Q: We haven't seen or heard from "the shooter formerly known as XCOM" for some time. Now it has been renamed The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, and its clear much has changed. Where to begin?
Bihary: There are some pillars we’d like to talk about today. One is the tone and the setting, then we’re going to talk about your agents and the Battle Focus, then combat and consequences.
But let me give you a little backstory briefly about what The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is bringing to the table. The premise is that it’s 1962, the United States – North America – during the height of the Cold War. There’s a lot of tension, there are a lot of unknowns in terms of foreign powers, and at the time, it was a very peaceful domestic environment, tapering off at the end of the ‘50s, and sort of a golden age.
But right around the ‘60s as we’re headed into the Bay Of Pigs, and coming out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK put together a crack team of very key operatives that were forming his CIA into The Bureau. The main focus of The Bureau was to defuse foreign threats from Soviet or communist parties, as well as to cover them up to ensure the populace at large was feeling comfortable and focused on feeling safe.
Little did they know that the Bureau would eventually end up through a series of large events early in the story, the Bureau would transition from being an intelligence organisation focused on the Cold War threat and the Soviets, morphing it into catching a large alien threat, alien force that has appeared that is very dangerous.
So that’s the background of the Bureau, the origin of XCOM. Enter agent Carter. He is a seasoned CIA agent with his own set of personal demons. He’s there for ground zero, day one of the Bureau, and along with the two agents you take onto the field with you, he is charged with meeting the alien threat head on, as well as continuing to cover them up.
Finley: I think what’s important to know about the gameplay is that you as William Carter are in control of both yourself and your team of agents. It’s a third-person tactical squad-based shooter, so you have the ability to scan the battlefield in real-time, build a plan and execute that plan based on both what tactical options the battlefield allows, and what you and your agent brought on the mission. That could include weapons, as well as what abilities the agents and William Carter have. It’s essentially the aliens’ tech turned against them, they’ll be able to bring power-ups to the battlefield that can give them a tactical advantage, so that even if you’re out-numbered on the battlefield, you won’t be outgunned.
So Battle Focus allows you to look at the battlefield, build a plan for yourself and your agents, and then execute that plan in real-time. Now, you can do it via this tactical planning mode that slows down time – it doesn’t stop it – or you can do it via Quick Orders, kind of like the Audibles in American football.
Q: Is base-building and character progression still a part of the game?
Finley: Yes, every time you kill an enemy you and your agents gain experience that you can use to gain new abilities and perks. You have a choice of which of those you choose.
Bihary: This isn’t a base-management game, it’s a battlefield management game, so we want the player to spend most of their mindshare and imagination on how they and their agents are going to engage on the battlefield. The agents have classes, we’ve got a support class, a recon class, a commando, and engineer, and you can use those agents in different combinations on the battlefield to be very creative.
The offering the base presents is much more narrative structure, and what you get from the base is more passive, rather than you spending a lot of time figuring out where you’re going to invest credits or how you’re going to build out this space. That’s not the purpose of the base in out game. It gives you cool shit, but you don’t have to do a lot to get it from the base.
Q: A core pillar of the XCOM franchise has been agent progression, perma-death, and meaningful decisions. Can we expect these in The Bureau?
Finley: Absolutely. If you lose and agent on the battlefield, even if you’ve ranked up that agent as far as you can, if he dies, he’s gone forever, and we think that adds tension – it’s one of the core values of the franchise: tactics, tools, team, terror and tension. We think that perma-death really heightens both the terror and the tension.
Thinking about the setting, what were some of the inspirations, and reference materials you worked with to understand and communicate that to players.
Bihary: A lot of the tone we have comes from the architecture and the juxtaposition of that late ‘50s, early sixties urban sprawl, and the juxtaposition between that and the alien technology. There are current events that occur, but the tension of the unknown – what are these threats? What are these forces that might do harm to America? – they’re the catalysts for The Bureau. We’ve borrowed from history, but we’re not creating an accurate timeline because this is a game about aliens attacking the US.
Finley: Yeah, we do a few things to ground the game historically. There’s a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover in it, as you drive through a small town you’ll see architecture that clicks with that late ‘50s vibe.
Q: Can you elaborate on Battle Focus?
Bihary: Battle Focus is a circular UI element that appears on the screen that is divided into three pie sections. One pie section is for Carter, for his abilities, one pie section is for one agent, and the other pie section is for the other agent. Within these pie sections are commands such as moving, using abilities and taking cover.
It’s a very clean way of quickly getting the player, who is under duress, under fire, to command his agents quickly and execute his tactics.
Finley: To be clear the agents have AI that’s functional and works in the world, but you guys are better as a team, and playing as a team is really the core of the game.
Q: Variety in types of enemies and their combination has also always been important to the XCOM franchise, is that something you’ll be replicating here?
Finley: You’ll see Sectoids, but you’ll also see the Titan, which is an enemy we devised for this game. It’s one that really works in this work. What we really tried to do – our goal was to tell this origin story of how the XCOM we all know now in XCOM: Enemy Unknown could have come to be. Part of that was imagining under what scenario we would have had a menagerie of aliens showing up on Earth. We built a fiction to help understand that ourselves, and that made some of both the classic pantheon and our new aliens fit into the story and make sense.
Bihary: We borrowed a lot, where we could, and where it made sense for our game. What made sense for us was ‘what aliens can we introduce, what visual language – things like the shield to signify taking cover – [can we borrow], as well as the whole aspect of perma-death that we took very seriously as XCOM canon.
So it’s not just about aliens, there are a variety of things that we’ve borrowed from the XCOM universe. Some we’ve moulded how we needed to, and some things we’ve just left pure.
Q: The development of this game has been divisive amongst the community. How have you worked through that as a studio?
Finley: I think what’s happened is that we’ve had a game that we’ve been working on and iterating on. We’ve been trying to find the parts that work to make them better, and to find the parts that don’t work and change them.
I can understand how from your point of view, you’ve seen the game from just a couple of windows into different points of development, and [the change seems substantial], but its been very iterative. For example, we started out as a first-person game, and as we were playing around and checked ourselves against our core pillars, we felt that the team experience wasn’t really coming across in that first-person experience even though we wanted it to be there.
So we looked at different ways we could bring that out in the game. That led to a first- third-person-hybrid version that we showed at E3 in 2011, and that was really when we were starting to play around with how to control agents on the battlefield, how to build and execute a plan in real-time in a way that appeals to a real-time gamer, but still have that feeling of squad control that you need.
I think where we are right now is the best iteration of that exact dynamic. How to feel in control, how to do cool stuff, and how you as the player still have a stake in the game – you’re in there with your guns, with your abilities, and it’s the coordination of the team that makes the gameplay interesting.
Bihary: I always find it interesting, I’ve been in the industry for a long time, to think during creation of games, you try to identify what the really cool components of your game are, what emerge as winners, and you foster those into pillars if they weren’t already. That happens in every game, we just offered a lot of visibility into it, because you could see the transition from first-person into third-person.
In every game there’s stuff that changes, stuff that, if the consumer had visibility, they’d be like, ‘Oh my god! What are you doing!?’ But that’s just how you get to the good in your game: by allowing those opportunities through the course of development to happen, to find that good idea, then rally the team around it, to say, ‘this third-person Battle Focus, this feels good. I’ve got more control of the battlefield, the visual language makes sense to me.’ That’s a healthy part of the development of every game, and that’s why we actually took advantage of it.