Jake Solomon, lead designer at developer Firaxis Games, briefs us on planet Earth's unwelcome guests.
When nations around the world are able to set aside their differences and form a borderless alliance, you can be sure that a slippery road to destruction is the alternative. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PlayStation 3, people are disappearing at a terrifying rate and an elite, international army has been hastily formed to eliminate the aliens responsible.
As the commander of this force, it's your task to co-ordinate every aspect of the campaign to save humanity. The game's lead designer, Jake Solomon of developer Firaxis, outlines the fight ahead.
Troops of the trade
"As the leader of XCOM you're facing an unknown enemy and you don't know how to stop them," Solomon says. "Guns and grenades are always a pretty good starting point, as you can imagine." Overseeing the whole battlefield, you'll direct your diverse squad to unleash bullets and bombs via a turn-based system, using the cover offered by your environment.
"In a standard squad, you might have a support soldier with an assault rifle, an armour-plated heavy weapons expert, an assault trooper – excellent at close combat – and the angel of death himself, our sniper."
Attack of the bodysnatchers
So far, there are three alien breeds on the radar. The skittering Sectoids attack in packs, while the stronger Mutons are more likely to protect strongholds single-handedly. Most intimidating are the Berserkers, the fearsome super soldiers that can withstand much of what you can throw at them.
"When the enemies get their turn they have a few nasty tricks of their own," Solomon warns. "Individual Sectoids are not that dangerous to us but when they merge their minds, they become deadly. And when fighting the incredibly powerful Berserkers, mastering flanking tactics becomes essential."
Run then gun
So how do you take the fight to the invaders? "There are two basic commands: you can move and then take an action, or you can manoeuvre much further. These are the two tactical building blocks, although as you get deeper into the game it will get much more complex."
Once you've moved a soldier into position, you'll bring up the Action Bar to see the options available, including pulling the trigger or using special abilities such as suppression fire to lock an enemy in place.
Co-ordinating your soldiers is crucial in combat. While one soldier pins down a Berserker with suppression fire, you can move your sniper or heavy weapons expert into range. "XCOM is a game of choice," Solomon explains, "and you can even bend the rules a little. For example, the Skeleton Suit lets you climb up to rooftops for the ideal sniping vantage point in a single turn."
From your new perch you can then get a clear shot, breaking the deadlock by taking out a key enemy or destroying a wall. However, it works both ways. "You can't take anything for granted. Even the brick wall in front of you can be taken out with a big enough gun or alien, and there are plenty of those."
The ant farm
Combat is the heart of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and at the end of a successful mission, you'll return to base to shape the strategy of the war. "We call HQ the ant farm. It's a base the players build with their own hands. You can see your soldiers interacting - maybe working out in the gym or shooting pool in the bar - and you'll visit the barracks to find out about any promotions, abilities and upgrades earned by your troops."
Solomon goes on. "The lab is where you'll see the web of choices spreading out before you. As the game progresses and you recover more precious artefacts, the options available explode." Meanwhile, in the engineering depot you'll decide which capabilities to upgrade and whether to augment your fighting force or expand your base.
You'll spend time tinkering with your army, devising new tactics and then hitting the battlefields of Earth in what promises to be a blend of the deep thinking and the hard-hitting. Keep an eye on playstation.co.nz and PlayStation.Blog for more developments from the ant farm. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is due to launch on PS3 in 2012.