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FTL Tips and Strategies

Note: I originally published this article in September of 2012. I haven’t updated it for the Advanced Edition, but with Advanced Edition and the iOS port out today, I thought it worth a bump back up to the front page. Most of the advice herein remains accurate. I’ve only just begun to mess with the AE on iOS, but hopefully (maybe, maybe, maybe) I’ll have some new thoughts to post on it next week. Possibly. I think.

I am, very likely, the last person on Earth who should be writing tips guides for gamers. Nonetheless, I’ve put in enough time and spectacularly destroyed enough starships (along with going 2 for 2 in victories on Easy) that I feel I can offer you, dear reader, the chance to learn from my mistakes. Without further adu, I present to you 15 tips for surviving to the final boss in FTL:

1. No rule is more important that this: Scrap is everything. EVERY-GODDAMED-THING. Without it you don’t repair your ship, you don’t buy upgrades, modules, or crew. Sectors 1 through 7 are entirely about the accumulation and proper use of scrap. Every decision you make should be done with an internal scrap calculator running in your head. If it will result in a net loss of scrap for no notable gain, avoid it.

2. It should be obvious, but it bares saying anyway: Pause is your friend. Pause early. Pause often. Pause whenever you’re not positive that you know exactly what’s going to happen next. They put Pause on the space bar because they want you to use it.

3. Explore. Because this game is a drive to reach Sector 8 it feels like it wants you to beeline for the exit from sector to sector. This strategy can get you safely to Sector 8, especially if you have long-range scanners that let you avoid encounters, but it won’t prepare you to survive Sector 8. That requires a significantly upgraded ship. Ship upgrades cost scrap. To get more scrap you need to spend as much time in each sector as possible. Maximizing your encounters maximizes your reward potential and that’s the only way you can build up your ship and crew well enough to have a chance against the final encounter. Remember that the Rebel fleet only advances in your sector when you jump. You can spend as much time as you need to at each individual beacon (jump node).

4. Pay attention to distances between beacons. (This tip seems invalidated for Adv. Ed. You can select any system and see a way to navigate there.) The randomly generated map only tells you which beacons you can jump to next and it doesn’t let you know when two beacons, while perhaps still adjacent, aren’t close enough to jump between. Consequently, it’s entirely possible to jump your way to a dead-end and have to back track. This both wastes fuel and gives you less time to explore before the Rebel fleet overtakes you. Back tracking in FTL should be avoided as much as possible, though it can be worth it if you’re finishing off a quest or checking out a distress call.

5. Your ship’s weapons systems are an orchestra. They should be targeted and fired in concert with each other and with their strengths and weaknesses firmly in mind. So, don’t use the Autofire option, which tells your weapons to fire as soon as they’re charged. Fire them in a sequence that makes sense given your particular opponent. As an example, against a ship with marginal (strength 2) shields, firing a missile to damage the shield system and then immediately following-up with a burst laser to the weapons and a fire beam to its life support rooms (along with whatever else it can reach) and you’ll have dealt a crippling blow. The AI then has to balance its crew resources between repairing weapons and shields and keeping life support going. There are tons of weapons variations in this game. Learn them. Know them. Synergize.

6. Understand how beam weapons work. They can get through shields if the weapon has a higher damage rating than the shield, but they don’t reduce shield strength like lasers do. Use a fire beam first and it won’t so much as dent the shield. Use the burst laser first and you’ll waste half its potential just getting through the shields, but you will reduce them.Also, beam weapons stretch from point A to point B, where you designate the start and end points. Because they do their damage on a per-room basis, make sure you hit as many rooms as possible. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not hitting three rooms with your beam weapon then you had better have a specific purpose in mind (targeting a specific ship function or room with crew in it).

7. A successful missile attack is a beautiful thing, but they can be dodged or shot down by a defense drone. Bombs, which use the same ammunition, can bypass both of these defenses. (I’m not entirely clear on how bombing accuracy works as sometimes they seem to miss. I haven’t figured out the rhyme or reason to that. Maybe shields/dodge can play a role? Chime in in the comments if you know.)

8. Don’t be afraid to run. You won’t be in optimal position against every ship variant you’re likely to run across and sometimes you’re going to be outgunned or just in a bad match-up relative to your build. If you’re taking damage from an enemy ship, get out of Dodge as soon as the the Jump button lights up. Remember that scrap is everything and if you’re going to end up spending more in scrap to repair your ship than you’re taking in by winning, then the encounter won’t be worth the effort. “He who fights and runs away, can run away another day.” Words to stay alive by. To this end, engine upgrades are your friend as they not only increase your dodge chance, but they significantly reduce jump spin-up time.

9. Assign your crew specific jobs. Crew members level up at a system/task the more they do it. At the start of your run, pick a pilot and keep him in that role. The same with engineering, weapons, and shields (if you have enough crew to do that). If you have the luxury of extra crew, assign someone specific (preferably Engi) to repairs. If you have excess Manti crew members, they’re excellent boarders. Just don’t shuffle people between roles if you can help it. Also note that skill progression can be gamed. The person who finishes a repair gets the credit for it, no matter who starts it. The guy who kills someone in hand-to-hand gets the benefit of that experience regardless of who did the most damage.

10. Capturing ships by eliminating opposing crew offers better rewards than destroying them. Mostly you get more scrap, but somewhere in here you may have seen me mention this: Scrap is everything! A bio beam (crew killer) or fire beam (damages systems and sets rooms on fire) are ideal for this. A fire beam combined with the ability to teleport in some Rockmen crew members (immune to fire) is a killer advantage that you should exploit when you’re able to.

11. If you teleport in a boarding party, give your teleport system at least two power (this requires an upgrade). On one power you have a longer wait between use and very often that wait is longer than your boarding party will survive if under attack from the target’s crew. A healthy party will almost always live long enough for you to beam them back if the transporter room uses two power bricks.

12. Automated ships do not have life support. This means they have no atmosphere. Sending a boardparty to these ships? Not a great idea.

13. Fully upgraded sensors may seem unnecessary, but a single upgrade is essential for boarding parties so you can see the make-up of the target, where the crew are assigned, and where you may have damaged their hull or started a fire. Beaming them in blind is a huge risk. Full upgrades (three bricks) give you the luxury of knowing how the ship is using its power, which can play a huge part in deciding where to target your weapons or send your boarding for the most bang for your buck.

14. Roll with the punches. There’s a debate to be had about how much this game depends on luck, but just as much depends on your ability to play the hand you’re dealt. You won’t always have access to a cloak or your favorite weapon or drone combination. You have to adapt your strategy to the opportunities the game presents. Remember that this isn’t a game about winning so much as it is about seeing how long you can survive. There is immense satisfaction to be had in simply surviving long enough to reach sector 8 despite a sub-optimal build.

15. Did I mention that scrap is everything?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown in Review

I finished XCOM: Enemy Unknown Tuesday night, so that means it’s time for a proper review. (I officially give up on the hyphen. From now on we’ll just pretend it’s there.) Before I get into that, however, a few words about the two recently announced pieces of DLC: Slingshot and Elite Soldier Pack. This is the 2k I know and loath. First, the Elite Soldier Pack is basically armor colors and a few more heads (three helmeted ones and a new hairdo). It’s content (particularly the armor tinting) that should have been part of the main game by default. Asking people to pay $5 for this is shameful. It’s the same nickel and dime for the least amount possible that we got from a lot of the Civ 5 DLC. The Slingshot DLC adds a new playable “hero” to the squad and some scripted missions. It’s not fair to judge sight unseen, but I am not enamored with the idea. I think it fundamentally misunderstands what makes this game good. It’s arguable that the weakest parts of XCOM are the parts where it’s scripted, which is thankfully uncommon, so trying to make people excited about three new council missions that have their own story arc isn’t the world’s greatest sell. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong about that.

On with the review…

Big. Damn. Heroes.

X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, is a gaming legend. As is often the case with legends that means, in addition to being a great game in its time and place, it’s remembered for being a bit more than it actually was. It was buggy, fiddly, and, even for the time, didn’t look particularly good. These things didn’t keep this game about halting an alien invasion of Earth from deservedly becoming one of the most fondly remembered games of its time. I point this out only to dispense with the notion that UFO Defense was somehow a perfect model to which any remake must slavishly adhere.

Firaxis’ new spin on the X-COM legacy, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is every bit as flawed as the original, if for different reasons, and yet it’s also every bit as memorable as its namesake (for many of the same reasons). Firaxis had an impossible job to do in making a turn-based strategy game in 2012, one that had to function equally well on PC and console, and make it worthy of the legacy. It could have been too wonky for mass audiences. It could have been too dumbed-down to appeal to core strategy gamers that still fondly remember action points and facing rules. That Firaxis was able to strike such a fair balance of streamlined mechanics and wonderfully emergent tactical gameplay is a credit to a talented and storied studio. XCOM is the game I’ve been waiting for, for a long, long time.

The fascinating incongruity about XCOM (old and new) is that it’s a game about stories where the overriding background story is just that – background. That’s because the best stories in XCOM don’t come from any of its largely random missions, only a handful of which are loosely scripted. The real stories in this game are emergent, born of a dozen different decisions you’ll make from turn to turn. Sure, the Earth facing invasion and annihilation by beings from another world, and it’s attempt to thwart disaster by having its major powers unite to form an elite alien-fighting task force (XCOM), provides an adequate backdrop, but it’s when you take your squad of four to six solders, soldiers you customize in name, appearance, and ability, that the real stories begin.

It’s a game that begs you to tell your buddies in the real world or on an online gaming forum about that time your heavy class trooper fired a rocket in a storefront wall to take away a muton’s cover, allowing your sniper a clear killshot. Or how you risked a double-move out of cover with your wounded assault trooper only to have her miss a wide open shot and end up poisoned to death by a thin man. Or what about that time you had a total party wipe when an unseen sectopod caught your squad grouped up next to a UFO power source that it caused to explode? This is a game that ten different people can play and, yeah, they’ll all follow the same rough story threads, but they’ll also have ten wholly unique experiences in the process of traversing them. Old version, new version, that is the genius of XCOM and it’s alive and well here.

No, not everything is perfect, though the line between design brilliance and notable flaw will vary based on your expectations. If you’re a die-hard from the UFO Defense era that treasured large squads of 10+ soldiers on a mission and the more intricate group tactics they afford, or having to worry about what direction a squaddie is facing or whether they’re kneeling or not, or being able to swap large inventories between squaddies and rifle through the effects of dead aliens in-mission, then you’re not going to like the compromises made here. This is a beer and pretzels tactics game that you’ll pick up quickly and then keep playing because the mechanics in place function so effortlessly together.

Die-hards aren’t going to like the narrower environments that don’t offer nearly as much room to roam and explore as X-COM. But there’s a benefit to that too. Missions in this game aren’t designed to go on for hours and hours. Some are longer than others, but most are meant to be bit off in manageable 30 to 60-minute chunks. You’re not going to waste nearly as much time just wandering around, hoping to stumble into that last remaining sectoid before you can pick up and return to base. I call the more directed maps a net win for this reason – oh and they’re gorgeous and wholly destructible.

Speaking of your home base, if the in-mission tactical game weren’t impressive enough, Firaxis has done a remarkable job of making the strategic management of the XCOM project a seamless experience that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae You get to make plenty of decisions in terms of what technologies to research, what buildings to construct, and generally how you can best spend the finite funding and resources at your disposal, but owing to the fact that you now run just a single base, (with satellites picking up the tab for monitoring the world’s alien activity), the game doesn’t let your time spent making these decisions become tedious. Sure the rewards for doing missions end up feeling rather arbitrary and the game could do with a bit more variety as to types of missions, but the sense of pervasive threat as you struggle to keep participating nations funding the XCOM project in the face of ever-increasing alien activity keeps the game humming along just fine. I could quibble that the research tree isn’t broad enough or that the game doesn’t last long enough, but it’s easy to forget just how crucial balancing all these different elements is to this game and just how remarkably well it achieves that balance.

Would that these kinds of fair compromises were the only issues. Unfortunately, there are problems to which even the most enthusiastic fan of the game must admit. The game is flat out buggy. I’ve mercifully been spared the worst of them, but there are bugs that can hamper your ability to properly play the game. I encountered one in the final mission that, had I been playing in the game’s Ironman mode (which prevents saving and reloading where you like), very likely would have prevented me from finishing the game. It makes playing it a gamble. Will you be among the lucky majority(?) that only sees weird graphical glitches like a soldier firing (visually) in the wrong direction or has its hairdo flicker back and forth between two styles during a mission? Or will you end up cursing Firaxis and swearing off the game forever when 30 hours of work gets wasted because a bug prevents you from opening a door you must pass through to continue on a mission? That’s a problem.

Less severe, but constantly annoying are some of the PC control issues. (I didn’t try the game using a gamepad. I’ve read that it controls better if you use one.) 95-percent of the time using a mouse and keyboard with XCOM is perfectly adequate. In a day and age where games built for PC and console simultaneously are often cursed with abysmal controls, perfectly adequate counts as a rather sad victory. There are hotkeys to control the camera, issue commands, etc. On a flat map, the mouse is extremely effective at letting you choose just the right spot for where to send a squaddie or toss a grenade. The problem is the camera and mouse combination cannot handle elevation, a rather crucial component of the game, and as a result it constantly behaves as if it knows better than you where it should place itself. Sometimes these issues are merely annoying, like how it snaps back to its default view every time you switch from one soldier to another. Other times it actively interferes with your ability to select a particular zone. Sending your team into a medium to large UFO is nothing but an exercise in frustration as you too often have to raise, lower, and rotate the camera every which way to get to a point where you can click where you want to click. Sometimes there is no way to clearly establish where the placement indicator is and you just have to click and hope that just because the ceiling obscures your view that your soldier will still end up where he should. Firaxis needs to address this problem and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

There are other nuisances to be sure, like the frustrating inventory management screen where you outfit your squad for battle. The game’s finale is jarringly scripted and offers a less than satisfying conclusion. And, seriously, why exactly is it I can change the name, ethnicity, and armor colors (with DLC), but not a squaddie’s nationality or gender? Yes, yes, it’s a game about an international organization and it should have soldiers from all over the world. That’s swell and all, but there is absolutely no reason not to let the player make this purely cosmetic choice for themselves.

Yes, these issues do diminish the experience somewhat, but these are largely distractions, blemishes that stand out precisely because the core of the game is so indelibly perfect. As you sit back in your chair wondering if you should direct your science steam to prioritize armor research, or weapons research, or start that alien interrogation; as you make decisions about whether to risk your squaddie’s life to protect a civilian from an approaching chrysalid; as you rank up an experienced team of veterans only to see them picked off one by one over successive missions — these are the critical areas that XCOM had to get right, and it clears the bar with room to spare. This is a game about choice and consequence in which you never stop making choices and the consequences always have weight. When the experience is as good as the one XCOM offers, its few missteps aren’t enough –not nearly enough– to make this anything less than one of my single favorite games of the past five years. Yes, it is that good.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown – Not a Review

I have X-COM and it’s glorious. (As a reminder, yes, I do use the hyphen as twas intended by God itself.) That screenshot up there? The one where you can’t hardly make out any detail because it’s zoomed so far out? That is beauty. Dear Bioware, when you release the next Dragon Age, if I can’t pull back on the camera like I can do here, then you have utterly failed. I don’t care if the story is the second coming of… uh… something really good, but not as cliche to list here as Lord of the Rings. Just say’n.

Oh, right. X-COM. Ahem. It’s going to be awhile before I’m comfortable reviewing the game, so in lieu of that, I’m going to offer this quick impressions post and then, in forthcoming posts, document my progress, diary style, as my crafty crew of squaddies face off against gruesome death and dismemberment at the hands of an alien menace bent on world domination. Woo!

To set a baseline here, I think there are generally two kinds of X-COM players: Those who like the light strategy and emergent storytelling that the series hangs its hat on and the deep strategy folks who like wide open spaces they must navigate, moving carefully forward, spending hours micromanaging every facet of their squad. The original X-COM had a way of sating both these crowds and there’s nothing wrong with either track, but this game was built to appeal to the former much more than the latter.

Like any good alien-smashing squad, let’s take this point-by-point, starting with the stuff that will likely bother some folks…

The environments do feel confined and, I’m not sure, but I suspect there’s not any randomization to them at all in terms of terrain, alien, or squad placement. (EDIT: I’m largely wrong about total lack of randomization. It’s not as random/expansive as UFO Defense, but environs in Enemy Unknown are sufficiently random here to ensure you’re never quite sure what you’re walking into.) A sectoid isn’t going to gun you down from behind the moment you step off the Skyranger. Generally you’ll first sight aliens in a pack together and, by appearances, only then will they react to your presence and start setting themselves up. I’ve only done about nine missions, but my sense is you will always have a chance to set up before walking into a trap. This is a stark contrast with the the original game where such things not only happened, but happened with frequency. The narrow battlescapes of Enemy Unknown will bother your hardcore strategy people. If what you want, however, is to start a mission, have it feel tactical, be capable of surprising you, and let you wrap up it in 30-45 minutes. You will be very, very happy with this. The game is not plastic or scripted. It’s just not as expansive as the original.

The squaddie customization is surprisingly thin. I know they want international flavor, but not being able to change the gender or nationality of a squaddie sucks. There is precisely zero harm in letting a player put together an all-female squad or an All America FUCK YEAH squad, you know? When I can change a squaddie’s name, face, armor color, etc., not being able to edit gender or nationality is annoying. (And for a game so focused on having international flavor, for all the voice sets to be stunningly American is rather lame.) So Brandon is now French. Matt is, I think, German. Roberto (our friendly neighborhood Guild Wars 2 NHS guild master) hails from Egypt, which is almost like Brazil, except totally not. Etc. It’s a little thing, but it’s a little thing they should patch. (I do like that squaddies have to earn nicknames by reaching the rank of sergeant. Bill doesn’t just get to be The Straw.)

That is all rather superficial, I know, but what will grate on some players is the loadout options. Each soldier (barring specific class upgrades) has a set of armor, a primary weapon, a pistol and an auxiliary slot that can be used for med kits, grenades, stun guns, ets. From a realism perspective, it breaks credibility that a SHIELD-like fighting force of ultimate bad-asses can’t carry a grenade while wearing a protective vest (or, for that matter, that they can only carry one grenade). From a tight, refined gameplay perspective it forces you, in a good way, to consider each squad member’s loadout without making you spend a half hour just gearing up. It’s very easy to get your entire squad loaded for bare, mission over mission. It’s much harder to know the ideal loadout. There is still strategy to it, just not the kind you’ll spend hours and hours honing. As a guy who cannot devote my life to playing a game anymore, I dig that. I understand, hardcore folks, why you’d be put off. (Hey, there’s always Xenonauts to look forward to!)

I’ve only gotten through a month and a half of in-game time, but the process of managing X-COM is incredibly well done. All the elements X-COM vets will remember from the first game are there. You research in labs. You construct new facilities and equipment in workshops. You have to keep everything powered. You gear up your crew and craft. You check budgets. Set priorities when determining UFO coverage areas and whom to help when multiple mission options are available at once. And you sell excess items and materials when you’re strapped for cash, a decision that can come back to haunt you.

There are oddities and elements that are over-simplified and sometimes the game doesn’t tell you what you need to know in a timely fashion. I found out the hard way (after research and manufacturing), for example, that these protective vests my scientists came up with can only be equipped in the same augment slot that you would otherwise use for grenades, stun guns, med kits, etc. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have made five of the damn things. Complicating that, you can no longer sell equipment you manufacture so now I’m just stuck with them.

In the original game you could carry on multiple research projects based on the number of scientists you have. Here it’s just one at a time, though the research speed changes based on available resources. Conversely, you can build as often as you want (pending available space and money) with your engineeers without them being tapped out. Projects do have a minimum required number of engineers to build, but let’s say I have 10 available, I can still build two projects at once even if one of them requires all 10 to build it. Evidently they multitask better than scientists.

The point is, there are some odd choices (that are likely done as they are for balance reasons), but the elements are all there and they all work well in concert with each other. You’re still making decisions. Loads of them. It’s just streamlined enough, however, to make it feel like you’ve got everything under control and you don’t need a notebook sitting next to you to keep track of everything you’re doing.

Finally, there’s the most important element: Squad-level tactics are absolutely aces and, as a result, Enemy Unknown is rife with wonderfully emergent gameplay. In a recent mission I had advanced on a group of sectoids and floaters (my first encounter with the latter). I had taken out the sectoids and caught three of the four floaters in a well-placed rocket shot from Lt. “RocketMan” Castillo (that’s a default name and nickname). There was one floater left, having taken a position above the field of battle and just waiting in overwatch mode for a squaddie to come out from cover. My sniper had a clean shot at him, and she hit, but the floater still had a point of life left on it. This is an ideal time to go for the stun and opportunity to interrogate the beastie back at HQ.

RocketMan has my ARC stun gun and can get close enough in one move to use it, but if I send him he’ll surely be shot in the face because Mr. Floaty is in overwatch and is just waiting for the opportunity to put a guy in the morgue. Pretty sure I heard somewhere that getting shot in the face is generally bad. I need to get the floater to blow his shot before I move my man in, so who’s going to play bait? Why, hello there Sgt. “Wolfox” Amorim. Why don’t you run out there and see what happens? It would work, except I’m really not into getting my guys killed. We here at X-COM HQ frown on that sort of senseless loss. But, you know, just across the way sits Lt. Binky. The man I was sure would be killed first has been making a name for himself in the support class, a class that features a smoke grenade. With one move into nearby cover he can toss that thing between Wolfox and the floater to provide extra cover.

Now, understand, I had no idea if this would work. None. But it made sense, right? Binky tosses the grenade in a prime location between Wolfox and a strong cover area on the other side. I direct Wolfox to go. The Floater sees him in the smoke and fires, but is unable to hit. With the floater now helpless, RocketMan is able to run up and knock the sucker cold. Mission success! Everyone gets out alive. (Well, Squaddie Thrower will be in the infirmary for a couple weeks. Jesus, man, walk it off already! There’s no room for pansies in this crowd.)

Old. New. Hyphen. No hyphen. This is X-COM. It wasn’t scripted. I had an idea. I had the right guys, in the right position, at the right time to try it out and my little soldier avatars executed it flawlessly. Binky could easily have missed with the smoke grenade. The floater still could’ve capped Wolfox, despite the extra cover. And there was a 15% chance RocketMan would miss on the stun. I had no idea what might happen.

When a plan like that comes together, it makes for a great gaming moment. And the great part of that equation is that every single time you take your squad out on a mission, X-COM affords you a chance to have that moment. Or your squaddies will totally cock up your brilliant plan and your strategy instead collapses in on itself like a dying star… But that’s the story of another mission. (*sniff*) This is the game’s genius and that is why, streamlined mechanics or not, I’ll be playing it for a long, long time to come. (Yeah, yeah, barring unforeseen bugs, overly repetitive gameplay that hasn’t stood out yet, etc. Stop with your nay-saying and let me enjoy the moment.)

Well done, Firaxis. Well done indeed.

EDIT: These impressions are based on the PC version (purchased on Steam). I’ve been playing at Normal difficulty and not on the hardcore mode that restricts ability to save.



Quick Take on the X-COM: Enemy Unknown Demo

To dismiss with this point first, I know Firaxis calls the game XCOM and not X-COM. Screw that noise. We all know better. As for the demo, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about it. It’s very, very brief, taking you through two largely scripted missions and then depositing you at the menu. This isn’t a demo so much as it is a guided tour, so there’s a lot we don’t know (at least those of us, like me, not on the golden ticket list for preview code), including just how much freedom of play the actual game will offer. This was extremely restrictive, but it hints at a world of promise. Here’s what I can tell you based on the 50 or so minutes it took to go from beginning to end on the PC…

– The game looks good. The environments, soldiers, and aliens are all visually appealing. It was easy to play this and think back on what the original looked like and simply be impressed with how far we’ve come. The thought of taking the experience of yesteryear and making it look like this is delicious.

– The tactical element is alive and well. In the first mission you can only do exactly what the game tells you to do. The second mission opens it up a bit more so that, by the end of it, you’re making your own calls. At this point that glorious old feeling returns – moving your squaddies around from point to point, trying to limit their exposure, and find the ideal moment to rip off a shot at a concealed alien. Sometimes with this kind of remake attempt you’re sternly reminded how rose-colored glasses can taint memory. Not so here. The X-COM formula can still work and it’s obvious with even just a half mission to really play.

– It’s playable. If you tried to play the original X-COM and found it all too convoluted, either originally or in trying to make it work today (which it really doesn’t so much), you’ll find this a much more approachable experience. It’s possible, for long term play, it’s oversimplified, but I appreciated in the demo the simplicity of each soldier having two actions to make that can consist of two moves or a move and fire. (There’s some variation here, but at its simplest, this is how it works.)

– The squaddies are distinguishable. For X-COM to work, having an attachment to your squaddies is essential and, although it doesn’t let you make any real decisions about squad composition, it’s clear that element is there. By the second mission I found myself wanting to protect my lone veteran soldier, ensuring he was in position to both have the greatest impact –Go rocket launcher! Go!– and not be exposed to aliens hiding in the shadows. The national flags on the back of each soldiers armor was a nice touch.

– All this does not mean the game is out of the woods. The formula may work, but it’s not at all evident from the demo how much variability and freedom the game will have. I’m not saying it won’t be there, but this demo is so limited that almost nothing of long-term value can be deduced from it. Research, mission selection, and more appear to be very A-B choices right now. Do the mission in the US and get some scientists or do the mission in China and get some money. Either way one country will like you and won will resent you for it, so it’s really just about which reward you want. I doubt all mission selection will be this binary, but if it is that would suck. I’m not for or against the action camera yet (see the screen above). It adds a certain something right now, but will it get as tiresome as slow-mo deaths in Fallout 3/New Vegas? It could. (Not that it matters all that much. You can turn it off.)

– The PC controls work. I’m not going to tell you that there’s no console design influence at play here, because there obviously is, but you can effectively use them and they don’t feel kludgey. The reality is this is not a PC-only game and to expect a more advanced/complicated interface is unrealistic. The only thing to hope for is that there’s a fair balance that doesn’t feel wholly compromised and that effort looks successful.

All in all I do wish the demo offered more, but that’s a testament to the fact that what it offered sets the stage for a game that could be every bit as remarkable as the original so long as, when the training wheels do come off, what’s left is an experience that’s every bit as variable, tense, and outright hilarious as we’re being led to believe. I’ve put a bunch of shots in the included gallery. Hopefully it works since I’m not used to doing those.