2K Games generated some excitement last year when it introduced a new first-person tactical based version of XCOM, the latest in their long-running series.  That version of XCOM is looking at a 2013 launch so it won’t get in the way of the company’s Bioshock Infinite, which is due in October.  That doesn’t mean that fans of the series are out of luck this year as Firaxis Games is hard at work on an XCOM game that’s closer in nature to previous releases.  

Welcome to Enemy Unknown.

Though little is known about the story at this point, we can confirm that an alien invasion has ravaged the city and it’s up to you to push back the horde leading a tactical team of defense soldiers.  To execute your missions successfully, you’ll access the “ant farm” (a home base where you not only keep your soldiers in a collective) as well as an engineering department where you can take captured alien tech and convert it into weaponry that can be used against them.  Development is costly but you’ll be promptly rewarded with each successful mission that’s accomplished.  (Screw up too much, though, and you’ll likely lose funding.)

Like previous XCOM games, Enemy Unknown utilizes a top-down isometric perspective of the action so you can see where enemies are lurking and properly set up positioning to get the jump on them.  You’ll use this using four different classes of soldiers, which are pretty easy to figure out.  Assault is good in a firefight; Heavy Weapons is incredibly useful against stronger enemies; the Sniper can deliver damage from afar; and Support lends a hand to the team when needed.  

It’s up to you to deploy the team as necessary using a similar interface to previous games.  For instance, you can set up the sniper on the roof of a nearby gas mart, while setting up the heavy weapons expert on a nearby roof to get the jump on enemies from behind.

Where you place them is crucial because the enemies here aren’t exactly pushovers.  The small alien gunners are pretty quick on the draw, even if you’re just making a run for cover.  There are also stronger types that can put an end to your soldier very quickly if they’re within reach.  This is crucial because once you lose a member of your team, there’s no getting them back.  You have to start fresh from the “ant farm” which is hardly an easy task – especially with aliens roaming about.  (Luckily, the “Geoscape” tool in your “ant farm” makes it easy to see where the worst activity is taking place.)

The action is turn-based, as with previous XCOM games, with you setting up your positioning and the enemy responding with their own methods.  It’s always best to have them in locations suited to their strengths, obviously, as I’ve described above. Situations can change constantly, so it’s best to stay on your toes and figure out the best strategy.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown may have a similar play style to previous games, but it looks like the best entry in the series to date. The game utilizes a fully 3D engine for its environments and enemies and when you engage in battle, the camera actually swivels around so you see your actions executed.  This way you never miss the satisfaction of a glorious enemy kill. It’s a pretty neat system and one that will only get better as the battles pick up later in the game.

Though the demo we were shown only consisted of a small single player mission (and a peek at the “ant farm”), the final game will contain hours of tasks to take on as well as the challenge of maintaining enough order to keep funding coming in. When we asked about multiplayer, 2K was pretty mum at the moment, but it’d be interesting to see a co-op or versus factor where players could take turns trying to eradicate each other in battle.

Firaxis, a team usually known for handling development on 2K’s Civilization games, definitely has the XCOM formula down pat here. The strategy is quite deep while keeping the action heavy enough to satisfy both casual sci-fi fans and those who grew up with the series. The new look is excellent too, especially the cinematic playbacks which put you right in the thick of the action. And the “ant farm” idea is pretty neat, letting you decide how funding gets spent and watching how things are affected. Though we still want to see the original XCOM game somewhere down the road, Enemy Unknown will certainly fill the void when it releases later this year.