It has been described as one of the best video games of all time. A turn-based classic, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a monumental and unmovable structure in the minds of strategy game fans. So what will happen when a 2012 reimagining of the game arrives on the atlas of the gamer mind? Will there be room for two XCOM: Enemy Unknown games? We spoke to Firaxis to find out.
“Turn-based is crucial.”
That’s Jake Solomon, lead designer on Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
“Turn-based is absolutely crucial to the XCOM-sphere because your soldiers can die and all your actions have consequences that are permanent – the reason a lot of other games don’t have that is because you can’t do that unless you give the player complete control of the experience.”
Solomon currently has a job that many people want and just as many people don’t want. In the former, he’s making a game inspired by one of the most well-known and loved titles in gaming history. A lot of people in a lot of places hold the XCOM series close to their hearts. For the latter, also see above.
When Kotaku AU speaks to Solomon, he seems completely unfazed by the pressure he’s inherited by choosing to make an XCOM game. There’s no nervousness or apprehension. Having played the game since its original release, pouring hundreds of hours into it and citing it as one of his biggest gaming influences, Solomon is a person who understands XCOM. With so much fondness for the game, we can’t help but think that for him to screw it up, he’d have to be trying really hard to go against everything he knows. We allow him to continue.
“So it has to be turn-based because if this was real-time and the player can’t control where all his soldiers go, it means there has to be some sort of AI involvement,” he says.
“And when that happens and you lose that soldier who is being controlled by the AI, it’s not going to feel fair regardless of whether or not it is. No player is going to buy that; they’re going to blame the game for it.
“Because we have permanent consequences and permanent death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game has to be turn-based – we have to give the player full control.”
We prod at Solomon a bit more to see if he’ll admit any uncertainties he has with the game. Surely he’d at least be slightly nervous that a chorus of loyal XCOM fans will rain down on him if he takes the game even an inch in the wrong direction. No? No, says Solomon, because he is one of those fans.
“When I decided to name the game XCOM: Enemy Unknown I knew by doing that I was making a promise,” he says.
“It’s not something that I’m afraid of or intimidated by because I do hold the game so sacred myself that I don’t have a hard time struggling with questions of ‘Is this faith to the original game?’
“As long as we feel like we’re making decisions that honour the spirit of the original games, then we’re not going to worry too much about it now. Of course, the problem with a game that means so much to so many people is there are lots of things special about XCOM that different people have different opinions about. So if my opinion differs from someone else’s, I think that’s when they start to get worried.”
What Stays, What Goes?
So to what extent will Firaxis remain faithful to the original game? As a reimagining – not a remake – Solomon tells us his XCOM will take the narrative of the original. It will still be about a modern day alien assault, XCOM will still be the elite force responding to the invasion, and the core mechanic will be turn-based. The player will go back and forth between deciding on global strategies while controlling individual units in tactical combat.
Solomon says the core elements of XCOM will make their way into the new game. Given that everyone has a different idea of what separates XCOM from other games, we ask him: What does he believe is the core of XCOM?
“For us, it’s consequences,” he says.
“We have a combat game with RPG elements and you’ll be leveling up soldiers, but at the same time we have the concept of ‘permadeath’, which is at any point throughout the game, those characters can die and, unlike a lot of other games, when they die in XCOM they’re gone.
“On the strategy layer, if you’re not performing and certain countries become unhappy with you, they’ll leave the project. They’ll pull their funding and resources and they don’t come back – they’re gone forever.”
The other main element that Solomon believes makes an XCOM game is the scope: it’s enormous. The player makes both world-changing decisions on a strategy layer but also zooms into tactical combat where the player controls every soldier and takes every shot fired.
“A lot of games either live on one side of another: they’re either a strategy game or a combat game, and XCOM is a game that’s everything,” Solomon says.
“You’re building the weapons you use, you’re choosing what to research, so that massive scope is crucial to XCOM as well.”
As a reimagining, some things have changed. Solomon says that if the game were a remake, it would be the same old game with a new skin – a reimagining gives them room to move, and moving is a thing they are certainly doing. Parts of the narrative will be changed, new aliens will be introduced, and the design won’t be identical to the original.
“You can go back and play the original and it still hold up, but that was almost 20 years ago and they were able to get away with some things that I think wouldn’t work now in terms of the variation of the levels,” he says.
“Die-hard fans know all the tile-sets of the wheat field and the cabbage field and the orchards, and when you go on missions you would have seen a lot of those elements repeated. Game levels are so different today that we’ve had to change that.
“We’ve also added a class system so that soldier and aliens can gain new abilities, and because we’ve added these elements it necessitates change.”
Two New XCOMs
Both XCOM: The Turn-Based Strategy and XCOM: The First-Person Shooter have been in development for several years. Both teams have known about each other from the beginning, and both have stayed in contact, working back and forth to see what each team is up to.
“Internally we think it’s pretty cool because we get the opportunity to see something different,” says Solomon.
“We’re more grounded in the original title and they get the opportunity to expand and tell a different narrative and show a different perspective of XCOM.”
When the announcement of an XCOM first-person shooter was announcement, many fans of the game were quick to show their disapproval and claim that the deviation from the turn-based game would lead to an interactive disaster.
Despite being turn-based, Jake Solomon is well aware that his XCOM could face similar criticism – it could anger fans, it could deviate just a bit too much. But Solomon isn’t fazed. He’s not showing any cracks here today. He knows XCOM.