Previews

XCOM hands-on: Xbox 360's best strategy game is also the scariest

Part 1: what's the worst that can happen? Oh.

The People's Republic of China is screwed. Like, teetering on the brink of annihilation. I've seen a fair few totalled superpowers in my time, but this one takes the biscuit.

All you can hear on the newswire is screaming. Screaming about bulbous rodent shapes in the back yard, and men with slit pupils who move like they're short a ribcage. Screaming about missing loved ones, eldritch patterns of light in the sky, capsules of alien metal dug into roads, and insectile tracks leading back to steaming piles of burst viscera. And needless to say, screaming about huge bloody flying saucers spitting gobs of emerald disintegration at downtown Beijing.

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Evidently, that consignment of laser pistols I sent the PLA last week hasn't cut the chitin. I need men and women on the ground - hard-eyed heroes with huge chunks of titanium plate welded to their shoulders and elbows, armed with boxy rifles whose muzzles glow with the wrath of chained and tortured suns. I need to send in the likes of Captain Rita "Scarecrow" Price and Emilo "Mac" Walters. But I did that yesterday, in France, and as a consequence, Price and Walters are laid up in sick bay waiting for the plasma burns to glaze over.

The only combat-ready troops on offer are rookies, liable to crack and turn tail at the first glimpse of a greening corpse. Not that there's anywhere in particular to send anybody, right now. I don't have any satellites stationed over China, which means I can't monitor UFO traffic, which means I need to wait for my enemies to strike before I can treat them to a "close encounter". There's a new satellite in production back at base, but it's a fortnight away, and even if I did have a clear view of Asia, my small complement of interceptors aren't beefy enough to bring down the heavyweight UFOs presently ransacking the house that Mao built. Yep, China's looking pretty gone, and thus, so is a sizeable wodge of my funding.

Believe it or not, this counts as a fairly good day in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Sure, the world's second largest economy is a raging cauldron of hysteria, but China hasn't upped and left the Council of Nations yet. Mac and Scarecrow have a few new scars for the collection, but given a week or so they'll be fighting fit and ready to take names. There's still cash left behind the sofa, despite the appalling cost of the satellite and on-going research in the field of mobile weapons platforms. Truth be told, I could stand to lose China. I've still got North America, Europe and most of Africa. I'm ahead of the game.

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Let me tell you about a bad day in XCOM. Bad days in XCOM all begin the same way - promisingly. I've just shot down a UFO, not far from my base, my best interceptor's Avalanche missiles guided home by reverse-engineered Uplink technology, plucked from the skull of a butchered Sectoid. It's a fat prize, stuffed with Elerium and alloys, and my researchers reckon the on-board flight computer will clue me in on the location of that trophy of trophies, an alien base. As my troop of e'er-do-wells sets down in the Skyranger amid gentle forest light, there's a definite sense that things are on the up. Oh, foolish hope.

If you're new to XCOM - congratulations. You've managed to get around 600 words into this preview without having the faintest idea what I'm talking about. Let me put you out of your misery. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a strategy game in which you defend the Earth against alien invasion, expanding your base, researching new technology and building up a squad, then dispatching your forces to troubled regions to wage turn-based battle across grid-based maps.

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