Preview: XCOM: Enemy Unknown «

Preview: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to look this good in action. As a die-hard fan of the original X-COM: UFO Defense, I’ve been waiting 18 years for someone to make a new game that’d live up to the name. After Firaxis showed me a demo of four specialized XCOM soldiers taking down a few packs of aliens, for the first time in a long time I’m hopeful that it might actually happen.

So much is the same, yet so much is different. I love the look of it — the slightly cartoonish soldiers (whose names and looks are fully customizable,) the oversized weaponry you can spot a mile away, the eerie lighting, and of course the completely destroyable urban terrain. I love the active feeling that Firaxis has given this turn-based tactical combat with clever use of mini-cinematics and a camera that zooms in to interesting viewpoints when soldiers take their shots. I loved watching the Sniper soldier use a grappling hook to quickly climb to the roof of a gas station, and the Support soldier pin a creepy-looking Sectoid in place so that the Heavy Weapons guy could toss a grenade at him.

At the same time, it’s too early to tell how to feel about the revamped movement and action system, which does away with the old time unit system in favor of an admittedly much simpler and more intuitive one move and one action per turn setup. I’m a little nervous about limitations like squad size being capped at six troops, since losing a single soldier is now a 17 percent loss of a squad’s firepower — I never left a base with less than 10 troops in my Skyranger in the original.

And I’m downright antsy about the way certain weapons, such as a sniper rifle, can only be equipped by certain soldier classes, and weapons and gear can’t be picked up off the body of a fallen ally (or enemy) mid-mission. The one thing I saw in this demo that hadn’t yet been revealed was a new alien, called the Berserker. He’s roughly the same size and build as a Muton (read: hulking), but red instead of green and equipped with spikes on his fists for better smashing. Demonstrating how dangerous these guys are, Firaxis moved the Support soldier near one of the walls of the building the Berserker was hiding in and ended the turn. The Berserker huffed and puffed and charged the wall, knocking it down and exposing the soldier. The big alien grabbed him and beat the living hell out of him, until he went limp and one of his squadmates cried “He’s gone!” Oh yeah, I also love permanent soldier death.

After the demo I sat down with Lead Designer Jake Solomon to discuss what I’d just seen. So many questions, so little time.

GameSpy: I noticed in the demo, there were a lot of one-shot kills. Particularly on Mutons…with conventional weapons.

Jake Solomon: Right. That’s the old demo magic. If you had a leveled-up assault soldier, you could potentially crit a Muton with a shotgun. But I wouldn’t bet on it, I guess, is what I’d say. I think that by the time you run into Mutons you’d better have some upgraded gear for sure. But through the old demo magic, we were able to pull off some pretty lucky shots there.

GameSpy: The equipment that we saw on the soldiers — is that more or less stuff that you’ll start with?

JS: Yeah. That’s stuff you start with. Across the board, the conventional stuff, the idea is that XCOM has the best of the best when the game starts, as far as world technology. You’ve got access to those sniper rifles, LMGs, shotguns — the player starts with that. But from that point on, it’s basically…up.

GameSpy: If you’ve got no ammo restrictions on there, how do you keep the rocket launcher guy from demolishing the entire map?

JS: Oh, but we do have ammo restrictions. Especially for things like the rocket launcher and inventory-item things like grenades. Those are inventory locked. The rocket launcher actually does have a restriction on it, you really only start with one rocket. Now, you can have abilities that increase that capability, but no, the rocket launcher is a limited-use weapon for sure.

GameSpy: When the rocket soldier runs out of rockets, what does he do?

JS: He uses his gun. The heavy’s the only guy who carries the rocket launcher, so he still has a big-ass gun that he can use. The rocket launcher is sort of like the special thing that defines his class.

GameSpy: The class thing — that unlocks after they level up a couple of times, right?

JS: Yeah. They all start as rookies, and then they level into a class. Again, this is sort of a continuation, for me, design-wise. XCOM is very much about playing with the hand you’re dealt. Dealing with soldiers being wounded, soldiers being killed. This plays into that, the idea being that when soldiers level up, they reveal a proficiency for one of these classes. And the classes aren’t meant to be limiters, they’re not meant to be drawbacks at all. All soldiers are good at killing aliens. And so the classes are meant to be augments on the top of that. Every soldier across the board is going to be equally good at killing, but the extra-cool things that they do are added by their classes.

GameSpy: One thing we didn’t see in the demo — but it’s the absence of it that was notable — was that you were operating in an urban area but I didn’t see any civilians.

JS: Oh, yeah. But in terror missions there will definitely be civilians. You will still be herding cats. So when you go on terror missions, like on the original game, you’ve gotta manage that. The aliens are going for civilians, and they’re going for your troops at the same time, while you’re trying to rescue in a destroyed urban environment. So yeah, they’ll definitely make a return.

GameSpy: Will there be police officers or other armed civilians in there?

JS: You’ll encounter other troops from around the world in the game, for sure.

GameSpy: It’s obviously very heavily inspired by UFO Defense. Is there anything in there from Terror from the Deep or Apocalypse?

JS: No. For this one, I basically just stayed with Enemy Unknown [the original UK name for X-COM: UFO Defense is UFO: Enemy Unknown]. For me, I love Terror from the Deep for what it is. I love Apoc, actually a lot. But I drew all the inspiration for this game, and the team drew all their inspiration, from that original game. I think the special thing about that is the fact that it is the setting really resonates. Terror from the Deep was awesome, but that was fought, obviously, mostly underwater. Something like Enemy Unknown, you can look out the window and see the scene that we showed today. That, to me, is why it was always so special.

GameSpy: We saw three different alien types in this one map, but in the original there were pairs of aliens that worked together.

JS: The symbiotic pairs, yeah, sure, like Cyberdisc/Sectoid, yeah. We still have that relationship, but tactically I just wanted those maps to have the mix. Tactically it’s kinda fun to go into a map, you see one group of aliens, but you still don’t know what the other group of aliens is. There’s always that tension of how you could face off against all these different aliens. So yeah, we still do have aliens that have an affinity for each other. But in a lot of missions, we mix it up even more, where we have three or four different types of aliens on the map at the same time.

GameSpy: Does that type of diversity replace the different ranks of aliens, or will there still be alien commanders and soldiers and engineers?

JS: You’re right, that basically does replace that idea of the different ranks, you have the engineer, you get the hyperwave, all that stuff. That is something that we haven’t included in this game. That diversity of species has replaced the ranking system within the aliens.

GameSpy: Early on I noticed a couple things. One was in the UI, it gave the objective of the mission, which was to sweep and kill all the aliens. Which implies the existence of other objectives…

JS: Yes, absolutely. We’re trying to recreate a lot of the mission types from the original, but a lot of those mission objectives were extermination. Even terror, it’s like you’re trying to save civilians while exterminating aliens. And we do have some other missions, called council missions, which can be generated by members of the council. Those have lots of varying sub-objectives.

GameSpy: That’s like where Japan will ask you to do something in exchange for scientists?

JS: Yeah, for a lot of different rewards. But it could be, rescue a VIP, things like that. We do have missions with more varied sub-objectives as well.

GameSpy: So there will be missions where you’ll go into an alien base and extract a hostage?

JS: Well, not that specifically, but something like that, yeah. Cases of hostage extraction, VIP rescue, things like that.

GameSpy: One thing that’s always irked me about the original X-COM is that when somebody gets killed, it doesn’t tell me who got killed. I noticed your demo didn’t tell me the name of the dead soldier either. I guess if you’ve only got six guys, that’s less of a problem?

JS: No, you’re absolutely right, and in fact we have a UI screen, the next thing, that we didn’t show in the demo. When you come back to base, in addition to that science debrief, there’s also a soldier debrief. So when you get back you’re going to see this listing out of all your soldiers, pictures over here, and it’ll say either “promoted to so and so, these are their stat changes,” and then you can go and do the actual promotion, but it’ll also have KIAs here. It’ll list out every one of your soldiers and what happens to them. Some of them will be wounded, out of commission 14 days, some of them will be straight up KIA. You’ll see all that at the end of the mission. You don’t miss anything, man. I like that.

GameSpy: The other major thing at the very beginning is the auto-deployment. No more taking soldiers out of the Skyranger?

JS: This is true. We do have auto-deployment, because there were some moments in deployment that… I guess they were very X-COM. You step your guys off and you get blasted or someone would already be in reaction fire up there.

GameSpy: The D-Day moment.

JS: Right, exactly. And everyone would just step off over the bodies of the people in front of them. But yeah, now, basically, the player starts deployed from the dropship. We actually had it where they deployed from the Skyranger, so in the first turn they deployed from the Skyranger, and what we found is that a lot of times it was just… It sort of added two extra turns of deploying off the dropship that felt the same for every map. Now, there were some moments where aliens were lying in wait, but we wanted it to start where the player has a safe spot to start, and their first move was tactically different every time.

GameSpy: For the geoscape, and the map view, I assume that you only get one base this time around.

JS: That’s true. You only get one base, and there are a couple reasons for that. But you have one base, and then you have hangar bases on every other continent that you expand your interceptor force into. So you still do interceptions on every continent, or every continent where you have satellite coverage. But the one base, also at the beginning of the game, when you choose what that continent is, every continent has specific bonuses associated with it. So the starting point has a difference in terms of what bonus you’ll get, and as you add more satellites, then the bonuses increase on that continent. So there’s a draw to expand your satellite coverage to other continents, because you’re getting those continent bonuses, and there’s also an exponential reward for keeping your satellites on the same continent.

That’s one of the things that happens on the geoscape. And then, because we have one base, and this is where research takes place and engineering takes place, and all your soldiers are now in the barracks at this one base, the base-building is a little more involved. We have new facilities, and there are one-off facilities, but there are also facilities where, as you build them, the adjacency becomes more important. As you start to excavate, then you want to keep your, let’s say your satellite uplinks or your power stations or your laboratories, adjacent to each other, because they all offer distinct bonuses if they’re built horizontally or vertically adjacent. Things like that.

GameSpy: Does that base ever come under attack?

JS: Yeah. Later missions, we’re not talking about.

GameSpy: I noticed you’ve turned scanning for UFOs into some kind of active gameplay thing?

JS: No, actually all that is is basically fast-forward. Saying “scan for activity” is basically a way of saying “carry on.” Let’s fast-forward at the one-day rate basically.

GameSpy: How have you made the interception mini-game not suck?

JS: A fair question. Interception is still in, and it’s still a pretty short experience, because we didn’t want to add a whole third game. We thought two games was enough for one game, you know? Combat, strategy. We haven’t shown it off yet, but it actually has more gameplay elements to it. But yeah, we’re not talking about it just yet. Yes, we’re aware.

GameSpy: It would be hard to make it any more simple than it was. “Push the ‘shoot down’ button and wait.”

JS: We could say “stance” and then “just wait, baby”…

GameSpy: For the tactical maps, how big are those, and how have you avoided the bug-hunt scenario?

JS: They range. The map that we showed down in the demo was a pretty small map. That was a couple of buildings and the surrounding geography. And they range pretty big. If you can imagine that you can shoot down some capital ships, you can get some pretty big ships on the ground, those are some pretty big maps. They range in size pretty good. Even the urban maps range in size. So yeah, the idea of that last remaining Sectoid who’s wandering around out somewhere, or even worse, Terror from the Deep… You know what I’m talking about. The cruise liners and you have to find the exact closet.

One way that’s combated is that you can hear aliens and aliens can hear you in this game. We didn’t show this in the demo, but you can actually get audio cues. There’s a system that I wrote called the Overmind, and that’s basically the alien player. These aliens are out there and they’re not static, they’re all patrolling and moving around and doing their thing. But they can hear when things happen. If you just kick in a door — There are a couple of ways to open a door in XCOM — if you move up next to a door and take cover then you have the option of pushing the door open, and that’s silent, but if you were to just path through the door, then your guy’s going to run up to it, boot the door in, and then continue on. And that’s better if you want to move further, but that’s not as good because any aliens in the area are going to hear that, and they’re going to let you know. “Okay, I just heard it.” They hear all kinds of things, glass breaking, guns going off. And as a result you can also hear aliens as well. On some of the bigger maps, like some of the nature maps, some of the UFO maps and things like that, we have to make sure that the player is directed. But because you can hear the aliens, typically you don’t find yourself just wandering around in empty space for turn after turn.

GameSpy: Is there any replay function? Like from the original, if I saw an alien run into my vision for a couple of steps and then leave again, I wouldn’t even be able to tell on the map where that was.

JS: Where that occurred. Well, the way we’re trying to do that, too, in the original you had camera cuts. In ours, that’s a lot of interpolated camera movement. So we’ve tried to make it so that when that sort of thing occurs, we’re not doing cuts. We basically interpolate and from here, we go *whoop* and show you — okay, this guy’s moving — and then we interpolate back. So a lot of times you have a pretty good idea about that stuff. We’ve talked about other things, but right now that’s what we’re doing.

GameSpy: I did get a great sense of action, more action than I thought I would get out of any turn-based game, from all these mini-cutscenes. All the actions, the kills, the shots. The one thing that worried me about that is, if that happens every time, is it going to get repetitive? And speaking of which, did the aliens get some kind of reaction movement turn when they were spotted?

JS: Yeah, the scamper. When you reveal they get the scamper… It depends on when you encounter them. If they hear you, suddenly they won’t come hunting you, they’ll go into overwatch and wait for you to appear. It depends on what type of map, what they’re doing. But yeah, when you reveal them, the aliens get a scamper to…cover… Well, some aliens get an aggressive scamper. It just depends. In that case, when you revealed them, they all scampered. The Mutons too.

GameSpy: You had that mini-cutscene in there where you spot them, and they look up and go “Oh! Hello!” and they run away. Does that happen every time I spot a group of aliens?

JS: That happens every time you spot a group of aliens. Now, to be fair, the demo is kind of condensed gameplay. That was only three or four turns and typically your abduction missions are going to last a little longer than that. I mean, it’s the sort of thing we’ve always worried about. We’ve always worried about that. Is this the sort of thing where it’s going to get repetitive? But when we actually played it, man, I’ve seen those cutscenes more than anybody on Earth. And I don’t get tired of them, because they’re really fast. When you’re actually playing the game, you’ve got that XCOM, like, “oh shit!” You move too far, and you’re like, “oh shit!” I think it adds to the feel. We have the potential, of course… It wouldn’t bother me if we gave people the option say, “Nah, I don’t want to see the mini-cameras,” or “Cinema cameras first” or something like that. That’s not something we’ve implemented but that’s definitely not something I’m opposed to either.

GameSpy: One last really quick one: is there a hex grid under everything, or a regular grid? How does that work?

JS: It’s free movement, actually.

GameSpy: So no grid?

JS: Yeah, no grid.