Let’s not beat around the bush, console ports of strategy titles are an absolute mess. Occasionally you’ll find one that just manages to pull it off, but for the most part, the keyboard and mouse is an unbeatable combination. Enter Firaxis Games who aims to change all that. I recently got the chance to play an early build of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but with a console controller. And you know what, I liked it. A lot.
If you’ve ever played the original XCOM, there’s a high chance you’re someone who falls into one of two categories. Either you believe it is one of the greatest games of all time, or you believe it is THE greatest game of all time. So in case you needed a history lesson of the XCOM legacy, rest assured, it’s a pretty big deal.
Touching a franchise with such high accolades is risky business, especially when tasked with treading the fine line of keeping hardcore fans satisfied while simultaneously attempting to attract a new generation of gamers.
The premise is simple; aliens have crashed the party on Earth and it’s up to you, commander of XCOM to stop them in their invading ways. Putting you in control of a four man squad, you’ll be globetrotting around Earth to various nations of the ‘The Council’ to combat the impending alien takeover. Now remember, this is war. Being the single entity that XCOM is, you simply cannot help everyone. Humans are outnumbered, people will die and nations will fall. It’s an underlying theme made very clear during the opening moments of the preview.
The tutorial mission put me in control of the early demise of Delta Squad: a team sent to investigate a possible sighting of extraterrestrial activity in Germany. The turn-based gameplay mechanics and rules were then slowly introduced as your squad becomes picked off one by one, Predator style.
Played from a 3D isometric view, each unit in your squad has two turns; one which allows movement around the environment and another that allows you perform an action such as firing or fortifying defenses. Selecting a unit brings up an overlay outlining the positions and cover your solider can take on the battlefield. Drop them into position and you’ll be able to take your next action. Once all your turns are exhausted, the game switches over to the opposition who repeats the same process. Think Nintendo’s Advance Wars mashed with Mode 7’s indie hit Frozen Synapse and you’ll get a better idea of how everything comes together.
Putting your soldiers into the right cover is paramount to succeeding. Closing in on your targets becomes like a game of chess, each move just as important as the next. One bad judgement and you can bet your ass that you’ll be punished for it, often resulting in the permanent death of a squad member. No re-spawns, no second chances. That level 19 solider you’ve built up over a dozen or so missions, who can take 2 shots per turn and knows how to handle himself with an RPG? Well he’s gone. Forever.
Our demo was played on a PC, but with an Xbox controller in toe. Yes I can already hear the words “dumbed down” being yelled from the other side of the screen, but as cliché as may sound, never judge a book by its cover. Given the fact that Firaxis is releasing Enemy Unknown for Xbox 360 and PS3 later this year, getting controller configurations wrong is simply not an option. Especially if console gamers unfamiliar with the franchise are to warm to it.
Moving the cursor is performed with the left stick, while selecting units and going into the tactical menu (where issuing attacks, lobbing grenades are performed) is done with the A button and right trigger respectively. The cursor snaps effortlessly to objects on the battlefield which makes selection on particular objects and sending out commands a breeze. Switching actions is always within quick grasp via the D pad, and manoeuvring the camera with the right analog stick never becomes a chore.
It’s all tailored in a way to assist the player in accessing everything easily and not purely burying everything under layers and layers of menus. Not once did I feel handicapped or ashamed that I was sporting a controller in a strategy title which is quite the rare feat indeed.
After managing to bring back a sole survivor from a suicide mission in Germany, I was then introduced to XCOM mission control; suitable dubbed the “antfarm”. Remember how I mentioned you can’t help everyone? Firaxis have managed to weave this concept into mission control component of the game. Two nations need assistance from XCOM, but you can only help one.
Should you fly state side and assist your fellow Americans in hope of netting some extra funds? Or head off to China to gain access to more engineers, thus speeding up technology upgrades? Depending on which one I should assist, the respective nation will throw some dough XCOM’s way. Ignore one party long enough and they’ll start giving you the cold shoulder and begin to stop funding XCOM as the national ‘panic level’ rises.
Firaxis has captured the essence of the game so well with a controller that I’m actually finding it hard to envision how it would work with your traditional keyboard and mouse. A criticism normally warranted with a console port of a PC title. Combined with gameplay mechanics which are deep and approachable enough to engage most hardcore fans alongside newcomers, Enemy Unknown is shaping up to be fitting return worthy of the XCOM name.
So when you see it sitting on the shelf this October, don’t shrug its console siblings as another half-assed port. Give it a shot. You’ll be thoroughly surprised.