In 1993, a PC strategy game was released. It should have changed games forever. Instead, the industry largely ignored it and its once-proud name was turned to appalling action spin-offs. Its name was X-COM: UFO Defense, also know as UFO: Enemy Unknown, and even by today's standards it remains far more ambitious, accomplished and smart than the vast majority of games that followed it. (Don't mention the embarrassing 1990s haircuts, though).
Even just a couple of years, X-COM's much-desired resurrection was going to be a first-person shooter rather than the achingly tense strategy-roleplaying hybrid it first was. Now, amazingly, that shooter's existence is in doubt, and instead we have a true-blue turn-based strategy remake/reimagining from the creators of the Civilization series. But if the phrase 'turn-based strategy' makes your skin crawl so far it's off out the door and pegging it down the street, you should know that this is not some dusty, boring, drawn-out affair but high-spectacle, high-speed and with a ferocious death toll.
Like X-COM before it, this new XCOM: Enemy Unknown documents a hostile, initially secret alien invasion of Earth and the international defence team sent to save the planet from it. The game alternates between turn-based ground missions, where you, as an unseen commander, order a squad of four to six soldiers around an impressively destructible environment in which otherworldly horrors lurk. Recklessness will see your men and women gunned down, dead for good, while smart thinking will see them eradicate enemies far more powerful than they with ruthless efficiency.
The game hinges on the tension of each shot taken. Depending on the weapon used, the soldier wielding it and the distance and shelter of the target, you'll be shown the percentage odds of scoring a hit. 75%+, you should definitely take it. Less than that? You're playing with fire. Your soldier might well miss, leaving them with no more actions that turn, potentially left in a vulnerable spot and, most damningly of all, the enemy ranks not diminished. But that gamble is everything: when it pays off, especially with low odds, it's euphoric. When it misses, it's the worst moment of your life.
If you're familiar with the original XCOM, you'll find some key differences even though the basic setup is familiar. The super-slow searching for hidden enemies is replaced with a faster but no less tactical system of moving a front line forward towards a clustered enemy. There's a strong emphasis on the use of cover - in that if a soldier isn't in cover, they're going to die - and on combining new class-based abilities to take down stronger foes, but it's still about caution, risk-taking and losing a whole lot of men.
Which is where the game's other mode, the base, comes into play. Here, you recruit and customise soldiers, equip them with new and better gear that you gradually research and then build with alien artefacts gathered from the battlefield, and scan the skies for UFOs you'll then try to shoot down with armed jets. Once downed, you send your squad in to clean up the mess. There's loads to do, especially in terms of researching and engineering a long tech tree of increasingly destructive new kit, and you'll definitely get wrapped in creating a non-linear master plan that (hopefully) results in defeating your implacable foe once and for all.
There is a strange disparity in base mode between the sights and sounds of it and what you actually do there, however. While it's presented as a grand, buzzing cross section of an expanding underground layer, this turns out to be a brief distraction that's quickly replaced with simply clicking menu options at the top. Plenty to do, yes, but it feels a bit disassociated.
Just a regret rather than a reason to spurn the game, however. Especially as it retains the single most important aspect of the original X-COM - the deadliness. Your soldiers will die frequently and suddenly, and you'll find yourself deprived of your best fighters just as the aliens start throwing more monstrous foes as you. The road to training up a rookie to be an expert marksman is a long one, and on top of that you'll develop a strong affection for those soldiers who survive many battles, kill (or capture) many aliens and have had their appearances and abilities carefully tailored by you to reflect their loyalty. It's horrible to lose a man/woman, but it is an essential part of XCOM - struggling on in the face of disaster.
There are many changes big and small, some of which may prove unpalatable to the more hardline XCOM fan, but the more even-minded soul will find a strategy game of uncommon depth and spectacle. It makes an ancient formula feel thoroughly modern and exciting, and it's one of the finest games of the year because of it.