“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. As soon as XCOM starts, the tone is set with this quote by Arthur C. Clarke. It leaves you thinking while creating an atmosphere using blue letters against a black backdrop, somewhat reminiscent of the Star Wars lead-in… but so different. Because XCOM : Enemy Unknown wants to blend sci-fi with horror through the management of a customizable soldier squad. The twist? Those same soldiers are ready to enter turn-based battles until death or victory. We asked Jake Solomon, lead designer at Firaxis, the studio known for its Civilization series, to tell us a bit more about the game.
XCOM : Enemy Unknow reminds me of some other games’ titles. What does XCOM stand for?
This new XCOM is a concept brought up to date which dates back to a trilogy that includes UFO: Enemy Unknown, Terror From The Deep and Apocalypse. Each game is set at a different time (1999, 2042, 2084) but all of them take place on our good old Earth. The name “XCOM” comes from eXtraterrial COMbat unit, better known as the abbreviation X-Com. It’s an army specialized in extra-terrestrial warfare. The new title is a mash-up of the old ones.
Soldiers Vs Aliens, a recurring yet pleasing theme. Still, you managed to innovate, how so?
In XCOM, you play both the soldiers and the general. On the field, you control the squad in a turn-based fashion, thinking strategically, without a time limit. Once you’re back at the base, time flows without a pause, which makes you take real-time decisions such as which country to help first, which technology will be researched or how to customize and train your soldiers. Time flies, stress builds up, you decide it’s time to go back to the field, to slow down time, and then you realize that you are about to face an army whose weapons and numbers you know nothing about, with destructible tactical elements surrounding you. Later on, more elements and tasks will appear, turning XCOM : Enemy Unknown into an unusual experience.
XCOM is pretty fun but isn’t it supposed to be scary?
Absolutely, we want you to be scared AND thrilled at the same time. Or if you prefer to have fun while being scared.
Another interesting element is the “Sims from the future” aspect with the possibility to customize the soldiers.
Many modern games, mainly on homes devices, take the player’s hand and prevent him to be game over. Here, we wanted to break that pattern and further the player’s involvement. So you pick your soldiers, you can change their name, their haircut, their weapons and you support their growth. All of this is very rewarding. However, if you are not cautious enough, the battles’ intensity will see some of them wounded or dead. Death in XCOM, is a serious matter. There’s no going back, your favorite soldier is dead, you have to train a new one, a rookie, whose growth won’t follow the same path, who’ll need to be taken care of in order to not become cannon fodder. We noticed that it greatly enhances the player’s involvement. Remember, no crying!
New title: XCOM, an alien killed me! Can we actually lose for real?
Exactly, it’s one of the game’s areas which mattered the most to us. You do the hothead? Your soldiers die. You always let down the same countries when all hell breaks loose because of alien attacks? Those same countries leave the alliance that finances your base and your research. You lose too many battles and countries? You’re game over, even after 10 hours of play.
No room for mistakes then. Which measures did you take to counter the difficulty?
Apart from the several difficulty levels that newcomers can select to discover XCOM at their own rhythm, the one aspect we wanted to focus on was to create a game that falls in that special category which make you say “I’ll just do one more mission before bed” and when you turn around, it’s three in the morning. I think we succeeded. We were looking for that vibe that makes you geek out, with great songs and that feeling of accomplishment you get when you overcome a really hard challenge that kept pushing you forward.
Traditionally, this type of game does not possess a multiplayer mode. What made you include one?
Well, after reading forums and talking to each team member, we discovered that everybody had that idea at some point. Then we made the decision to include one which would give you the option to use a finite amount of points to buy either soldiers, weapons, etc, without knowning what the other player picked in order to recreate that tension you encounter against the AI, when you don’t know what you’ll face. The rest lies in the community’s hands.
This game reminds me of a CYOA book. Was that also on purpose?
Let’s just say we wanted to create a game where no playthrough would be perfect, and we also wanted to make a game where each time you would start a new playthrough you would experience something new.
Some elements of XCOM have a Men in Black or even Roswell feel. Coincidence or influences?
It’s a part of our inspiration. Gamers who are into sci-fi like Easter eggs every now and then. There are even some hidden characters, with references to pop culture. I’ll give a hint: you access them through the squad’s name customization menu.
Interesting! Is Sid Meier (Civilization’s creator) in the game?
Ha! You actually found one! You and Sid Meier are probably gonna go through some tough times together, but in the end you will probably prevail. On the other hand, about the rest of the team… You’ll find out in the next episode! XCOM is your story, not mine!