and enthralling multiplayer, EU is shaping up to be quite the turn-based strategy game. We can’t wait for its North American release on October 9th, followed by an international release on the 12th.