When Firaxis took on the job of re-imagining the strategy game XCOM for the 21st century, it may have accepted one of the toughest tasks of the year. The franchise was almost worshipped as a beacon of all that was great about games in the early 1990s, and now publisher 2K Games and two of its studios are trying to turn that nostalgia into something current and tangible.
Leading up to release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a PC and console counterpart to 2K Marin's upcoming tactical shooter XCOM) has garnered positive coverage, both from journalists familiar with the original as well as those of a younger generation; those who are less inclined to be impressed by the nostalgic glow of the distant past.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown came with some creative and design challenges, as producer Garth DeAngelis explained to me in a recent interview.
One problem has been the need to catch up on 20 years worth of design evolution. In other genres outside of turn-based strategy, there has been a rapid and fierce battle of annual oneupmanship going on. Although turn-based strategy has not been entirely ignored this past two decades, it has not faced the same sort of severe tests of market-based adaptation.
DeAngelis said, "If you look at it FPSes and the action genre in the last 20 years, there's certainly a timeline where there's a good amount of releases every single year. Every month, where you can say, 'This game did something different. It pushed the genre in a new direction.' In turn-based and strategy games there's a huge gap."
He added, "Our source material has been the original XCOM: UFO Defense, but we also have guys who worked on The Elder Scrolls series or the Fallout series. They love action games. So a lot of these other ideas trickle into the design and the feel of the game from these other genres that also put their stamp on the turn-based genre."
XCOM: Enemy Unknown gives the player strategic control of a military agency seeking to thwart an alien invasion. But the tactical gameplay is about forming elite squads of players, and pitting them against enemies, taking advantage of tactical maneuvers, individual unit strengths and terrain.
One of the best aspects of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the constant fear and danger of losing key personnel. Death is permanent in this game, so focusing too many resources into too few units is generally a bad idea, and this can bring frustration to the player.
DeAngelis explained, "You could get into a death spiral in the original game, where you could lose some vital people and you're just playing until you lost the game. We wanted to avoid that. We felt like that was something that wasn't necessarily fun in the original. So we did some things to change that."
He added, "There are some mechanics in place that will encourage you, and in some cases force you, to use other players, because your soldiers can get fatigued. They can get wounded. You can't just back to back to back level up four to six guys and only use them. You're going to have an A squad, a B squad, a C squad." In some respects, it's a little like FIFA-tactics, which punishes the player who pours all resources onto the field, and keeps a very weak bench of substitutes.
But ultimately the game's biggest inspiration is the original. DeAngelis said, "If you look at everything from the art style to the alien design of the original XCOM, you have a lot of classic sci-fi elements. We didn't want to stray too far from that. It was tempting, at a few points in development, to say, 'Okay, let's look at what these other creative people are doing'. Whether it's in movies or books or things like District 9, which were really impactful at the time. Let's look at what they're doing and see what's different and maybe we can get some inspiration and put that into XCOM.
"But we really wanted to stay true to the original, for a lot of reasons. When you play our game, there certainly is this external narrative of aliens invasion, but the more impactful part of our game is the internal narrative. To support that internal narrative, you need this foundation, this framework. Part of the magic of the internal narrative of XCOM is that it's a different story every time, but you're giving them this framework that enables the player to use their imagination to tell their own story. We really wanted to leverage that. That's what the original XCOM did, and we're trying to rekindle the magic of that."