With over a decade having passed since the last X-COM title, 2K Games currently has two titles in the franchise under development.  While the first-person shooter derivation XCOM has largely been quiet in recent months, XCOM: Enemy Unknown continues the real-time strategy gameplay of its predecessors in a shiny new package.  Having had the chance to play the title at PAX, I cannot estimate how much older fans will respond to the title but as a newcomer, I can say XCOM’s beautiful visuals and engaging gameplay hooked me from the start.

A small demo of the game was screened before I had the opportunity to play.  This demo was the same as what 2K demonstrated at E3, which you can read about here and also led to the title being named our Game of the Show at this year’s convention.

With controller in hand, I received a refresher course, or in my case an absolute tutorial, of how best to employ turn-based strategy during this alien infestation.  This initial challenge had me controlling a small platoon, learning how to move each team member into cover as we went to investigate a ravaged street and an adjacent building.  Invaders had laid waste to the exterior, rotting corpses littering portions of the map, but amongst the terror I found character movement simple and effective.  Though the controller obviously is not as immediate an option as a mouse click when deciding where to place an enemy, the lag felt negligible and the game still clipped along at a steady pace.

They may be a small foe, but these aliens pack quite the punch.

Moving into the building, my team discovered a mind-controlled soldier, which initiated an ambush by the extraterrestrial enemy.  Though they decimated most of my team with surprising ease, I had the chance to employ my final combatants with the easy to use attack mechanics.  Flanking the enemies, they proved no match for my firepower once I found the weak points of their cover.

This level did not stretch my strategic muscles, but it very much helped to introduce me to the world and the basics of gameplay.  As the mission ended, however, the game whisked me away to the XCOM command center, where I could delve into some of the game’s team-building systems.

As a brief primer, the mission command allows players to explore different portions of the base, including one where players control which units can be brought into battle.  For players who love exploring skill trees and engaging in similar micromanagement endeavors, this portion of the game presents what is normally resigned in menus in a beautifully presented fashion.  These aspects of the title feel like part of the conflict, and I only wish I had more time and more options to explore to see how deep these mechanics can go.

Find the right cover to flank an enemy and you'll have no problem defeating the extraterrestrial threat.

The final portion of the demo had me choosing to take on a mission either in America or in China.  Taking one would have negative effects in the other nation, raising the in-game panic level for that country, but I decided I had to protect the homeland first and chose the American battle.  I touched down with my team, which included the sole survivor of my previous mission but with a few enhancements, in a docking area in which I needed to eradicate the martian threat.  With more freedom than the game’s tutorial, I found myself fumbling on occasion but overall discovering how the game operates with ease.

I had enough time to explore the terrain and find how best to navigate around enemy cover.  Though a few enemies took refuge in a small building, my veteran’s upgraded weaponry allowed me to level the building and take out multiple targets.  Though I completed the mission and was hoping to take on the struggle in China, my demo ended, and I was left both wanting to see that mission as well as replay this one.

Even in my short time with the title I learned from my mistakes almost immediately and wanted to venture back into the fray.  Though not well-versed in the strategy genre, XCOM’s demo hinted at far more complex mechanics that will likely test more skilled veterans.  Though some may prefer a mouse and keyboard, the controller suited the gameplay well enough that I never felt at a disadvantage.  However I inevitably choose to fight off the alien offense, my brief time with the game has me excited for its release on October 9 for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.