Few games currently in development are burdened by the kind of expectation that weighs on XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
As a series, XCOM doesn’t have the kind of mainstream cachet that Call of Duty, World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto all enjoy today. It comes from an era when the now-ubiquitous first-person shooter was an exciting new concept, before games such as Ultima Online and Everquest popularised the massively multiplayer game, and back when “open world” meant going outside.
Despite this, XCOM has a pedigree that pre-dates such highly successful franchises. Released in 1994, it belongs to an older generation of gamers, to people who embraced that descriptor long before gaming enjoyed the kind of cultural credibility it has today, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned blockbusters.
To these people, XCOM is not only a dearly cherished cult game they don’t wish to see trampled or fettered by the urge to appeal to modern sensibilities, it’s one they hope will succeed and spark a small classic gaming renaissance.
X-COM: UFO Defense, the first game in the series, posits that Earth has been beset by a galaxy of alien species bent on scouring humanity from the planet. The player is the commander of XCOM, an international defence force charged with engaging devious aliens in turn-based, heavily strategic combat, and with bolstering XCOM’s capacity, all the while negotiating the needs of the besieged constituent nations it relies upon for resources. It was as challenging, as escalating and as entertaining as it sounds.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown adheres to that formula. The game is in development at Firaxis, the studio behind the highly popular Civilization strategy games, something that goes a long way towards alleviating the collective fears of XCOM fans. Even so, Firaxis was eager to demonstrate it’s taking its responsibility to fans very seriously at a media event in New York last week.
“Who owns XCOM, a game that’s 18 years old?” began Firaxis’ lead designer Jake Solomon in an interview with Gameplanet. “To a great extent, the reason it’s still around and the reason it still resonates is because there are people who have kept it alive. We’ve [all] read about, we’ve talked about it. We have websites devoted to it eighteen years after it was made. So that sense of ownership is probably fair for some of these guys who are like, ‘Look man, I’ve been running a website for all these years…’”
Greg Foertsch, lead artist on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, joined Firaxis many years ago after working at MicroProse on such XCOM titles as Apocalypse, Enforcer and Interceptor. Community feedback is something Foertsch follows very closely. Even the smallest artistic changes to XCOM can be met with extreme resistance, he says. “A lot of fans were very distraught when they heard me say we’re moving the camera.” At prescribed times, and only when the player is not in control, Firaxis will move the camera to add some cinematic excitement to a game that is otherwise fixed to an isometric perspective. In spite of fan concerns, the change adds a hefty dollop of drama to the turn-based strategy.
“Nobody in user feedback that we’ve seen or heard from has said that it’s too much,” continues Foertsch. “But we’re very sensitive about that: what’s right for the user rather than what’s right for our artistic vision – what is going to be the best for the player.”
“You know, it’s always tough because all of those emotions, good or bad, they all come from a good place, it’s because they’re passionate about what we’re doing,” adds Solomon. “And a lot of times if there is angst, it comes from the fact that players can’t have their hands on it.”
A demonstration of the game strongly suggests that many of those concerns can be allayed. It begins with an XCOM tactical force deployed at night on a map populated by a gas station, a convenience store and a diner – perhaps more. The urban district features cars with doors still open; gas nozzles still hanging from fuel tanks, neon signs unenthusiastically endorsing products. The only missing element in this otherwise mundane setting is any sign of its human occupants. The fog of war that limits the XCOM team’s visibility heightens the eeriness of the seemingly empty setting. Then, as the team uses its turn to fan out and take up defensive positions, they sight their enemy: the psionic Sectoids.
Short, grey, and with large bulbous eyes, Enemy Unknown’s Sectoid is true to the original’s, but it wasn’t always so, explains Foertsch. As with all the game’s assets, “We wanted to be guided by [the original] but not slaves to it, you know?” When designing Enemy Unknown’s Sectoid, “We looked at the original, we talked about some of the things that we liked about it or didn’t like about it, looked at the abilities and attributes that he had, and then put that all aside, gave it to the concept guys and said ‘go’.
“At one point he was seven feet tall. We looked at stretching him out because with our game view, a more lengthy character reads better from the tactical camera view.
“We were changing it, and we were going too far. So we eventually ended up with another character that’s about four feet tall, it’s the grey that everybody knows from [X-COM: UFO Defense], but it’s a little more menacing. It’s not the little pudgy dude that looks more like E.T., but he’s definitely connected. Once we finished him and brought up the old Sectoid, we were like, ‘Wow, we’re not that far off.’”
Where the studio has added new content – including a type of infiltrating alien that is seven feet tall – it has always sought out concepts that are widely known, understood and compelling within alien fiction, says Foertsch.
“The thing about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that we’re really looking for that tangibility with just a twist of the unexpected, or fantastic.” The Thin Man is a gaunt figure in a suit with extremely elongated limbs. “You look at him, and the Agents from Matrix, and Slender Men: everybody knows what ‘the agent in the suit’ is. So we take him and we give him a little bit of a twist.”
Back at the gas station, the fight is going well for the XCOM operatives. A heavy weapons specialist has suppressed the Sectoids under heavy fire, allowing an assault class trooper to take up a flanking position with a clear shot at the invaders. Meanwhile, the sniper has grappled to an advantageous position atop the gas station forecourt. Each class has particular mechanics. The sniper, for example, can only ever move or shoot, whereas the assault has a special ability to move long distances and shoot in a single turn. It’s chess as spectacle: players will need to think turns ahead, and be prepared to adjust their strategy in response to the aliens’ actions.
With the Sectoids dispatched, the team moves across the map towards the adjacent diner. Our assault trooper has scrambled up a ladder to the roof of the gas station itself. The heavy has assumed a position covering our support class operative who has now braced himself against the wall next to the diner’s front entrance. The opposition’s turn begins and several Mutons – hulking aliens with large blades appended to their forearms – reveal themselves within the diner. The bad news for our support trooper is that XCOM’s environments are destructible. Through the walls a brutish Muton charges, killing our support agent outright.
“We want it to be a challenging experience, challenge is a part of the design,” says Solomon. Our support trooper, whom we’ve nurtured from raw recruit to hardened extraterrestrial executioner, whom we’ve laboriously promoted, outfitted and trained, is dead never to return, and another fresh recruit – if we can find one – will need to fill his very large combat boots.
“There’s no way to include something like perma-death and not make the game challenging,” states Solomon. “There has to be challenge. There has to be consequences. You can lose soldiers, you can lose countries supporting you, you can lose the overall game.”
In retaliation, our heavy fires an RPG at the diner. Through the rubble our deadly sniper now has line of sight, and in placing the Muton in his crosshairs, pulls the trigger. The raging Muton, bellowing and straddling our fallen comrade, suddenly goes limp and collapses meekly on the diner’s tiled floor. It’s been a difficult and costly engagement for XCOM, but, as Solomon points out, “Your success in the game is real success because you’re struggling against real consequences.”
XCOM is, as Solomon calls it, “an oddball.” It’s a game that can be lost, and lost spectacularly. But in an era of game development where all setbacks are only as temporary as the most recent checkpoint, XCOM's ruthless gameplay looks set to make for a very welcome change.