Back in 1994, MicroProse (a publisher of some renown, at the time), released a relatively unheralded strategy game by the name of UFO: Enemy Unknown. A turn-based strategy title, with wider management features, the game put players in charge of defending the Earth against an alien invasion. The unsuspecting public soon grasped hold of the title with both hands, however, and the game has gone on to win numerous "Best game ever!" accolades, including as recently as this year.
It was, in other words, rather good.
If you missed it, like I did, but have an interest in flexing your brain cells, as I do, you should be very pleased to hear that the game is being remade and re-released. I know I am. Not only that, but the wizards at the helm are none other than Firaxis - the people behind the (also excellent, and many times critically acclaimed) Civilization series.
Planned for release in October, the game is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC; that's right, just like the first one, you'll be able to play this hardcore strategy game from the couch. PC players needn't be too concerned about the quality of the version they'll be getting, though; Firaxis - who are primarily a PC developer, remember - have stated that they're making a dedicated and completely different interface for you that's optimized around mouse & keyboard input.
I actually got to sit down with the game earlier this week, despite Tongariro's attempt to sabotage me, and I was very impressed by what I saw. Not for the graphics, which - along with other aspects of the presentation - suggest middle-tier funding is at play, rather than a "AAA" budget; but for the gameplay. And what great gameplay it is!
The core of the game is in its missions, where you must take control of your squadmates and position them on the battlefield in a way that best suits their skills, the conditions, and what the enemy are up to. You might put a sniper on a roof, for example, where he'll get a bonus for shooting from height - but you might not if that position makes him vulnerable to an enemy. It's those kinds of decisions, made on the fly, that make up the meat in the XCOM gameplay sandwich.
Combat, then, is taken in turns. You select a character and can then move them or perform a certain action (hunker down for a greater defensive bonus, take a shot, go into overwatch mode - etc.) You have a set amount of things you can do per turn, allowing you - for example - to move a long way, or move a short distance and perform an action, etc. Once you've exhausted all of your turns, the enemy gets a chance to react in kind. Rinse, repeat, and hopefully rescue the scientist (or whatever) successfully.
On top of all of this, there's a layer of management activity that you need to perform. There are scientists, eager for alien artifacts to research (from which upgrades, etc, will be discovered), areas to kit out your team members, a situation room to get updated on the war - etc. Each of these is important, and all of the decisions you make go on to affect how things play out.
You might, for example, have to choose between helping the USA and China; choosing one over the other will impact the next mission you take, your standing with each country, and the panic level of their citizens. Other choices include - oddly, I thought - whether your trooper carries a high-armor vest or a grenade (odd, in that the vest goes in the grenade slot, rather than the vest slot). The point being that there's a lot of meta activity in XCOM and, while it's pretty straightforward, every choice you make will impact how you progress.
In my gameplay session, I ran through the tutorial mission (a simple affair in which I learned not only about the controls, but also picked up some fundamental insights into alien behavior) and then headed back to base to begin saving the world without the guidance of my mentor. The next couple of missions (I chose China, by the way) saw me rescuing the lone survivor of an alien attack and setting about clearing out an alien infestation in Germany.
Not only were the areas geographically disparate, but the approaches needed were also highly varied. The basic principles of moving to cover, anticipating enemy movement, and working as a team were always important, of course, but exactly what you do and when you do it is extremely variable, and often requires thinking - and a change of tactics - on the fly.
If you're scared of turn-based strategy, or think it's a pastime for nerds, I urge you to take a closer look at XCOM when it releases in October. I got a strong "Advance Wars" vibe from the game, in that it makes deep strategy incredibly approachable. Choosing your tactics makes complete logical sense, and you can see if (and when...) you make a mistake even before the big-headed weirdo wastes you from his superior position. It was a lot of fun, basically, and I was re-running missions in my head all the way back home.
I was quietly hoping Firaxis and 2K were on the right track with this, having resisted several chances to jump in to the original in favor of something with more modern presentation. Based on what I've seen so far, they're not only on the right track but they're shaping up to blow us away. October, you can't come soon enough!
The Good: Deep strategy, simple interface
The Bad: May slip under the radar for many
The Ugly: Alien "greys" bleeding out from a hole in the head