Halfway through my hands-on of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified I was rather startled by someone tapping on my arm saying that it was time for my interview with Nico Bihary from 2K Games. I’d anticipated the interview, but not being called in the middle of the preview and before I’d managed to think up half my questions. Luckily I’d prepared enough to last, but I don’t think Nico was prepared for a hyphen-based question.
Nico Bihary: My name’s Nico Bihary and I’m Senior Producer at 2K Games.
Strategy Informer:That was indeed going to be my first question. I think you’re an Ethereal in disguise. On to what I think is the main question in a lot of people’s minds, how come the game has taken such a long time to pin down?
Nico Bihary: I don’t think it’s taken a long time to pin down what the game is, from the outset we’ve always understood the game we wanted to make. The core elements of XCOM were always obvious to us: the use of team, technology and tools, the concept of permadeath, player progression, and utilising some of the visual language elements as identified in Enemy Unknown. I think that the team has always understood its centre, there were just some calibrations regarding how we were going to communicate that to the player through a first or third-person perspective.
Strategy Informer:Speaking of perspective, what was the reasoning behind the change to third-person?
Nico Bihary: If you look back to 2011, the last time we really had anything visual up on screen, the first-person aspect of it was great as a vehicle for investigations and navigation within the world but whenever you would go into a combat space there would be this visual UI element which we called “Tac Mode” (which is now “Battle Focus”). That mechanic with the battlescape and being able on the fly to action your player Agents into tactical positions was always something that shone within the gameplay experience. As we were developing the game we wanted to get to the fun, that key pillar, faster, so the first-person aspect of it and the whole investigation side of things started to take a back seat and become less important. It became clear to us that we didn’t need that vehicle or first-person because it was cleaner and clearer for the player, especially going into combat, staying in the third-person perspective.
Strategy Informer:Are there any other ways in which the game has massively changed since that first demo? The investigations are almost completely gone now it seems.
Nico Bihary: Well you know, every game that has ever been made had some moment where it was decided to either improve something or minimise its importance in favour of other key pillars. The Bureau was like that, but the major difference here compared to many games is that first-person to third-person was a really obvious thing for us to zero in on. In addition to that there were very subtle things we altered, like how the artistic style and visual representation of the game went from a ‘50s softer tone, like a Norman Rockwell type of design, to what we have now which is a little darker and more serious. Also one really minor difference between what we’ve previously shown and what we have now is that there is no military presence within the city streets. In the 2011 demo you’d see tanks and other military vehicles and it was clear that there was an occupation of American forces fighting alongside you. Here you are the saviour, there is no other support coming, there is no other military group. “There is no red phone” as your contact states [at the beginning of our demo].
Strategy Informer:I had a look at the customization options for your characters, and I put them all in pink shirts...
Nico Bihary: You can see your Agents very clearly in the battlefield when they’re all in pink! I’ve tried!
Strategy Informer:[laughs] How customizable is the base however?
Nico Bihary: The base is a narrative instrument in a lot of ways. It contextualizes all of the missions you will be going on. It definitely morphs, and the conversations you have within the base change based on what is occurring within the narrative. It is a fully functional, independently operating research facility. As you’re playing through the narrative missions you’ll encounter alien technology along the way and the base will repurpose this and feed them back to you. Our game is about battlefield and Agent management, it is not a base management title. We don’t give you Credits to invest in the base, it’s all about managing your characters.
Strategy Informer:So the base is already built and you just use it for research?
Nico Bihary: You don’t actively research, the base is doing all the researching. You’ve got a crack team of scientists that are always behind the scenes working on the technology that is being acquired and developed.
Strategy Informer:So you can’t steer them in any way?
Nico Bihary: You steer them through the course of the narrative as you progress with the story, but you’re not actively saying “I want X, Y or Z”. We’ve metered those out based on what you as a player are going to need as you move through the story.
Strategy Informer:So the focus isn’t the base management side, all just the battlefield scenario.
Nico Bihary: Absolutely, 100%.
Strategy Informer:I know the developer is 2K Marin, but is it the exact same team that made Bioshock 2? There was some slight confusion when the game was first announced as XCOM.
Nico Bihary: Yes, a lot of those core guys are there.
Strategy Informer:Is Jordan Thomas [project leader of Bioshock 2 and designer of some of the best-loved levels in Thief: Deadly Shadows and Bioshock] involved?
Nico Bihary: Morgan Gray is the creative director this time.
Strategy Informer:How long in terms of gameplay do you expect the game to last, on average?
Nico Bihary: It depends on what type of gamer you have, that’s really an unanswerable question. The standard I’d say you’re looking at a 13-16 hour narrative experience, depending on how much an explorer you are and whether you want to engage in conversations or whether you take the shortest conversation path, are you searching the levels, are you reading the documents you find along the way. How long (or short) the game is really depends on the level of player investment, not to mention we’ve got side missions and the opportunity to really invest in the strategies such as how you bring different Agents out on the field and synchronise their abilities. So very roughly 13-16 hours is my long-winded way of answering that question!
Strategy Informer:[laughs] Is there the ability to go off-track and explore the areas at all? The demo seems quite linear.
Nico Bihary: We’ve got a strong narrative story, and whenever you have a strong narrative you have some parameters that have to weave you through the story in a way that gels together. There is the opportunity though for the player to take a time out from the story though through the side-missions, and grind some XP through the opportunities that avail themselves. As well as encounters that may or may not have any story specifically associated with them.
Strategy Informer:We saw the Outsiders in the demo, and how they’ve enslaved other races. Will these guys be the main invading aliens or will there be other competing races?
Nico Bihary: [takes a deep breath as he carefully considers his words] The Zujari [note: I had to get Nico to spell that for me, and even he wasn’t completely certain] are essentially this very dominant alien species who have enslaved classic alien races such as the Mutons and the Sectoids and are using them in an almost biological warfare way against the human population. They’re in effect putting Earth on the map for future versions of XCOM [to sort out], they’ve made us a target for those races to come back in Enemy Unknown.
Strategy Informer:So there’s a direct connection between The Bureau and Enemy Unknown then?
Nico Bihary: I wouldn’t say there’s a direct connection in there, but it is the same XCOM universe and we are telling an origin story so there’s obviously an arc in there somewhere.
Strategy Informer:How far can the abilities be upgraded? I got a glimpse of a bit of it in the demo.
Nico Bihary: There’s not a upgrade tree within a tree, there’s the standard progression where you can go either offensively or defensively depending on your character, with various opportunities for weapon specialization – for example a Recon character can do more damage with a sniper rifle. These abilities are how we develop the player and give their own creative opportunities in terms of how they engage the battlefield. In addition to this the player can bring different backpacks with him and customise their statistical attributes in a less complicated manner than a Dungeons & Dragons +1 Charisma +5 Defence sort of way, and you can adjust these against all your Agents.
Strategy Informer:Assuming this does well can you see more spin-offs for XCOM?
Nico Bihary: XCOM is a great franchise, it’s very revered and has been very successful for us, so I can only imagine that there’ll be more XCOM at some point in the future!
Strategy Informer:Okay, important question to finish on. As it’s set in the past, shouldn’t “XCOM” have a hyphen?
Nico Bihary: [laughs] That’s the best question I’ve had all day! Let me talk to our copy guys, see what they come up with!
Thanks to Nico for chatting with me. Check out our preview of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified elsewhere on the site and it’ll be released on August 20th for all systems via Steam, XBLA and PSN.