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XCOM: Enemy Unknown: On Making Old Things New Again, Action Figures, and Perma-Death

Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis and art director Greg Foertsch sit down to chat about the company's "re-imagining" of the classic strategy game.

If you want a prime example of how fickle (and sometimes needlessly dismissive) the video gaming audience can often be, look no further than 2K's upcoming multiheaded XCOM reboot attack. For a long while, we've known about 2K Marin's XCOM game, a shooter that blends the universe and some of the more strategic elements of the classic PC game. We've known about this far longer than we've known about Firaxis' more traditionally strategy-focused XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Because of this, we spent a long time watching as fans of the original XCOM games groused and grumbled about the fact that 2K Marin's XCOM wasn't really XCOM enough for their tastes. They dared to do something different with a beloved franchise, and that wasn't cool--at least, of course, until 2K finally got around to announcing Enemy Unknown. Now, suddenly, there was a "real" XCOM game, so the fact that a purportedly less real XCOM game existed wasn't as big of a deal.

The XCOM you knew (and feared) is pretty much front and center in Enemy Unknown.
The XCOM you knew (and feared) is pretty much front and center in Enemy Unknown.

To correct a common misconception, it's worth noting that both of these XCOM reboots/re-imaginings have been in development for nearly the same amount of time. Firaxis has been hard at work on Enemy Unknown for more than three years, and the two teams, while not collaborating directly, have often communicated back and forth to give each other a sense of what the other is doing. Basically, if you think that 2K suddenly brought out Enemy Unknown as a response to some of the more rancorous criticism coming from Internet commenters, then you're officially not giving Firaxis nearly enough credit. A proper XCOM remake is not something you can just put together in 18 months. Otherwise, why wouldn't some other studio have done it already?

According to Enemy Unknown's lead designer Jake Solomon, the idea of working on an XCOM remake/reboot/re-imaginging/whatever you want to call it has been in his blood for years. He's a superfan of the original games, as are some of the other key leads on the project I spoke to. Everybody at Firaxis wanted to make this game. To put it in the words of Firaxis art director Greg Foertsch, "I was ready. I was so ready."

What's Old Is New Again

What's really fascinating about Enemy Unknown is how closely it hews to the design and pace of the original XCOM--a game made 18 years ago, by the way. And yet, looking at it up close, I found myself unable to really think up other recent examples of games like XCOM that exist on modern hardware. There are strategy games, some that use both real-time and turn-based mechanics, but none quite like what MicroProse and Mythos Games developed all those years prior.

In that regard, seeing a game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown played is a familiar experience that suddenly feels new, and fresh. As Foertsch described it, "We think the market's right for something like this. The consoles are older than the last generation had gotten, so the console market is maturing, and not only that, but the gamers are maturing. I think you'll find a lot of people that want something that's familiar, but twisted. And that's a new experience."

But exactly how twisted, and how familiar, is this experience?

XCOM: Upgraded

Seeing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I wasn't able to put my hands on a controller (we probably won't get any hands-on time for a few months yet), but in watching lead producer Garth DeAngelis play for a room full of writers with varying degrees of familiarity with the franchise, and hearing Solomon describe the concepts and motivations behind each design decision, it wasn't too difficult to imagine how all this stuff works. After all, it really does look a lot like XCOM.

This new Berzerker unit is one of several new enemies in Enemy Unknown. Don't worry though, there are plenty of old favorites.
This new Berzerker unit is one of several new enemies in Enemy Unknown. Don't worry though, there are plenty of old favorites.

The squad-based, turn-based combat system of old has obviously been transported to a 3D realm in Enemy Unknown, but that extra dimension hasn't drastically altered the idea of what XCOM is. Fundamentally, you're still positioning your soldiers in key areas to best take out hordes of alien monsters. The plot was barely described, but suffice it to say, there are aliens, we don't know what their deal is, but we do know that they're fond of abducting humans, and we're not especially cool with that. Hence all the volleys of gunfire and explosions.

The game maintains an isometric viewpoint, but adds a number of layers to the previous combat design. For starters, there are now cover points, which players can position their soldiers in to give them the best, safest vantage point to kill whatever alien scum happen to be hanging around. The battlefields will be hand-designed, but will still come up in random order, save for a few specific missions that are story-specific. The idea behind this, of course, is to ensure that the experience is different on subsequent playthroughs. So while the geometry and architecture are hand-built, the order in which you'll experience these levels is randomized, and odds are you won't see the same exact levels on subsequent playthroughs.

Combat maintains the turn-based design of old, but eliminates time units. Instead, on their turn, players can maneuver soldiers into a nearby zone and have them perform one of their attack abilities, or they can move them further away and skip out on combat for a turn. It's a simplified version of the risk/reward system of old, which some old school players may gripe about, but nonetheless looks perfectly sensible in practice.

For those who like their old things to remain unchanged, you'll be pleased to know that the fog of war remains just as prevalent in Enemy Unknown, and the concept of perma-death still exists.

Building Your Ant Farm

Of course, permanent death doesn't mean you'll just run out of soldiers at some point and the game is over--at least, not unless you're literally just terrible at managing your resources. Soldiers, like all other resources in the game, are a commodity that must be purchased. Once you do have a squad together, you can name them whatever you want, outfit them how you like, and through an RPG-lite system new to Enemy Unknown, you'll be able to upgrade and up-level them as the game goes along. Instead of crafting gigantic back stories for every procedurally generated grunt, this is how you're meant to grow attached to your squad. When you're highly leveled sniper suddenly ends up dead, that's going to really suck, because (at least theoretically) you've spent time building that character into something both useful and personal.

Perma-death is typically viewed nowadays as a rather harsh punishment in games, but in the context of XCOM, it was never a question of if it would make it into Enemy Unknown, but rather a question of how.

The "ant farm" is where you'll do all your research, engineering, and soldier training. It kinda reminds me of one of those old, gigantic G.I. Joe playsets.

"It's different," said Foertsch. "It makes it harder. It's a pillar of XCOM. There was never a question about whether we should take it out. It was always a part of the design."

Should squad members die (it seems likely that at least a few will, after all), you can purchase new ones, alongside other various things in the game's hub world, which the Firaxis guys affectionately referred to as the "ant farm." This is also where you'll do things like engineer new weapons, and research alien technologies. Again, it's all about resource management, as you'll have to be careful not to blow too much scratch on one thing or another. It's all about balance, and tuning your resources to your play style.

The other thing about the ant farm is that it just looks cool. I remarked to DeAngelis and Foertsch that it kind of reminded me of one of those old action figure playsets, like Castle Greyskull or the Real Ghostbusters' firehouse. According to those guys, that's not an altogether surprising comparison.

A Squad of Digital Action Figures

When I asked Foertsch what some of the inspirations for Enemy Unknown's art style were (apart from the obvious XCOM-related trappings), he immediately compared the character designs to classic action figure designs. In his words:

"When we did this pre-vis [an early video Firaxis showed to 2K before the project was greenlit], we basically used most of the company as a focus group, so they didn't know what I was working on. No one knew. So we showed them the pre-vis, like I had these meetings with the whole company for two days. Like people could just come in for 15 minutes, sit down, and just let me have it. Rip me apart. So they came in, and one of the guys...because I think there was a little bit of confusion with people, he was like, 'So, wait, you're making soldiers like Call of Duty?' And I was like, "No..." And his response was, 'Well, you know, they sort of look like action figures.' And that was it. 'You're right. You're absolutely right.' And while I'd been working on this for several months, I had not actually articulated that. And at that moment, I was like, 'That's what they are.' That was that moment that set us down this path."

It went a step further when Firaxis actually hired a few new employees with a deep-seated love of miniatures. The idea of your characters effectively becoming your toys that you play with might sound childish to some, but in truth, any video game character is really just a toy that you play with--some just have stronger narratives than others. In this case, the idea is to give you these fully customizable toys that can create varying types of explosive alien death. Kind of hard to find much fault with that.

Making XCOM Console-Viable

One serious question I see brought up again and again by fans is how, exactly, XCOM can be easily transported to consoles. The answer? It can't be. Not easily, at least. One thing that's helped is that development between the console and PC versions of the game has occurred in parallel.

The turn-based strategy gameplay certainly gives off the vibe of old school XCOM--just with more dimensions, and more detailed soldiers.
The turn-based strategy gameplay certainly gives off the vibe of old school XCOM--just with more dimensions, and more detailed soldiers.

"I think it would have been a lot harder if we didn't treat them as separate things," said Foertsch. "Like, okay, here's the Xbox game, now port it to the PC? That would have been a problem. But that we've always treated them as parallel paths, especially from an interface standpoint, and that has actually made it a lot easier."

"It's been a challenge, but for me, especially from a production point of view," remarked DeAngelis. "I like putting constraints on things so we can get stuff done. To go to the design team and be like, 'Here's your controller. Tell me what we need from XCOM to map onto this controller.' So they really had to think about what was most important, and they really made it happen in an elegant way. I think we actually did some playtests, even just with some casual console players, without a tutorial, just handed them a controller and with just general gamer IQ, they were able to move around really quick and get into [combat.]"

The Great Unknown

There are still questions to be answered regarding XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While Firaxis claims that many of the battles will take place in multi-leveled scenery, the only level we've really seen thus far is the gas station section pictured above, which only has ground and rooftop levels. Similarly, we've seen little of what the research and engineering sections of the game will produce for the player. It's safe to assume that it will be a lot of special weaponry and gadgetry, but how all of it plays into the flow of combat remains to be seen.

Environments are, of course, destructible. Quite destructible, actually.
Environments are, of course, destructible. Quite destructible, actually.

And then there is the subject of personality, or perhaps a slight lack thereof. The units look pretty great, in that over-exaggerated action figure-y way, but the vocals assigned to each character are of that bargain basement action hero variety that all-too-often permeates any game with guns and things to be shot. I heard at least a few kill-celebrating one-liners cheesy enough to make even the Gears of War team blush. With any luck, that's just temporary audio. Please, let that be temporary audio.

Those questions aside however, I feel safe in saying that Firaxis' vision of XCOM doesn't fall too far from the vision of XCOM that every superfan has had dancing in their heads at varying points over the course of the last 18 years. In a strange way, I'm perhaps the poster-child for the kind of player Firaxis is reaching out to most with this game. I enjoy XCOM, and am familiar with it, but also haven't touched the first game in a bit more than a decade. I am someone who gets XCOM, but is far enough out of touch with it that I might as well be a new player, coming to the series for the first time. As someone both familiar with the series, and rediscovering it anew, Enemy Unknown is a game I very much want to play. Supposedly I, and everyone else, will get to do just that later this year.

In the meantime, feel free to check out this developer-narrated video look at XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and see for yourself how Firaxis has blended old and new into something that, certainly in this day and age, looks quite unique.

Alex Navarro on Google+