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A tactical discussion with XCOM: Enemy Unknown producer, Garth DeAngelis


A lot of things have changed since the original X-COM was released in 1994. Strategy games have gotten much grander, with higher production values and streamlined mechanics. Now, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has to tow the line between modern sensibilities and the expectations of series fans. We've already talked about our experience with the game at E3, but I caught up with Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis to learn more about the differences between the original X-COM and it's upcoming revival. Specifically, I want to know what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what is entirely new.

Gallery: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (E3 2012) | 8 Photos

One thing that veterans will notice right off the bat: Enemy Unknown forces players to make some hard choices. I encountered a few binary choices in the first hour alone. For example, should you research better weaponry or better armor? Since you can only research one project at a time, research in one area automatically forgoes research in another. It's possible to go back and research skipped projects, says DeAngelis, but that, in turn, means ignoring the new technology unlocked by research you've already completed.

This adds to the replayability, he says, giving players a reason to play new games and try a different research path. When I ask if it's even possible to research everything in a single campaign, DeAngelis says players might be able to if they stall the final stages of the game solely for the sake of continued research. "It might be possible, but I think it's very hard to do, and I haven't seen any save games that have done it yet."

The kinds of equipment gained through research mirrors the original X-COM in many ways, says DeAngelis. "We're following the same basic class structure of ballistic weapons, laser, plasma, that's all in there, and then we have a few of our own variations just like we did with the aliens but, for the most part, fans can expect to see some of the things they liked about the original."

As with research, players will have to make tough decisions about which missions to accept at any given time. As in the original X-COM, the Commander (that's you) will have to juggle the well-being of numerous nations around the world. Curb an invasion in the United States, and the country will gain faith in XCOM and reward you appropriately. At the same time, accepting the US mission means you aren't helping in other parts of the globe. If you neglect a region, its panic level will rise. Allow enough nations to be completely overrun, and it's game over.

Speaking of defending nations, old-school X-COM fans need not fret, you'll still be able to dogfight alien spacecraft with Interceptor jets. Of course, said Interceptors can still be evaded or shot down, so you'll have to pick your battles. And yes, should you manage to knock a UFO out of the sky you will be able to explore the crash site to mop up remaining aliens and harvest their technology. DeAngelis notes that there are "a variety of UFOs, all with their own loot, that differ in scale pretty dramatically." Enemy Unknown simplifies the process of detecting UFOs this time around: instead of forcing players to establish entire bases throughout the world just to detect alien incursions, Enemy Unknown allows players to deploy satellites that serve the same purpose.

"We have the utmost respect for [the original X-COM]."- Producer Garth DeAngelis

As for what happens once you engage aliens on the ground, a few concepts from the original have been entirely scrapped. This means not only the much-reported elimination of time units, but also the removal of different shot types. Rather than give players different kinds of shots with varying accuracy, Firaxis has chosen to emphasize tactical play by awarding accuracy bonuses for flanking the enemy. "There's a lot of times that you'll have a 25 percent chance to hit, and that's not that good, so your option is to move and either set up a flank for that turn or a subsequent turn. When you flank them, your percent-to-hit skyrockets – it goes up dramatically – so that's a new tactic that clearly wasn't in the original," he says. "We love the idea of a cover-based system, using flanking, line of sight, angles on the enemies, that's more of the decision being made, as opposed to [different shot types]."

Enemy Unknown asks players to take a personal stake in those decisions, as soldiers can (and will) die during missions. As X-COM veterans will attest, the moment you become attached to a particular squad member, they will be taken from you by an errant grenade or even one of your own panicked rookies. Enemy Unknown ups the ante by giving you more control over how your soldiers improve.

Soldiers will gain experience throughout each mission and receive promotions when appropriate. Some may become heavy weapons experts, while others may become snipers, for example. The initial class promotion is out of the player's hands, but equipment and subsequent ability upgrades are all customizable. Now, instead of just losing a soldier who has been lucky enough to survive from mission to mission, you'll lose your favorite sniper, whom you have personally groomed and outfitted throughout the campaign.

Enemy Unknown also keeps you personally invested by constantly reminding you that you are the commander, and you're making all the decisions. Characters talk directly to the camera, and thus directly to the player. There is no avatar here, not even a placeholder hero that publisher 2K could slap on the box (think Skyrim's "dude with horned helmet" or the standard Commander Shepard). "We actually had some discussion about that," says DeAngelis, "even our publisher was like 'wait, there's no hero in the game, what video game doesn't have a hero?'" It's all about making sure the player is invested in Earth's fate. "The player is the hero, and whatever they want to do with their soldiers – and I've talked about this a lot – it adds so much personal agency for me to name [my sodliers] after my family and friends. I love going through the game with that."

After grilling DeAngelis for ten minutes about how Enemy Unknown compares to the original X-COM, I ask if he's growing tired of the constant comparisons, the ever-present concern from fans that Firaxis will ruin a beloved franchise. "No, no, that's fine. We're totally cool with that," he says, adding that, after all, the original X-COM was the inspiration for Enemy Unknown. "We have the utmost respect for it. The passionate fans that played that one, we want them to know that that's our inspiration, and that we want to do justice to the game."

Oh, and regarding one departure from the original X-COM that fans would likely welcome, what about multiplayer? "Yeah, everyone loves multiplayer. We're only talking about single-player today." The coy response gives me a strong feeling that multiplayer will make it into Enemy Unknown but, unfortunately, I left my mind probe at home, so we'll have to wait to discover the truth.

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