After PAX East, I knew that I wanted to get more time in front of XCOM: Enemy Unknown at E3. The 15-minute demo we got back in April was enough to skyrocket anticipation of the game, but not enough to slake my thirst for knowledge. I swore that if I got the chance, I would dig every nugget of information I could out of someone on the team at Firaxis, starting with one curious abduction, “Where did the title’s hyphen go?”

I was fortunate enough to run into a familiar face before the demo, meeting up with the game’s Associate Producer, Pete Murray. Murray conducted the demo in Boston and led us through a new, action-packed look at some late game content. The guided walkthrough started out with a group of rookies pinned down by one of the most fearsome and feared enemy in all of gaming, the Chrysalid.

They are vicious, fast and merciless insectoids that take down troops quickly. Of course, the alien invaders in XCOM are all pretty scary, but after killing their prey, the Chrysalid impregnate and reanimate the corpse. Wait too long and that fallen comrade’s body will spawn a new, adult Chrysalid. It’s bad enough that death is permanent in this game, but having to shoot a fallen comrade generates a very specific type of tension.

Additionally, a Heavy Floater, a Beserker and its Sektoid commander were on the scene. The little grey Sektoid used it’s psychic powers to make another Beta Squad member hug his own grenade, while the Floater made short work of a third member of the team. Thankfully for the survivor, backup was on the scene led by someone very special.

He created Civilization, but today he was there to save it. That’s right, Sid Meier was featured in the demo. The experienced team made short work of the foes with Meier taking control of a enemy’s mind before making him chew on a grenade. A sniper in Archangel armor hovered above the street taking out one Floater and getting a chance to take a second shot thanks to the “In the Zone” ability, which awards another opportunity after scoring a critical hit. Finally, a cloaked sniper grappled to the roof and snuck up on the Berserker, delivering a face full of buckshot.

Just before we were dismissed, a giant Sektobot (and I mean giant) appeared on the scene. We’ll have to wait until October 9, 2012, to see how that plays out, but thankfully, Murray had some time to chat. We bantered about the state of tactical games and how the design philosophy for the reboot has created something both challenging and accessible.

After noticing in both demos (PAX East and E3) how fragile both the human and alien combatants are, I asked how that would influence game play.

“We want to reward gamers that make a good plan and figure out how to combine strategies,” Murray shared. “XCOM is hard but fair. The series vets are going to love it and the new players will embrace it.”

The gameplay is certainly accessible for a wider audience than might typically be interested in strategy games. Despite it’s methodical nature, permadeath penalities and squishy troops, it has a visual appeal that makes the battlefield seem more alive than other entries in the genre. Rather than the typical move-act-wait, all of the troops on the field are visibly executing their orders. The best example is the soldier laying down suppressive fire, which keeps opponents pinned down.

“We wanted to make XCOM accessible and, for instance, bring in the Call of Duty players,” said Murray. “There are gamers that want to talk with their team, make a plan and execute it. XCOM offers that, just in a different way.”

We also spoke about the XCOM base, affectionately called The Ant Farm. The reason for this is that throughout the game, you’ll be drilling into the ground, digging out the earth and building new modules. You’ll start with a barracks, officer candidacy school, a science lab and a satellite uplink for monitoring the invasion. From there, you can build many more types of facilities, some of which will offer adjacency bonuses. Put two satellite uplinks next to each other or two research labs and both will have a better output. Increasing your efficiency at the base will help you manage the most precious resource of all: time.

Players will probably spend 1/3 of their time with XCOM: Enemy Unknown in the strategic view back at base. The rest will be on the battlefield. However, it is possible to lose the game entirely if you don’t prepare yourself well, research the correct technologies or fail to give your rookies enough field time. Making sure you can monitor more of the Earth and respond to increasing numbers of abductions and manage growing populace fear is critical. While you are back at base, the aliens aren’t sitting still.

For that reason, the game has significant replay value. Even if you end up in a downward spiral, with countries pulling their funding and the war feeling futile, you can try again. Locating your base in different regions of the world will yield different perks, and researching different technologies might mean the difference between salvation and destruction.

Before we parted ways, I couldn’t help but ask that one nagging question. I needed to know where the hyphen went. Murray gave me a sly smile. It’s been there the whole time.

Red line emphasis added


Book your vacation days now, strategy fans. You’re going to want to take the whole week off come October 9.