XCOM: ‘Enemy Unknown’ knows its roots
By Hayley Tsukayama,
It’s never easy to remake a well-loved game, particularly if it’s a game that’s inspired a novel or two. But when fans of the strategy role-playing game XCOM series heard that the seasoned Sparks, Md.-based developer Firaxis was taking up the challenge, they dared to hope that it was in good hands.
For this latest title, Firaxis builds on the same basic storyline of the original: XCOM, an elite force of soldiers, has been formed and deployed to protect the world against alien attack.
Jake Solomon, the game’s lead designer said in a video preview with The Washington Post that it was very important for his team to preserve much of what made the original game stand out. The newest title, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” maintains the feel of the original, letting players essentially play two games simultaneously: they play through combat missions while also playing a strategic, global campaign. The graphics of the whole game have been updated, but the gameplay stays true to the original title.
“The core elements that we wanted to keep were the back and forth of combat, and making sure the player always had the freedom to make the decisions in the game,” Solomon said. “It creates a real sense of investment.”
Players can name any unit in the game, as in the original, and the development team has created an interesting menu view called the “ant farm,” which lets you see your characters milling about their base during their off-hours. From that screen, you can peek in on the soldiers you’ve hired, grant them promotions, change their equipment and otherwise prepare them for battle.
Which leads another key part of the game: If any soldier you send into battle dies — even one you’ve groomed and come to rely on — that soldier is gone for good.
“It’s an element that sets XCOM apart from other games: permanent consequences,” Solomon said. “It creates real tension and real drama.” He added that XCOM is a game you can “actually lose,” and that sense of consequence and challenge makes victory that much sweeter.
That element of gameplay, almost more than anything else, puts a clear focus on battlefield strategy — what else would you expect from Firaxis, best-known for its excellent Civilization games? For combat mode, gamers will be given a mix of soldiers with different support abilities and environments designed to inspire creative thinking. Players will be able to choose from different types of cover and the game’s destructible environments always provide a chance for clever gamers to modify the terrain to their own advantage.
In the demo Solomon put together, for example, a heavy weapons expert opened up the perfect shot for a support soldier on his team by simply eliminating a building’s ceiling.
Of course, that means players also have to be aware of what the enemy may be planning for the world around them.
“As in the original, a player can’t take anything for granted,” Solomon said. “With a big enough gun or a big enough alien, you can break through just about anything that you see.”
Back at base, players will have to consider a different type of strategy game, namely balancing the planet’s needs, their own resources and the limits of their own funding. Solomon said that XCOM is funded by 16 world powers and players will have to work to keep each of those powers happy to hold on to their funding and resources. Players select which combat missions to pursue, which affects the entire narrative of the game.
Research is another large part of the game, as players have to choose which pieces of alien technology to develop and which to lay aside.
Solomon hopes that the game will not only satisfy the series’ fans, but also those in the “middleground of gaming,” who are just starting to appreciate deeper games with complex gameplay. Because battles in the new game don’t have a time element, even newer players can take the time to plan out their strategies without the added pressure.
“It’s a fun time to make the games that we do because we’ve seen a shift recently in the market toward the big middle,” Solomon said. “We can give you an experience you’ve never had before.”
More technology coverage from The Post: