XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview - hands on with 2K's reboot

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2K Games' re-imagining of a nearly 20-year-old tactical strategy title, is a bit of a tough sell. On top of convincing fans of the classic series that the multi-platform reboot hasn't been watered down, it must prove to the console crowd that managing resources is just as exciting as emptying magazines. If our recent hands-on time is any indication, though, Firaxis Games is on the right path to pleasing any fan with an appetite for exterminating alien scum.

Playing on PC, albeit with an Xbox 360-like gamepad, our demo eases us into the strategy-focused action with an intuitive--and optional--tutorial mode. Before hitting the battlefield with our quartet of XCOM squaddies, a cutscene sets up the mission: A group of alien pods has crashed in Germany seconds before consuming all nearby civilians in a choking green smog. Shortly thereafter, we arrive at the crash site to discover these evil E.T.'s are more concerned with destroying humanity than phoning home; cars are overturned, the pavement's scarred, and uncontrollable fires engulf buildings even as rain pours from the heavens. Adopting a visual presentation art director Greg Foertsch describes as “stylized realism”, XCOM's graphics are more reminiscent of a big-budget action game than a bland strategy title.

After ogling the scenery--the site of a victim's entrails dangling from his halved torso is especially memorable--we start to get comfortable behind the controls. In turn-based fashion, we move our squad-mates, one at a time, into cover spots. The left stick selects where we want to go by placing a destination cursor, while a press of the A button triggers the action. Keeping with the game's cinematic feel, the camera occasionally takes control to show our soldiers hauling ass into safe spots.

Once hunkered down, a small shield icon above each member indicates how well they're protected. As we advance each squad-mate on a warehouse where a group of Sectoids--the series' signature little gray men--are hiding out, we pass another person who didn't survive the initial attack; well, at least we think the pulpy puddle was once a human being. Following a few more cover-to-cover maneuvers, complemented by slick scenes of our super-soldiers crashing through windows and kicking down doors, we set up a perimeter inside. As we creep through the warehouse, taking cover behind barrels and forklifts, we come upon the unsettling site of a German operative who appears to be in a state of shock. It's soon revealed the armed man's actually having his mind manipulated by a nearby Sectoid, but not before we've issued a disarm command. With the suicide mission already in motion, our brave squaddie's downed by the possessed soldier who also takes two more lives--including his own--by dropping a live grenade at his feet.

With all hell officially broken loose and our squad down to two, we let the leash off XCOM's combat interface. While in cover, a pull of the right trigger brings up the tactical UI menu, which displays a number of offensive maneuvers that can be selected. Additionally, the right stick allows us to scan the battlefield. Using these tools, we explode the head of one big-eyed bastard with a rifle blast before moving our second team member, the lone female of the squad, within frag grenade-tossing distance. Following our orders, she swiftly turns what we believe is the final threat into a permanent part of the architecture. Unfortunately, a hidden extraterrestrial evil-doer reveals itself by feeding Grenade Girl a face full of plasma fire.

While the ugly alien scores a nice kill, it also leaves him exposed, allowing us to reduce him to a burst of green goo on our final turn. Upon surviving the mission by the skin of our teeth, we're taken back to base. Here we're able to access the barracks, science labs, hangar, and situation room through what Firaxis refers to as an “ant farm” view. An apt description, the perspective allows us to peer into the various levels of the base while action figure-like avatars go about their business. We zoom in on the barracks, where our sole surviving squad-mate is ready to be promoted; we upgrade him from “squaddie” to “heavy” and provide him with a rocket launcher to back up his new title.

From there we head over to the science labs, where our top scientist is examining alien materials and weapon fragments. We make the executive call to distribute research resources into the latter in hopes of one day turning the aliens' advanced technology against them. Finally, it's off to mission control, where a delicate decision needs to be made: Alien abductions have been reported in China and New York City, and it's on us to decide where to send help. Ignoring the former could eventually see the ally pulling funding and resources, but not saving the world's most iconic metropolis might send all of North America into a state of panic.

While our tutorial-driven mission was intentionally scripted to get us comfortable with the title's mechanics, we're told we'll mostly be on our own going forward. We leave our demo weighing the pros and cons of that next mission. Okay, not really. Obviously, we'd risk pissing off China to save the Statue of Liberty. Still, it's nice having the option to make such world-shaping calls. Coupled with its absorbing art style, XCOM's gameplay appears to be an accessible--and potentially addictive--mix of cerebral strategizing and alien-squashing action. We can't wait to save NYC--and suck up to China--when XCOM engages both our minds and thumbs this fall.

Matt Cabral
A full-time freelance writer based in Lizzie Borden's hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, friend him on Facebook, or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.