Interviews// Firaxis on XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Posted 20 Mar 2012 18:03 by
2K is making sure that retro-heads get a fair deal when it comes to the upcoming XCOM FPS remake. Namely, by getting strategy legends Firaxis to re-imagine the classic Amiga original and develop an old-school turn-based combat shooter. Just like mama used to make.

Firaxis, for its part, has been impressing with its progress on the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You can read all about the game?s alien-zapping goodness by reading the First Look feature right here. Shortly after seeing a presentation of the game, I was able to sit down with associate producer Pete Murray so he could explain more about the studio?s inspirations and how they dealt with moaning PC purists.

SPOnG: Can you explain a little more about the turn-based system, any changes you?ve made to it, and the limitations in terms of what players can and can?t do with it?

Pete Murray: You have a squad of soldiers that you start off with, and each one of those soldiers takes an action on your turn. You have choices about whether you want to dash - which is equal to a long move - or move a shorter distance and perform a specific action. The soldier?s class, skills and gear determine what those actions are going to be. Each soldier can do things like shoot at an alien, or throw a grenade or something like that. But certain classes will have particular perks or skills that can help them out.

Certain weapons will give you an advantage too. So it?s a combination of your inventory and your class that sets up what you can do on a particular turn. While the individual elements of move-and-shoot or move-move are pretty simple, it?s when you combine that with all the other options that your soldiers have that you get a pretty sophisticated combat system. You take your turn, then the aliens take theirs.

SPOnG: I?m curious about your design decisions and processes throughout the game, because a lot of real-time strategy games haven?t really done so well on console. The demo in the presentation looked like it was on an Xbox 360..?

Pete Murray: Actually it was the PC version with an Xbox 360 controller.

SPOnG: Right. I guess you have the console controls all mapped and figured out already then. So how did you figure out what was the best way to bring forth a game like this using a controller?

Pete Murray: In principle, there?s no reason you can?t do a turn-based strategy game on a console. Firaxis did that pretty successfully with Civilization Revolution. That was a Civilization game built for console. We took a lot of what we learned from that process - about how to present information in different ways, show functions that people need to do and how to map that to a controller - and applied it here. As long as you?re not hitting the ?pan camera? key, everything works just fine.

The individual elements of XCOM?s combat system aren?t terribly complicated, but it?s when you start to add all the different gameplay elements together that you get the cool emergent behaviours like the combat combos. Individually, those elements aren?t hard to map to a controller, and when you put them together, it turns into a much cooler game. So it?s pretty exciting to be able to do that.

SPOnG: Do you think that?s been a problem with other turn-based games or RTS games in the past on consoles? Like Command and Conquer on the Xbox 360, for instance, with mouse movement replaced with left analogue stick control?

Pete Murray: I dunno. I think there have been a lot of really good strategy games for the consoles. Our studio does a lot of strategy games so you tend to think about them. Halo Wars was pretty good. And even the original XCOM had a PS1 port, and so people were clearly playing that original PC game using a PlayStation controller. So, it?s there. It can be done. We have the technology [laughs]. We recovered it from a UFO.

SPOnG: Speaking of aliens and technology, how far have you pushed the boat out on the weapons and gear that your soldiers can use in the game? Are they alien in concept?

Pete Murray: They still have to be recognisable. I mean, you can?t go completely off at the deep end. But they?re pretty cool, and you saw the Mutons with the Plasma Rifles. That?s a technology you?re going to be researching, because that?s cool and you want that, so we?re going to make it so you can have that [smiles].

The aesthetic we were going with for the design was more of an action figure for each soldier. In the sense that they are easy to spot and have specific design characteristics. So it?s really easy to say, ?OK, that?s the guy with the shotgun, that?s the guy with the sniper rifle.? You don?t have to quickly zoom in to make sure which character you?ve selected. So that works pretty nicely.

SPOnG: Can you tell us about the variety of locations?

Pete Murray: [Pause] We have a lot of them [laughs]. Yeah, that?s one of the things we?re working on right now. Finding ways to make North American locations feel more North American, and European locations feel more European. We?ve got a team back at the office that?s busy working on that... and we can do that through some clever use of the level assets that we have in place. We have a bunch of maps. A tonne of them in the game.

They?re all hand-built for the game, and they get tested extensively so that they?re good to play on. But there?s enough of them that even after two play-throughs you?re not going to see the same location twice. So there?s definitely a lot of replayability, in terms of the maps. When you add things in like regional variations, and some special mission locations, it?s going to feel different each time you play it. And that?s important, because in XCOM you go on a lot of combat missions.
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Bolo Tank 21 Mar 2012 22:36
"It?s not a concern so much as I can already imagine forums around the internet saying the PC platform?s been left out or something."

"One of the really cool things is that there is a lot of that going on right after the game?s announcement. A lot of people saying, ?Oh my God? and freaking out. It went away pretty fast, because they realised that it still looks like a fun game. Fun games are fun games, no matter what platform you play them on. We love them all."

Well that's rubbish. Something Awful's got the game pegged as dumbed down as hell, RPGCodex has declared it to be in a state of perma-decline, and even the official 2K forums are full of people having a groan-fest at the "streamlining" these guys have done.
Wael 1 Apr 2012 12:53
I too was interested when I first saw this up until the for lonsoces too part. And In Lukasz's link above you have this: Is this going to be dumbed down for the wider console audience ?Firaxis is undeniably streamlining aspects of the game and removing no small amount of micromanagement which doesn't quell the fears. But from the pics I do see it's hex based which might be nice. The Base view is strange (how will base defense missions play out in that, or will they remove that?). I'll still keep looking into this, but I have more hopes for Xenonauts at the moment!
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Bolo Tank 3 Apr 2012 22:34
It's not hex based, it's free-movement, as they've said elsewhere. That one pic just makes it look hex based because of a coincidental hex-like shape in that glowy border. Base defense is probably out, unless they're moving it to the interception bases you have to build everywhere because you can't build more than one proper base any more.
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