E3 2011: XCOM Returns in a New Guise
As a fan of strategy games, I wasn’t thrilled when 2K Games appeared at E3 2010 with a version of the classic XCOM franchise that seemed to reinvent it a straight-ahead FPS game. Nor, it seemed, were many other people. To their credit, 2K Marin went back to the drawing board and returned to E3 2011 reinvigorated, presenting a reworked version of the game that hewed more closely to the series’ tactical roots.
If there’s one theme that dominated the presentation of their new game, it’s the setting. The new XCOM takes place in 1962, and the demo theater we were ushered into was a masterpiece of set-dressing, full of retrofuturistic computer consoles and period touches. If there had been ashtrays available for journos to stub filter-less Lucky Strikes into, I would hardly have been surprised. Despite its evocative detailing, however, the year was not chosen by accident. The developers have serious things to say about this particular period in U.S. history — more on that later.
Producer Harvey Whitney got our attention and explained that the game is experienced from the perspective of Special Agent William Carter, an up-and-coming operative within the cloak-and-dagger XCOM institution. Our introduction to the game took the form of a pre-rendered, home movie-style CGI sequence, in which a bucolic, suburban scene is suddenly shattered by the arrival of a giant alien monolith, which proceeds to wreak havoc on anything and everything in the surrounding area, including, eventually the cameraman. The tape grinds to a halt.
Next, we were introduced to the gameplay. The perspective changed to a scene inside the XCOM offices, showing a off a clean, slightly stylized art style that at once supported the period setting, recalled the hand-drawn original games, and gave the title a distinctive look. Carter’s first-person perspective gave us a quick tour of the XCOM offices — the influence of BioShock’s first-person storytelling style was apparent. Amusing touches, like a James Bond Q-Branch-style test-firing range in the background, added to the atmosphere.
XCOM’s underground base is meant to function as a sort of social hub, full of NPC’s who will give the player advice, advance the story, and act as intermediaries to important game mechanics. XCOM squads work as emergency responders, arriving on the scene to fight the invading alien menace. Picking the two agents who accompany you on these missions and developing them over time are core components of the gameplay. This development is done RPG-style; agents come in a variety of classes, each with its own set of abilities.
For the purposes of the demo, we were shown two classes: Master at Arms and Commando, whose sobriquets speak for themselves, I think. Having finalized our team selection, we were introduced to Angela (pictured above), XCOM’s brassy, anachronistically female leader. Behind her was a large map of the United States, dotted with small indicators that signified the presence of missions. Deciding which missions to do and when to do them is an important concession to player choice in this modern incarnation of XCOM.
Being a captive audience, there was no choice — Carter and his two colleagues embarked on a mission to a small college town in Georgia, where a scientist important to the war effort was under siege by the invading aliens. Arriving in a charmingly antiquated helicopter, we got a view of our fellow agents, attired in slacks and fedoras, smoking furtive cigarettes before the bird touched down. Once it did, the team began its sweep of an eerily deserted little downtown area.
The army had arrived before XCOM, but was nowhere to be found. Entering what appeared to be a command tent, Carter encountered a soldier rifling through some important-looking documents. Once discovered, however, the G.I. showed his truly colors, morphing rapidly into an alien being and lunging at our hero. The aliens — called Outsiders — are “made of technology,” which makes them vaguely reminiscent of something you would see in TRON, all silvery-blue-black bits and particles. Their objective, we were told, is to conquer earth and remake it in their technological image.
The impostor quickly bit the dust, but not before he had a chance to warn his compatriots, who arrived in numbers. The core gameplay was thus made apparent. XCOM is a cover shooter with hefty RPG touches — at first glance, it resembles Mass Effect. Carter can slow time to a crawl and give orders to his squad-mates via up radial menus, enjoining them to create defensive barriers, or draw the enemy’s attention so that Carter can flank. Each ability has a cost in “Time Units,” however, which seemed a nod to the franchise’s turn-based roots.
When a powerful, snake-like enemy arrived, the reboot’s most important homage became apparent. Just like in the old XCOM games, it’s possible to capture alien technology to use against the Outsiders. Carter ordered one of his compatriots to trap the techno-snake inside some kind of gadget. Having done so, players will have two options: They can either redeploy the tech right away, gaining a powerful ally on the battlefield, or save it until the end of mission, using it to abet their research efforts back at base. “In XCOM,” Whitney intoned solemnly, “every enemy is an opportunity.”
The team continued to fight, picking their way through the college campus and capturing and deploying a number of alien weapons along the way. The Outsiders, though their foot soldiers appear in relatively humanoid form, seemed to disdain cover, eschewing the chest-high walls that littered the environments. This habit made them easy fodder for the Disintegration Ray, a piece of end-game tech that Whitney deployed to spice up the ending of the demo.
The appearance of a giant alien monolith (similar to the one in the Zapruder-style footage that began the demo) brought proceedings to a climax. The XCOM shore party were successful in capturing it and redeploying it, making quick work of any remaining Outsiders. Suddenly, a black hole appeared, and our heroes plunged through, catching a glimpse of some sort of uncanny Outsider homeworld before the lights came back on and the demo was over.
Afterwards, I had a chance to talk with 2K Marin producer Drew Smith about the game. A transcript follows below:
GameFront: Tell me the story of acquiring the XCOM license. I guess what I’m curious about is — if you want to make a game about an alien invasion that’s sort of like a shooter, why get XCOM? Why not make a game with a new title and new IP?
Drew Smith: I don’t know the origins of the acquisition of XCOM; it happened some time ago, but I don’t know when that happened. I think the reason we took that game and made it this way is that it’s something that we believed strongly in. There’re some awesome things in the original game – it’s probably, arguably, the best tactical game ever made.
We wanted to say “how can we take that and reinvent that for today? It’s different – if you look at the time of the early nineties when that game came out, the game market was very different. It was a much nerdier, much smaller group – I consider myself one of those people. Now, games are gigantic; they’re no longer the nerdy hobby; they’re no longer the PC enthusiast hobby.
GF: Do you see yourself as almost translating or transporting the best parts of that culture to a new audience?
DS: That’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to sit there and specifically look at what the pillars were that made the original game great, and how we could transport those to a new beginning for the game.
GF: How did you pick the 60′s setting? Was there an influence of, I don’t know, the popularity of Mad Men?
DS: We do like Mad Men, but I don’t think that was really the impetus. What was interesting about the 60′s is that there’s a juxtaposition in the 60′s of the post-50′s…when we think of the 50′s, everyone has this sort of ideal thought of that time. And it wasn’t ideal. It’s just that the Leave it to Beaver kind of thing is what we think of. The 60′s is when you have some real dissidents. You have Black Panthers in Oakland, you have stuff starting to build – women’s lib…there’re the riots in Watts. You have this splintering of the population, and the breakaway from this norm, so we thought that there is no better place to put a story about xenophobia and alien invasion than into that era.
GF: So, people who would otherwise have distrusted each other are banding together to combat the aliens?
DS: Exactly. People who have been marginalized, traditionally. You have Angela [a woman], who was a CIA person, now running the operations floor. They would not have traditionally had a woman running any kind of operation at that time. Leon Barnes [who helps you level up your squad members] is an African-American – they wouldn’t have had him. In fact, they had COINTELPRO, at the time, specifically looking into stopping Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And then the third point is Dr. Weir [the scientist from the demo], and his political views, which are sort of left wing, and his sexuality [it was hinted that Dr. Weir is homosexual]. You have these people that would have been pushed out normally.
GF: And there’s time to address that, despite the fact that the alien threat is bearing down? You have story situations in which NPC’s are running up against each other and they disagree?
DS: I don’t want to talk about what exactly will go on narratively, but we will absolutely address it, and we want it to be understood. That’s one of the things that makes the game interesting in that time period.
GF: One of the things that’s fun about XCOM in its strategy guise is that is has a lot of replay value. It has this randomly generated content, and you can play as many games of XCOM as you want. Do you guys foresee people being able to play the new XCOM multiple times in different ways?
DS: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot about how to balance that best, and you saw in the demo that there are side missions on the map, and you can go on side missions that are not main, narrative story quests. As Morgan has said before, we don’t want to diminish the value of something by calling it a side mission – it’s specific content – you’re going out and collecting resources and researching things.
Our plan (and this may be altered) is that you can’t research everything in one playthrough – that won’t happen. So you go through a second time and you get more information, more research, and you find out more things.
GF: XCOM has been through a lot of different kinds of aliens in its history. You guys have your own new kind. What are some of the challenges in inventing an alien species to be an enemy in this game? They don’t get the same sort of character development as a Lazarovic or an Andrew Ryan, say.
DS: There were obviously concerns when dealing with something that’s not readable, not in a human form. In the tactical space, we have humanoid enemies that make sense to people. But looking at the Titan, for example, its a terrifying thing, but right away you’re not sure what you’re terrified of. The progression of that enemy, and the attacks that it does are what gives it a personality. So maybe its not like an Andrew Ryan, or whatever antagonist you can think of, who is directly talking to you. It’s the actions of the aliens that make them terrifying. That’s how we’ve dealt with that.
GF: You’ve mentioned the word terror a couple times. Will there be horror elements, or more atmospheric, tension-building aspects of the game?
DS: It’s not meant to be a horror game, but atmospheric, tension-building – one of the core principles of Enemy Unknown/UFO Defense when it came out was that. It was a terrifying experience. You can’t save all the world, and you’re running against time in that specific game. You can’t see the battlefield. There’re always aliens, in that situation, lurking behind cover that you can’t quite make out.
GF: Lots of people are doing origin stories. In the history of entertainment over the last ten years, that’s been a big deal. What make your origin story for XCOM different, or better, or unique?
DS: The story we’re trying to tell, narratively, is not the standard game story. We’re not telling a Halo story, we’re not telling a Call of Duty story. We’re trying to more like an RPG, were trying to be something that has more depth to it, for players. If you go back to Bioshock 2, there’s a heavy narrative in that game, and that narrative creates the atmosphere around you. We think, origin-storywise, this setting really fits well with something we can do, and something that’s really cool and interesting for people to see, and we think that we can deliver some awesome narrative on top of it.