Re­build­ing the first, last and only line of defence against the scum of the uni­verse

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher 2K De­vel­oper Fi­raxis For­mat PC Ori­gin US Re­lease Fe­bru­ary 5


Given the chance, XCOM 2 lead de­signer Jake Solomon would eat steak ev­ery night. Not just any steak, mind, but a rare rib­eye with mash and a glass of red wine. Of course he doesn’t, but as the mock­ingly self-pro­claimed “King XCOM”, he does have to be able to palate the same thing over and over, not­ing sub­tle dif­fer­ences and remix­ing his game ac­cord­ingly. So it’s per­haps only nat­u­ral that as well as or­ches­trat­ing this turn-based strat­egy se­quel’s mar­quee set­ting shift from 2015 plan­e­tary defence mis­sion to 2035 un­der­ground re­sis­tance move­ment, he and his team have put a lot of ef­fort into im­bu­ing XCOM 2 with a fresh dy­namism, a tang of nov­elty ev­ery time you play.

It’s why mis­sion maps are pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated now and the oc­cu­py­ing alien forces on them can drop loot, per­haps yield­ing ac­cu­racy-boost­ing sights or auto-loader de­vices, which grant free reloads so you don’t lose turns to switch­ing mags. It’s why re­gional bonuses for de­vel­op­ing ter­ri­to­ries are dished out ran­domly from a pool, no longer fixed to set con­ti­nents in the re­turn­ing holo­graphic Geoscape. And it’s why your ex­per­i­men­tal ammo re­search dis­gorges one op­tion from a roulette wheel of lat­er­ally bal­anced shell types, rather than fol­low the same pro­gres­sion of ex­pen­sive tech­no­log­i­cal leaps as guns.

That ran­dom­ness, how­ever, does come with po­ten­tial prob­lems. “XCOM is dy­namic,” Solomon says, “and that’s great. This is a re­playable game; it needs to be un­pre­dictable. Of course, the more un­pre­dictable it is, then sure, you can achieve peaks – ‘Wow, this crazy thing hap­pened that’s never hap­pened be­fore’ – but ev­ery time you in­tro­duce a peak, you’re also in­tro­duc­ing a po­ten­tial val­ley. If you hold on tightly you can say, ‘No, we’ve got this very smooth curve of chal­lenge.’ If you let go of the reins, the good is that the player has this un­pre­dictable stuff. The bad is, ‘Whoah! I didn’t ex­pect the player ex­pe­ri­ence to go in that di­rec­tion.’” Put this way, the late slip from a premium Novem­ber re­lease slot to Fe­bru­ary to buy the team ex­tra time to pol­ish sud­denly makes a great deal more sense.

It also rep­re­sents a lot of dif­fer­ent con­sid­er­a­tions to ab­sorb, even be­fore you di­gest the pres­sures of the new top-level strat­egy layer, which asks you to forge links be­tween a rag-tag net­work of guer­rilla cells. You do this from an air­ship base called the Avenger, a craft be­ing hunted across the un­friendly skies of a globe you no longer con­trol, ra­tioning out your time and In­tel resources be­tween sup­ply drops, chas­ing down ru­mours and con­nect­ing hu­mans sym­pa­thetic to your cause. This re­places man­ag­ing XCOM: En­emy Un­known’s global

“The sword doesn’t miss very of­ten, as it should not – it’s a freak­ing sword!”

satel­lite net­work, but Solomon found that sys­tem too un­sub­tle and wants to elim­i­nate easy paths to vic­tory. “We didn’t want to have a satel­lite sys­tem any more,” he says, “be­cause that cre­ated an is­sue where we were load­ing too much onto that sys­tem. So that’s how you got money and that’s also how you re­duced panic, and panic was how the aliens won the game. So, well, ob­vi­ously you should build as many satellites as you can.”

You may not have to jug­gle fab­ri­cat­ing satellites and plasma ri­fles any more, but make no mis­take: if any­thing, XCOM 2 is look­ing like an even more fraught bal­anc­ing act than its pre­de­ces­sor. Too fraught at first, in fact. “One of the things that’s sur­prised me, de­sign-wise, is how dif­fi­cult it is to bal­ance a se­quel,” Solomon says. “Af­ter my first pass at bal­ance, QA im­me­di­ately [flagged a] top­pri­or­ity bug: the game’s im­pos­si­ble. And I’m like, ‘What?! This is Nor­mal dif­fi­culty.’ ‘No, it’s not. The game’s im­pos­si­ble.’”

It’s an ex­change that shines a light on the in­her­ent prob­lem in bal­anc­ing the de­sire to cre­ate a chal­lenge for a re­turn­ing fan­base with the needs of rank new­com­ers. Solomon seems to have taken the les­son to heart, de­vel­op­ing an ethos for XCOM 2’ s dif­fi­culty set­tings. “In Nor­mal, I re­ally want play­ers to be able to stum­ble, pick them­selves back up and go,” he says. “On the dif­fi­culty level above that, it’s sort of, ‘OK, your mar­gin for mak­ing mis­takes is now very thin. You must un­der­stand the sys­tems and how they work.’”

You’re cer­tainly fac­ing a lot more po­ten­tial con­se­quences. In En­emy Un­known, all you had to man­age to stay in the game was global panic lev­els (much eas­ier said than done), but your in­scrutable ag­gres­sors are go­ing to be a lot more ac­tive this time around. Part of that is man­i­fest in the Dark Events sys­tem: at in­ter­vals, you’ll be given ad­vanced warn­ing of some cur­rent machi­na­tions in progress. The Ad­vent or­gan­i­sa­tion of hu­man col­lab­o­ra­tors might be con­struct­ing ad­vanced ar­mour for its units in the field, may want to clamp down on your sup­ply chain, or a UFO could be be­ing dis­patched to track down the Avenger. But not all of the aliens’ ob­jec­tives are as easy to de­scry: the de­tails of cer­tain Dark Events will be hid­den, only re­vealed if you’re will­ing to spend the In­tel to know pre­cisely what you’re fac­ing. And while th­ese short-term goals can be coun­tered by suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing an at­tached mis­sion ob­jec­tive in time, Solomon tells us that the aliens are also si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing to­wards an over­ar­ch­ing win con­di­tion that’s very dif­fer­ent to your own. “You can’t just sit there and poke at the aliens be­cause at the same time they’re build­ing up this progress, they’re build­ing th­ese fa­cil­i­ties around the world, which is go­ing to al­low them to ul­ti­mately win the game.”

It’s all part of main­tain­ing the se­ries’ char­ac­ter­is­tic ten­sion, de­spite of­fer­ing a very dif­fer­ent, more cen­tralised strat­egy wrap­per around the se­ries’ squad-based com­bat. Ground wet­work isn’t quite as un­recog­nis­ably al­tered, but new soldier classes and a fo­cus on mis­sion ob­jec­tives be­yond clear­ing out the alien pres­ence have changed its na­ture too, giv­ing you rea­sons to keep tak­ing chances.

Per­haps the most en­tic­ing trade-off of all is sword­play. While leav­ing cover in a game with Over­watch me­chan­ics is al­ways dicey (even with the abil­ity to choose the di­rec­tion of your at­tack to avoid ex­pos­ing your­self too much), you don’t need to have up­graded your Rangers to wield fu­sion blades be­fore you see sig­nif­i­cant re­turns on the risk. “The Ranger is un­doubt­edly the new favourite of a lot of peo­ple,” Solomon says. “Now a lot of times that’s be­cause the unit’s over­pow­ered, so I con­tinue to turn the knob. But the Ranger is re­ally cool… The sword does a lot of dam­age, as it should. It doesn’t miss very of­ten, as it should not – it’s a freak­ing sword!”

Solomon and co will spend the next three months toy­ing with those di­als and play­ing the game to en­sure its pro­ce­dural sur­prises de­light rather than frus­trate. Af­ter mak­ing

XCOM games for more than seven years, you’d for­give him for be­ing sick of the same old meal. But Solomon is more than happy to keep stom­ach­ing his dream de­sign project. “You have to eat your own cook­ing, right?”


Jake Solomon, lead de­signer, Fi­raxis

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