One of the lesser-known booths in the 2K Games section of PAX East’s exhibition hall belonged to none other than XCOM Enemy Unknown — Firaxis’ modern-day retelling of the 1994 strategy classic.

In January, Firaxis stepped from the shadows and announced that they were working on the true successor to the original 1994 classic. Fans were elated, of course, but then skeptical. It’s all too common for today’s remakes to end up as commercially-viable trainwrecks, rather than solid products that retain the essence of their forebears.

With all of this firmly in our minds, we entered the booth at PAX and saw 15 or so minutes of actual gameplay, and we can say this with absolute certainty: XCOM Enemy Unknown appears to be in excellent hands.

Clearly the Firaxis team working on this project are steadfast fans of the original game, through and through. Hearing the way they talk about their love for the original XCOM Enemy Unknown is inspiring. It appears they have nothing but  the deepest admiration and respect for the source material, and have no agenda other than to make 1994’s XCOM Enemy Unknown all over again, just with today’s technology and insight. During our interview with the game’s Lead Producer, Garth Deangelis, he made his team’s manifesto very clear:

“The original game is one of the most revered strategy games of the 1990’s. First and foremost, we wanted to re-imagine the original, but uphold the spirit of the game. It needed to be highly replayable, we needed the strategy layer — with all the decision you can make — on a grand scale. From researching and engineering, responding to missions on the Geoscape, we needed it to be tactical, we needed it to be turn-based. Making decisions that affect your team members permanently. All that stuff is there. Fog of war, the same aliens. We wanted to bring all of that to the modern day.”

PAX East 2012 XCOM Enemy Unknown Gas Station

Judging from the gameplay demo, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. The isometric 3D viewpoint of the original is there. The fog of war on the outskirts of the area is there, inferring just as much mystery as before. The Sectoid — the traditional gray aliens — are there and, of course, the XCOM squad is there, albeit with a wardrobe redesign.

These marines are certainly a departure from the purple jump-suited XCOM squad members from 1994. Now they look like modern little space marines. Although this may trigger alarm bells for some purists, but Deangelis offers a sound explanation.

“They are heavily inspired by… it’s a turn based game, you’ve gotta think back, I don’t know if when you were young you had GI Joe’s… You’d move those action figures around… and these guys have that GI Joe ‘action figure’ feel. You know, oversized weapons, not super realistic,  and we think it really fits the genre well.”

These little space marines do work in this environment, and definitely fit into the UFO-lore campiness that makes XCOM unique, while giving them a modern look for newcomers.

So what else is new and what stayed the same? For starters, the core turn-based strategy gameplay is very much in-place. Unit movement has been improved and now the user interface paints waypoints and path lines on the fly as the player decides their course of action. Some of these waypoint paths now work as cover points, wherever taking cover is an option. Additionally, the viewpoint can be switched from isometric view to 3rd-person over-the-shoulder, bringing players right into the action if they so choose.

XCOM Enemy unknown Preview Gas Station

One example of the new enriching the old is in the XCOM marines’ leveling up system. Knowing that players’ attachments to their marines formed one of the core pillars of the original XCOM experience, Firaxis have capitalized on that by implementing leveling and an XP system that will allow players to unlock new weapons and abilities for each marine over time as they earn them. This means that each marine will be unique and bring something different to the battlefield.

This balance of old reverence vs. modern market tastes permeates every facet of the game from what we see in the demo, but so far, Firaxis seems to have hit that perfect balance. A good example of this is the Geoscape — possibly the most iconic and recognizable screen of the original XCOM game — of course returns, but with a glorious splash of current-gen paint. According to XCOM‘s Associate Producer, Pete Murray, players will no longer be able to build new bases in other continents to widen Earth’s UFO detection grid. Instead, new satellites can be constructed in their place. Essentially, the end result is the same, but there are now less game systems in the way to accomplishing it.

PAX East 2012 XCOM Enemy unknown Preview Geoscape

If the prospect of having only one XCOM base sends fans to the angry forums, they needn’t despair. The one base you do get is a great one.

Perhaps the biggest visual departure of them all lies in the XCOM base. Gone is the sterile, top-down base layout. In its place is something Deangelis calls ‘The Antfarm’, and that’s an apt term indeed. XCOM’s base is now viewed sideways-on, and is absolutely massive. We judged the base in the demo to be at a state somewhat far into the game, just by the sheer number and variety of rooms it was sporting. As in the previous game, each modular room section can be added to the player’s base to perform a specific function, be it a science lab, marine domicile, research, etc., and is filled with the appropriate equipment and staff for that purpose. The animation really stands out in this one example, as each of the twenty-or-so rooms we saw was bustling with activity, from the machines whirring and pumping, to the marines doing push-ups.

XCOM Enemy unknown Preview ant hill engineering

Our time with XCOM Enemy Unknown was brief, and we certainly had way more questions than Deangelis had time to answer. Apparently the game is feature-complete and now they’re in the polishing and tuning phase, aiming for a Fall 2012 release. Before we left, though, we had to ask one last question: Is the waypoint-guided missile launcher in the new game? Deangelis laughed, saying, “We’re not talking about that at the moment.” We pushed the point a little further, specifying how the player could set waypoints for the rocket so that it would travel into an alien spacecraft and down hallways and corridors, to which he replied, smiling, “I agree its a cool idea. I agree it worked in the original.”

XCOM Enemy Unknown is currently slated for a Fall 2012 release for PC, XBox 360 and PS3.