Richard Mitchell: So Alexander and I got a chance to try out the XCOM: Enemy Unknown multiplayer mode at Gamescom. Both of us played single-player before, so we had some idea of what we were getting into – but multiplayer is an entirely different beast. Using a pool of points, players "purchase" the units that will comprise their team: XCOM soldiers, aliens, or a mix of both. The standard match has a pool of 10,000 points and a turn time of 90 seconds. For this press demo, we had a whopping 20,000 points and 120 seconds. It sounds like a lot of time, but it wasn't – more on that in a bit.
What units did you pick? (Keep in mind, folks, I had no idea what I was going to face on the field, and neither did Alexander.)
Alexander Sliwinski: I believe in the power of humanity! Actually, no, it's mostly that I'd never played an XCOM game prior to the E3 demo, and I had no idea about each race's powers. So, I went with three human soldiers, two Thin Men and then spent a massive 7,300 points on an assault gunner with an alloy cannon. I figured I'd wipe out any alien scum you threw at me.
Richard Mitchell: I went with a mix of what looked cool. Although I also read the info on each unit to see what their abilities were, which turned out to be boon for strategy, but we'll get to that later. I went with a Chryssalid, a Thin Man, a Muton, a Cyberdisc an XCOM shotgunner and an XCOM sniper with a sweet plasma sniper rifle and a grappling hook.
Once the selections are made, each player's squad is dropped onto the map and the fun begins. I don't know about you, but I found it to be pretty tense almost immediately. Fog of war was in full effect, and I had no idea where you were or what units you had. Also – probably because this was my first time – that 120 second turn went by very fast.
Alexander Sliwinski: See, and I thought the 120 second was too long. I even wrote in my notes: "Timing could be shorter, but at least you can look around the map while waiting." Of course, that all changed quite dramatically once the plasma rifles started firing and grenades were being tossed. We should also note that multiplayer only works in online mode, so you can't do a hot seat where you have a buddy turn their head away from the TV between moves.
Richard Mitchell: Right. Regarding the timer, once you realize that you not only have to make actions with all your units, but you also have to make good tactical choices with each move, that ticking clock ticks a lot faster. There were several turns when I failed to even move some of my units because I took too much time making decisions.
I chose to spread my squad out quite a bit, hoping to get as wide a field of view as possible. I also sent my Cyberdisc – a small UFO, basically – high into the sky and had my burly Muton jump on top of a bus. Both moves were pretty risky, in retrospect, as those units had no cover at all. It was still a turn or two before I caught sight of you though. What was your strategy?
Alexander Sliwinski: Move forward and hunker down. The idea was for you to come to me. My plan would have worked perfectly too if my soldiers hadn't fired like a drunken lot. Your Muton was right in the open, I have three guys on overwatch – a defensive stance that allows soldiers to automatically fire when something is in range – and they all missed! Your muton was practically the size of the bus!
Richard Mitchell: He did take quite a bit of punishment. You can bet your boots I got him off the bus and into cover after that though. Which gave me a great opportunity to toss a 'nade right into your tightly packed group of soldiers. And then came the Chrysalid.
You hurt him on a previous turn, but I managed to rush the spider-like beast past your defense, slash down one of your soldiers and do something to his corpse. Now, tell everyone what happened next.
Alexander Sliwinski: You're taking too much pleasure in this moment. So your bug (by the way, the only good bug is a dead bug!) put a stupid egg in my guy before I blew its antennae off. Not that it helped because my dead soldier was then reanimated as a zombie and I had to put a shotgun to his head. This is the part where things started going terribly bad for my group of meatsacks.
Richard Mitchell: This is a good moment to point out how the turn-based nature of XCOM changes the formula many gamers are used to. For example, thanks to my new zombie pal, I was able to move my shotgunner closer to your front line. In a real-time game, it would be very risky to move two units out into the open like that. In the case of XCOM, however, you essentially had to choose one or the other. You could probably kill one, but I doubted you could kill both (not to mention my Cyberdisc that was still hovering within range as well).
But the really important part, and what truly swung the match in my favor at the end, was my sniper. Using her grappling hook, I zipped her to the top of the bus and moved into position. Again though, this was very risky, because I had to wait another turn before she could fire. For all I knew, you were about to pick her off and my grand plan would have crumbled.
Alexander Sliwinski: Well, you eliminated my squad pretty quick. Thanks to the Thin Men being gasbags full of toxin, when you killed one near one of my troops, the poor grunt got poisoned. I should have been more aware of my powers but, alas, your painful desire to read all the descriptions, while I wanted to get my game on, led to my downfall. I figured my most powerful unit could still take out a couple of your xeno squad, and had him retreat behind a car, but then ...
Richard Mitchell: Did I mention my sniper had Squad Sight, which gave her the ability to see anything that any member of my squad could see? So, yeah, a pull of the trigger and even your mighty soldier went down (in a very slick, dynamic cinematic, no less).
Still, as we were told by XCOM designer Jake Solomon, half the fun of the game happens after it's over – when you replay it in your head and analyze what you did wrong and what you did right. Once we both know the ropes, I'm anticipating some epic battles and can easily see XCOM becoming an addiction.
Alexander Sliwinski: It's very clever multiplayer with plenty of options to tweak to your liking. Despite being a turn-based strategy game, the pacing is great and makes you think you've got way more time before the 30-second warning bell goes off. I'm ready to defeat you and take my vengeance when the game comes out this October.