XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Interview - Firaxis on Being All Things to All Men (and Aliens)

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Since XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announcemed back in January, it has quickly shot up our most anticipated list. A reinvention of an old classic, the turn-based strategy title looked hugely promising when we played it last week and we can't wait to see more.

In the meantime, however, we'll just have to console ourselves with this chat with associate producer Pete Murray from Firaxis. Within, we cover everything from the history of the series, to the studio's hopes for their bright new vision of the game. So even if you've never played an X-Com game before, don't worry, we've got your back.

For those that aren't familiar with the original game, explain the history and relevance of X-Com.

Pete Murray: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a re-imagining of 1990's strategy game, called X-COM: UFO Defense in the United States and UFO: Enemy Unknown in Britain. It's a stalwart of the entire strategy genre. It's one of the earliest and best PC strategy games out there, a game that continues to come back on people's top 100 list. A lot of people love it.

It's a title that people like because a lot of things emerged out of the gameplay. That just kind of happened because of the way the game was layed out. It had soldiers that would go on missions that you could name after friends and family. You lost a lot of them. Some of them would survive and last a lot longer, so the game itself is fun to play but a lot of it happens up in your head in terms of the story and what happens to your team. It's part of the attraction and its always bought people back to the game.

Now we're remaking it for present day. We're doing it for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. The beauty is in the intervening years we've learned a lot about the user interface and designing for consoles. That allows us to take all the systems you need to play X-Com and map it to a gamepad in a sensible way. So that's where we begin with this game.

On top of that, for our lead designer, X-Com is the reason he became a computer scientist. This is his favourite game ever. He has wanted to make this since high school. He's always wanted to make this game.

So what were the design bullet points? What are you trying to do with this new version?

PM: If you ask X-Com fans what it takes to make an X-Com game then they'll give you a list of about 500 features that they insist on being in there. But some of them are key. It has to be a turn-based combat system and it has to have some pretty serious consequences. Those two kinda go together. If you give people a lot more time to think through the consequences of their decisions, you can have a lot more serious consequences in the game.

So, for example, you know that if you screw up you're still just going to die and not come back. So, if you take the time pressure away you give people time to make a plan to carry out and they can live with the results. You have these two parts of the game that interact with each other, the strategy game where you're researching tech and building stuff back at base and a tactical game where you're going out and fighting aliens.

Lots of game have taken the name, but have failed to live up to expectations. How do you intend to succeed where those games have failed?

PM: First and foremost, you have to make a game that's fun. If you make a game that's not fun, nobody is going to enjoy playing it – new guy or fan of the original. We want the game to be strong and stand on its own and I really think it does do that. I think our game is a lot truer to the original maybe, than some of the other games. In the sense that the strategy shares certain elements gameplay-wise.

In regards to the XCOM shooter, there's something very cool there in the sense that the 2K Marin team looked at the same game that we're looking at. They recognised that X-Com produces a certain set of feelings in them, a certain set of emotions, a sense of fear and overwhelming dread. So they're exploring what how that could translate into a shooter. I think it's a very cool idea and I'm very excited to see what they can do with it.

Beyond your own experiences, are there any other console titles that you look to for inspiration?

PM: There are a few elements in our game that are similar to elements in other games, like Valkyria Chronicles for example. I think it's because we arrived at similar solutions, because we had the same set of problems in some cases. And there are some gameplay mechanics that just work really well.

I don't think that it's a case of us borrowing anything from Valkyria Chronicles, we can't say that we lifted anything from that game because we didn't. But we certainly arrived at some similar problems and arrived at the same solutions because they're the best solutions. It's convergent evolution.

What Sid Meier's involvement? This is the first game Firaxis has made that doesn't carry his name.

PM: He's seen the game, he's given his feedback and Jake Solomon who is the lead designer of XCOM has gone to Sid with problems and said "Sid, what do I do?" Sid is a great, great resource. He's a great guy who has a treasure trove of experience that he can bring to bear on the project. It's been fantastic.

So he takes an advisory role?

PM:I guess that's fair. Y'know Sid's a great guy, it would be silly not to use him in some way or another. Oh and he's in the E3 demo! Jake came to him and said, "Sid, I'm going to put you in the demo" and Sid was up for it. He'll make a cameo appearance as one of the characters in the game. Jake and Sid get on really, really well.

The last time we spoke to Firaxis about XCOM, you guys swerved a question about the relationship between this game and the FPS. You told us to ask you next time. So, how do the games overlap?

PM: So while the two games exist in separate universes, there are some mysterious crossovers between the two. Mysterious, unexplained elements that are mysterious and unexplained.

So they're going to remain unexplained?

PM: Well, you know, part of that is about some fun things to do in the game so they're not spoiled for people. And somebody could play our game and then run into something in the 2K Marin game and go "Oh my god, what does it mean?" And the answer is it is mysterious and unexplained.

How hard is it to get publisher support for a turn-based strategy title on this scale?

PM: You know, full credit to 2K. We went to them with this game and explained about the tactical combat and the base and the research and the alien technology. So they asked us what game it was like and we said, "well, it's not like anything!" And they embraced that, they really encouraged us to go out there and make this game.

2K are a very brave company from a creative standpoint. They're willing to take chances on games like this. And by the same token, greenlighting a shooter based on the emotions of a strategy game set in the 50s? That's a risky, gutsy move and I think 2K is a great company for that. We've got nothing but love for them and from them.

We've also got a lot of resources for the game. We've been working on it for about four years now, about 60 guys that rolled straight off Civ Rev and started on this. Thanks to 2K's support, plus the amount of time and love we've put into the game, we're confident that XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be a really, really great.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out on October 9th in North America and October 12th in Europe. Read our hands-on preview here.


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Game Info
Firaxis Games
2K Games


US October 09, 2012
Europe October 12, 2012

HDD Space Required : 7.08 GB
Backward compatible on Xbox One: Yes
Price: $39.99USD
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