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