The XCOM we got last year wasn't supposed to be the one leading the rebirth of the beloved sci-fi strategy franchise. No, great as XCOM: Enemy Unknown was, it was a Johnny-come-lately. Back in 2010, there was another XCOM shown at E3, a game that re-imagined the humans-vs-aliens conflict as a first-person-shooter set in the 1960s. Fans wondered at how a game like that would be XCOM at all.
Then, Enemy Unknown was announced, after a long period of silence surrounding the 1960s game. Excitement grew. Expectations were met and, for many, exceeded. Kotaku named Enemy Unknown as its 2012 Game of the Year. That other XCOM went silent. After a longer while, it went dark in a way that seemed to presage a cancellation.
That's not what happened, though. A transformation happened in that silence. In went XCOM and out comes The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a single-player multiplatform title due out in August.
The game's set in 1962, during John F. Kennedy's presidency. The action happens at the height of The Cold War as fears begin to peak that Russia may overtake the U.S. as the dominant world power. There's an nuclear arms race happening across the globe and dozens of government agencies were trotted out to the public as yet another measure to keep the Soviets at bay. But they were also manipulating information and circumstances to quash any perception of American weakness or impropriety. The Bureau is one of these agencies. Like COINTELPRO, the Bureau's true purpose is another clandestine war is being waged in the shadows.
At first, the true purpose of the Bureau is a secret even for the people who work there. "They soon figure out that they're not there to protect us from the Russians," said 2K Marin associate producer Andrew Dutra. "They're there to protect us from an outside alien force." Players will inhabit the character of William Carter, a man recruited to lead squads into the field at sites of extraterrestrial incursions and grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.
2K Marin Creative Director Morgan Gray then jumped into to talk about gameplay elements. He called the Bureau a *JARGON ALERT* "third-person, squad-based tactical combat expression of the core pillars of the XCOM franchise, which we define as team, tactics, technology, tools, terror, tension."
Carter wields a special ability called Battle Focus which slightly slows down the action and lets him issue commands. Players will be able to control squadmates in battle and will recruit, customise and upgrade them as well.
"It's pretty hardcore," Gray told me. "We're not trying to make a hyper-accessible game. We're trying to keep XCOM tied to its roots as a game that demands skill. Some people might say 'ahh, that's hard.' Hard's not the same. It's a game that requires you to use your brains and your bullets to win. Picture a modern, small-unit tactical combat game set in the '60s with technology that NASA should've made back then and your opposition are aliens.. That's what we're shooting for."
Gray also made it sound like there might be some time-shifting in the game's storyline, where players get to be there at the day-one stage of the organisation and they also get to be part of the government covering up The Bureau's existence.
And what about permadeath, the most haunting element of last year's Enemy Unknown? "Bad decisions on the player's part can result in permadeath for agents in the field. So this guy you’ve customised for hours is now gone and you're screwed. And, unlike the turn-based strategic games where you can pull away from the main campaigns and kind of pull somebody off the bench, [the Bureau's] campaign is constantly moving forward. So our expression of the consequence of agent loss is even more brutal. But kind of awesome, too."
I asked Gray if there'd be any kind of reward mechanism in The Bureau that would benefits players who bought Enemy Unknown. "We do not have a mechanical tie-in explicitly in the game," he answered. "Although we have been investigating various ways to acknowledge that someone's a franchise fan. But we don't have anything where having an install of Enemy Unknown produces something in our game or vice versa."
So why the change from a first-person perspective, which was what XCOM was when it was last seen? "When we first showed in 2010, the focus was on a different side of XCOM. It was a focus on investigation," Gray explained. "In 2011, we had decided that XCOM was an organisation that was built on going out and kicking alien arse, not necessarily researching it as a primary game mechanic, per se. So we began to show the hybrid which was first-person navigation and third-person tactical squad combat controls. We then decided to go third-person all the time since the game's all about tactical combat. There's inherent advantages to third-person: I know where I'm at, where my team's at and where the enemies are at."
Gray said that the decision to move away from the isometric, top-down view was to create a different sense of battlefield awareness and engagement. The campaign structure of The Bureau isn't like that of a shooter. "It's not level-cutscene-level-cutscene-credits," Gray explained. "You'll always have the map of the battleground, which is all of America, and players will pick and choose between primary mission types and side missions."
While all these changes were being wrought on The Bureau's design, Enemy Unknown came out to much acclaim. I asked Gray how the success of the Firaxis-developed game impacted the corporate cousins at 2K Marin. Did it change what they trying to do? "I don't know what 2K's meta-expectations were," he began. "But, as a classic XCOM fan — and not just a 2K employee — I expected it to blow up because classic XCOM is one of my favourite games of all time. I thought they did a great job!"
"What it did for us, philosophically," Gray continued, "was show us that not only are there a lot of classic XCOM fans with money in their pockets, but there's also a generation of gamers that is ready to play games like we used to play them back in the day. Games that are a little harder, less forgiving and demand more skill. Finding that out was awesome for us. We then were able to say that we're going to balance and tune our game for a specific type of gamer."
"We don't need to be a watered-down everyman super-accessible kind of game. We can make a creative statement with what we're trying to achieve," Gray told me. "Usually, in development, it's 'how do we try to get everybody in the world to like what we're doing. That's not happening here." The people the dev team are aiming at might feel a little underserved by the games they have to choose from. "Maybe they're Ghost Recon fands, maybe they're Rainbow [Six] fans. People who dig a little harder into third-person games. We can make a table for them to sit down at and check out what we're doing."
Because they're both XCOM games, there were things from Enemy Unknown that The Bureau's dev team were able to benefit from with regard to design. "Things like aspects of visualisation of tactical awareness," Gray told me.
And what about the focus on story and characters glimpsed in The Bureau's previous outings? Is the closeted gay scientist still going to be in the game? "Absolutely," Gray confirmed. "The idea of telling a very character-focused narrative is a first for this franchise. The other games have been more strategic sandbox types of games with a high-level story that wraps around it. In this one, William Carter's your viewpoint character and it's through him that you meet other characters and find out why they're in this war and how they're developing."
"We did BioShock 2 here at 2K Marin and that was a toolbox kind of game where we focused on player agency — letting you play how you want and a lot of tools to do it with — combined with a more directed story. We don't ever want to be too on-the-nose. We're in the 1960s in The Bureau and subversive subtext is what interests us the most as a studio."
If The Bureau turns out to be worth the wait after such a long incubation period, that might be the biggest subversion of all. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is scheduled to come out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on August 20th in North America and on August 23rd internationally. Look for more coverage of the game in the coming weeks.