Firaxis Goes Back to the Future With XCOM: Enemy Unknown
It’s been 18 years since PC gamers took on an invading alien force in the original XCOM. A lot has changed since then. But 2K Games has enlisted Firaxis to update the classic strategy game using Unreal Engine 3 technology and designing it for today’s powerful PCs. In this exclusive interview, Jake Solomon -- lead designer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown -- talks about what’s in store for PC gamers in this new take on a classic.
How close do you stick to the original game?
XCOM is pretty heavily inspired by the original one, so the heart of that game is that transition between taking your soldiers into combat, fighting it out and then the additional strategy layer over the top of that. After combat, you return to base, where you make a bunch of interesting decisions and control the entire war. I think that’s the unique thing about XCOM.
What’s the PC gaming experience going to be like for those who turn up all the sliders and see the full visual fidelity?
I actually work on a 30-inch monitor when I play; I max it out and it’s just amazing. There’s the additional resolution that PC gamers will get. But we also have a completely separate UI for PC gamers and a different way to interact with the experience because it’s more tactical. We have different zoom levels designed for PC gamers.
How are you scaling the game for PC players who don’t have the most high-end laptops?
That’s one of the great things about Unreal Engine 3. The minimum specs are decent enough that gamers don’t need a dedicated gaming laptop to play XCOM. Obviously, we have the ability to scale down for that experience as well. There are a lot of things the game does -- with destruction and things like that -- that are pretty high-end. But it runs pretty well on some of our lower-spec machines.
What are the challenges of developing this game for a new generation of gamers while also remaining faithful to XCOM fans?
That’s definitely been the challenge: to take something that is sacred to a lot of people, myself included, but also introduce this game to a new audience. The industry has changed. Plus, we’re not remaking the original; we’re reimagining it for ourselves. I really am one of the biggest fans of the original game, so I know what things are important there and certainly want to stay true to that.
There’s still no game like XCOM, where you’re making all these epic decisions on the strategy layer. Then you’re going and making all these intimate decisions, turn by turn, with these individual soldiers on a combat layer. The hope is that if we make it accessible and add these new design elements, then that magic that was in the original game can translate to a modern audience. We don’t want to get rid of the core tenants of the original game, because we think that’s what made it special.
What’s something that today’s technology has opened up for your team?
One of the hallmarks of the original game is destructible environments. And we’ve been able to push that forward with Unreal Engine 3. Our environments are completely destructible: More than just being visually appealing, when an alien breaks through a wall, that changes the very dynamic of the gameplay. Shoot out the front wall and part of the roof of the diner and the dynamic fire will spread. Your strategy will evolve based on how the environments change.
This also ties into another key component to the game in that once your soldiers die, they are gone forever. There are real consequences for actions in this game. We’ve been able to add another layer of depth to the game through today’s technology.
What role will XCOM HQ play in this new game?
We’ve completely redone headquarters; it’s now a detailed 3D building that’s completely expandable and customizable. There’s a barracks, where your soldiers hang out. XCOM is a combat game, but it’s very open-ended, so the player can choose what to research in the lab. There are only three research options at the beginning of the game, but many more open up as the game progresses. Engineering is where all the theories from the labs become practice. This is where the player can now build any new items they’ve researched. And there are the hangars, where the jets await orders to go on strikes.