Well this certainly was a surprise. Everyone's been waiting to hear more about the XCOM First-person shooter ever since it was announced, but instead we get yet another announcement of a XCOM strategy game. Who'd have thunk-it? We talk to Producer Gareth DeAngelis to find out more...
Strategy Informer: The timing of this announcement seems interesting, especially as the shooter XCOM hasn't launched yet and has been in production for a very long time. Can you shed some light onto when this project began and its relationship to the 2K Marin shooter in development terms?
These projects are being developed independently. I think both games show what’s possible with the main ideas behind XCOM: facing off against an enemy you don’t understand. We’re really excited by what the guys at 2K Marin are doing with their game, and our teams have talked with each other.
Strategy Informer: This is the first game developed by Firaxis to not feature Sid Meier's name prominently in the title. Is that a newfound source of pressure? Is Sid at all involved in this game, or is he off on something else?
Sid is the creative director of the studio, and Jake Solomon is the lead designer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Sid and Jake talk frequently, and Sid’s brought a lot of his experience and insight into the design of the game. We’re all huge fans of the game, and the pressure comes from making our XCOM have all those awesome moments that people remember from the original.
Strategy Informer: While it seems like an obvious fit now it's sunk in, I thought it was pretty surprising that you guys were working on this. How did the project come into your hands?
We’ve wanted to reimagine XCOM for years and take advantage of a lot of the advances in technology and design that have come about since 1994. This time, though, there was the right combination of background factors in place. Sid says “the stars aligned the right way” and I think that’s about right.
Strategy Informer: We find it interesting that you've set this in a completely different era from the shooter - sticking close to the roots of the original series. Why did you decide on this approach?
We’re trying to stay with the basic premise of the original game, which is that you’re in charge of an ultra-elite, ultra-secret organization defending the world against alien invaders. That’s a pretty awesome place to start, and then you just get more awesome as the game goes on once you start turning the aliens’ strengths against them!
Strategy Informer: You've revealed that the game flicks between real-time and turn-based gameplay depending on what you're doing - can you give any insight as to how this will work?
Combat is completely turn-based. Combat in XCOM has always been hard, almost brutal, because you can lose characters you’ve carefully levelled up through multiple missions. You can get away with that sort of difficulty by giving players the kind of complete control that comes from a turn-based system. This way players consider their decisions before carrying them out, and think through the possible consequences of those actions.
But while you’re in combat and in your base, time is progressing in the world overall, which means alien craft might slip through your satellite nets, or your scientists might wrap up a research project while you’re in the field. We want your decision of when to go to combat to have choices and consequences associated with that as well!
Strategy Informer: Stylistically this is a completely other world - almost literally - from Civilization or Railroads, while Alpha Centauri goes off in the other direction. How do you prepare a team used to creating takes on the real world for creating aliens and sci-fi-based settings?
We have fantastic artists and designers! These guys can take a simple paragraph of description and make something that fits the game perfectly. Take our Muton, for example: He’s supposed to be the aliens’ Special Forces soldier, 800 pounds of fury and plasma weapons. Our guys captured this feeling perfectly and still paid homage to the original Muton design.
Strategy Informer: The XCOM formula you're using is clearly inspired by the 1994 original - but that was 18 years ago. Can you talk about some of the more modern influences on Enemy Unknown?
Certainly gaming has evolved since 1994, particularly in terms of the user interface, but also in terms of what you can do with the camera and environment. For instance, we have a camera that drops down to your soldier’s level when you’re choosing their action for the turn. It does a lot to really bring you closer to that soldier, which makes it all the more tragic if they eat an alien grenade later.
Strategy Informer: As highlighted in the previous question, it's been an absolute age since the original release - but have you sought the advice, blessing or thoughts of any XCOM series vets for Enemy Unknown?
Jake has been in contact with Julian Gollop, the creator of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown. And our team are all huge fans of the original game and we wanted to create something that was going to be the worthy successor to that game.
Strategy Informer: There's already been some concern from series fans about this also being a console project - a worry that the core gameplay will be streamlined down too far for the PC crowd - that this'll be closer to Civ Rev than Civ 5. What is your process for developing the game to be console-friendly whilst also maintaining the level of depth that made X-COM loved?
Some of the difficulty of the original X-Com that was a result of the clunky interface or system limits of the time. When you remove those, the game itself was made up of simple systems that combined in some really cool ways. Our task is to remove a lot of that unnecessary difficulty and let the underlying coolness through. We want the player’s attention to be taken up with these interesting decisions. Plus there have been plenty of great, complex strategy and tactical games out for consoles!
Strategy Informer: In the four years after the original game we saw three sequels all of which expanded the game - notably undersea and space. Do you have any intention to visit those ideas in Enemy Unknown, or are you strictly sticking to reimagining the original title?
Garth DeAngelis: We’re still working on XCOM: Enemy Unknown! I’m sure we could think of plenty of places to go in the future, but it’s way too soon to talk about what comes next.
Strategy Informer: With this being a rebooted and reimagined universe, will those who play the 2K Marin title or those who have played the original titles be rewarded with a better sense of understanding of the world of Enemy Unknown, or is it a title all of its own?
Like I said, the two studios are working independently on their games, but we do talk to them and we’re very interested in what they’re doing – just as 2K Marin is interested in what we have.
Strategy Informer: From how you've talked about this game much of the studio are clearly fans of that 'golden age' of PC strategy in the mid-90s to early 00s. With Syndicate, XCOM and Deus Ex all making comebacks - is there any particular series you'd love to see join that list and make a triumphant return?
Wow! That’s quite a question! I think we’re in a golden age now, with gaming becoming more mainstream from what it was two decades ago, and the sophistication of what we can do in the games. I think I’ll be happy to see XCOM out in the world and take in what comes next from the industry as a whole.
Satisfied? Convinced? Still unsure? Well, it's relatively early days at the moment, so we'll have a better idea of what this game is going to be like when we actually see it up close. Thanks to Gareth for talking to us!