A small gray alien finds itself alone in the smoking remains of a forested battlefield. Everyone else - friend and foe alike - has fallen, yet it still stands victorious, a conquerer of worlds. And then, the unthinkable happens: SNAP. A beartrap closes around its exposed footflesh. It yelps in pain, which draws the attention of one remaining human survivor. The two immediately lock eyes, but this is no staring contest. It's a staring war. But then, the solider lowers his gun and pulls apart the beartrap's blood-caked jaws. He proceeds to help his one-time enemy up, at which point we cut immediately to a montage of the two skipping merrily through sunflower fields, pushing each other on a swing set, and making silly faces in a photo booth. "Wow," declares the president one minute and 47 seconds later, after the montage has ushered in an era of peace. "If we'd just gotten to know our enemy, everything would've been so much easier."
I will imagine this sequence every time humans and aliens team up in XCOM: Enemy Unknown's multiplayer. Every single time.
OK, so that aspect of multiplayer kinda flies in the face of XCOM's central tenet (aliens bad, humans good), but Firaxis has been sure to note that it's not actually tied to the narrative in any way. The rest, meanwhile, actually sounds pretty solid - if somewhat basic. In short, you begin by assembling an army composed of whichever units you'd like - provided, of course, that you have the necessary funds for them. So says the announcement:
"Players can mix and match both alien and soldier units to comprise their squad, outfitting soldiers with dozens of armor types, weapons, items and class-based abilities for thousands of possible loadout combinations. These dream squads of up to six units are built using a point cap that can be scaled for players to fight in small skirmishes all the way up to epic battles. Matches can be modified by point limit or time limit per turn."
After that, combat proceeds as you'd expect, with each side having only a short amount of time (it's scalable, but 115 seconds is the default) per turn to make their moves. So, in short, it's new-school XCOM, but with another person. No crazy modes. No Mass-Effect-style single-player crossover shenanigans. Just smart, fast-paced strategy.
Meanwhile, Eurogamer's preview (which is well worth a read) notes that Firaxis plans to monitor players' strategies post-launch and modify multiplayer accordingly. Lead designer Jake Solomon's referring to it as letting players "crowd source the design," which sounds like a nice sentiment given how beloved this series is. Only time, however, will tell rather post-release support ends up being an obnoxious rollercoaster of nerfs and buffs or something more measured and substantial.
All told, though, it sounds pretty simple, but fairly harmless in the grand scheme of things. I do sort of wish Firaxis tried harder to leverage the sense of fear and dread a good X-Com match can create, but if that energy's instead being directed into single-player, you won't hear any complaints from me.