Last week, I was invited to spend some time at Firaxis to see the new XCOM. Early Wednesday morning, I hopped in the car and braved the DC morning rush to wind my way to an unassuming office building just north of Baltimore.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is many things. It is a strategy game, about base-building and resource management. It is a turn-based, tactical, squad based combat game. It is a delightfully, chaotically mismatched multiplayer romp. It is a modern-day remake of one of the most famous and popular PC games in history.
And after my time at Firaxis last week, I can finally say: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a hell of a lot of fun. I had such a good time that I don't even mind that I got dinged by a speed camera while getting mildly lost on my way home.
Well, I don't mind much. I'll just tell myself to think of that $US40 as my deposit on the game.
The basic premise is straightforward: Aliens are attacking. They are not nice, cuddly aliens. They are the "kill all humans" kind of aliens. Your job is to stop them. The execution of that premise, though, is anything but simple.
XCOM is a game about balance. There are no perfect decisions, and a player whose goal is to make the absolute right choice every time will find herself sorely disappointed. No: there will never be enough money or enough time to make everyone happy. The commander of humanity's last line of defence — for that is your role — needs not only to balance research and construction priorities in the home base, but also to manage the delicate balance of politics. Every turn, every decision, and every dialogue is, in some way, a compromise.
In fact, the game holds one, and only one, final, terminal, "GAME OVER" lose condition. It doesn't trigger if you get your squad wiped out and fail a mission. It triggers when eight member nations leave the council that gives XCOM its authority. Given the intricate dance of managing member states' panic levels, it is unlikely at best that you will survive the full story with no defectors at all. And when a nation goes? It takes its resources with it.
Firaxis is a studio known for its strategic PC titles (like the Civ V I can't seem to stop playing). The original X-Com is one of the most famous PC games ever made. So I was deeply surprised, when our hands-on time with the game began, to be ushered to an array of slim black consoles and handed a familiar-looking white controller.
XCOM on Xbox? I had my doubts.
For the first 90 seconds of the first combat tutorial, they seemed to be borne out. Getting my squad to go exactly where I wanted them to was a pain. Until, very suddenly, it wasn't a problem anymore. By the time I was five or 10 minutes in, the controller felt as natural as breathing. I am emphatically not a natural console gamer (my fingers live on WASD, but my thumbs are still clumsy, despite near-daily practice). To find a PC game feeling perfectly arrayed for controllers is not something I would ever expect. I am not the first to make this discovery, and yet I found it startling all the same.
The team have promised repeatedly that the console and PC versions of the game will each be tailored to play to their platform's strengths. Art director Greg Foertsch explained to me how the team had planned for both versions from the start.
"I think that it's harder if you try to port than if you start out deciding initially that you're going to build concurrent paths," Foertsch said. "If you start out knowing, 'I'm making a PC UI and I'm making a console UI,' I think that the user is going to notice. The PC player is going to notice that there was an effort put into making this, that it wasn't an afterthought. It wasn't something we did last minute." The two "move together concurrently to the finish line," he added. "When you worry about porting it? That's where you get in trouble."
There are a lot of ways to get in trouble in XCOM. Most of them end up with someone dead. Sometimes lots of someones. Like one particular mission, where my victory was phyrric at best. I came back to base with just one man standing, having lost two snipers (including my favourite soldier) and a medic.
Jake Solomon, XCOM's lead designer, had earlier proudly described his favourite part of the player's base: the bar, complete with soldier memorials. There sits the all-too-familiar wall of photos and mementos to memorialize the fallen, the icon of loss that we know from shows like Battlestar Galactica, games like Mass Effect 3, or hundreds of real-life tragedies worldwide.
Your soldiers, in XCOM, are your most vital resources. But they're not just sets of skills and stats; the entire team went to great lengths to make them people. It sucks when people die. It sucks more when your poor decision-making is what got them killed.
"The mechanic of permadeath — the fact that your soldiers can die — is very, very important," Solomon explained. "If I were to sum up XCOM in a word, it's 'consequences'. It's one of those rare games where consequences are actually real." The ability to lose the game (and badly) is what makes winning so powerful. "The fact that you have soldiers that you've invested a lot of time and emotion in ... they can die, permanently. But those consequences... those are what make the game what they are.
Those consequences are what allow people to get so invested, because when they have success, when they have successful missions, when they beat the game, they realise that they beat a game that was actually capable of punishing them. They could have actually lost."
Why do your soldiers die? "It's not really going to feel like a success unless you know you're playing for keeps."
It's a lesson you learn surprisngly early in.
There were certain foundational pillars from the original X-Com that formed the basis for the entire update, Solomon said. Producer Garth DeAngelis chimed in, adding that they had been so central to the entire project that he could still recite the original list from memory. "Turn-based was on the top of your list," DeAngelis remembered, to which Solomon emphatically agreed. He added:
Going back to those pillars, what we had to maintain — I remember, when I first joined the project, I was diving through the wiki and all the documentation, and I wanted to know what was important. You had this list. I still have it burned into my memory. You had the turn-based tactics, you had the high-level strategy layer, obviously the research, science, interception, fog of war, destructible environments, classic aliens re-imagined... All those elements to you [Solomon], as one of the biggest X-Com fans ever, would maintain the spirit of the original. And that, to me, drove so much of the decision-making.
The spirit of the original is what needed to stick, through every development decision. The specifics were up for grabs. Turn-based combat was an absolute must, but time units could be ditched. Squads of named soldiers stayed, but they could be whittled down to a half-dozen carefully leveled, unique members rather than marching down to Earth a dozen strong or more — and the player doesn't have to spend the first and last several turns of their combat experience manoeuvring them off and on their shuttle.
Likewise, the player no longer constructs bases throughout the world. There is only one base, and it is massive. The "ant farm" style cut-away view lets players take a high view, or zoom in to watch what the scientists, engineers, and soldiers are getting up to, from alien interrogation (a messy business, that) to down-time on the treadmill or at the bar.
That base is a sanctuary, the one place on Earth that remains safe from the alien threat. Base invasions did exist in earlier prototypes, Solomon explained, but the game's motto was "hard, but fair" and with only one base, having it come under attack turned out to be too unfair to the player.
That base is a "web of choices", the team explained. Yes, there are only so many facilities to build, but players tend to take different personal strategies, and all of them are viable. And in the theme of XCOM, no matter what you try to do, sometimes the game will have other plans. There are significant, worthwhile bonuses for putting certain facilities next to each other, or aiming for a certain kind of layout. Each level of the base is more expensive to build than the one above it was. Smart players will think of a plan and a strategy early on... and the actual layout of the terrain will almost certainly upset those plans at least once.
Instead of building bases, XCOM (the organisation) launches satellites over member nations. A nation with a satellite watching over it will contribute resources (cash, scientists, and so on) to the cause, and will maintain a lower rate of panic. In return, however, those nations expect you to answer the call. Naturally, creating sufficient interceptors and sufficient hangars worldwide to answer that call takes resources the player doesn't always have.
The team implied, though, that a wise player would prioritise those hangars and interceptors. If a satellite detects an invading UFO that the player does not then engage, well, that's a recipe for disaster. Aliens can detect satellites and determine if they are a threat. If they're not taken down, they'll come back and shoot down the satellite.
"That is very bad" for you as a player, the entire team stressed. They wore the dour faces of men who had leaned that the hard way.
The story progresses as much through the player's choice of which combat missions to accept as it does through the missions themselves. Some are no-brainers — yes, of course I'll accept this mission to go to this country with lots of resources and reap its rewards — but far more often, they are another source of checks and balances.
Citizens are being abducted from both Australia and China. You cannot get to both. What are each nation's current panic levels? What resources will you lose if they abandon you? And, if all else is more or less equal, who do you then arbitrarily choose to let die at the hands of the truly nasty aliens?
As for what it all builds up to? While every member of the dev team I spoke with was gregarious and enthusiastic about the game, the story is where every last one of them drew the line and refused to say more. They variously hinted, ominously, at a massive final mission, to a point of no return, and to "taking the fight to them."
After 20 or 30 hours of facing the worst those aliens can dish out, I think I would be more than ready to go blow them up. In the face. The Chryssalids in particular are deeply unpleasant. They stab their enemies, including not only your squad but also any civilians who might be in the area, with their big pointy legs. Enemies who have been so stabbed then, over the next few turns, basically become more Chryssalids themselves, unless stopped in time.
Other enemy types also delight in turning your own strengths into liabilities through the power of mind control. Shooting your own soldier to stop them from shooting all the others? That's not a pleasant way to go. What is pleasant is siccing them on your opponent in multiplayer combat; look for more about that later today.
Despite my decades as a PC gamer, I didn't catch X-Com: UFO Defense along the way in the 1990s. Conceptually, it still has much to recommend it. Practically, it hasn't entirely aged gracefully. But those central pillars — those unyielding tenets that Solomon and the rest of the team carried forward — hold up as solid an experience today as they did in 1994.
The moment when I realised the game had hooked me came on my second day at Firaxis. While cycling through interviews, there came a gap in my schedule and the team invited me to take more play time with the game. When my guide motioned me to a different console than the one I'd been sitting at the day before, I was genuinely sad that I wouldn't be able to continue my earlier progress. And when he said, "oh, wait, yes, I think we can load your save," and led me back to my first machine, I was genuinely satisfied and excited.
The sense of ownership comes along almost painfully quickly. I had been playing for just a few hours, in an unfamiliar environment, sitting in a row with other writers starting the same game at the same time. Everything about the space was sort of... artificial. And yet already, those were my soldiers. My squad, my base, my game. Mine.
Perhaps, alas, I should have quit while I was ahead. That second day's play is where I lost my snipers. I'm still sorry about that. Hopefully when XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes out on October 9, I'll get a chance to redeem myself.