"XCOM: Enemy Unknown" combines resource management and combat strategy
Turn-based game is from Sid Meier's Firaxis Games
Designer says the elements felt lacking by themselves
The game was released Tuesday in North America
It is hard enough to make one good video game. Trying to make two at the same time is a challenge not many developers try to tackle. But the creators of a recently released, turn-based strategy game hope that by blending two differing styles of play in one title they will find a pot of gold at the end of the double rainbow.
“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is a science fiction, strategy game pitting Earth against an invading alien force. An elite group of soldiers, scientists and engineers from all over the globe is tasked with repelling the aliens and restoring peace to our planet.
While most games take two to three years before hitting the shelf, lead designer Jake Solomon said his split-personality labor of love has taken more than four years to come to fruition.
“I’ve been trying to make this game for as long as I’ve been in the industry,” he said. “The original ‘XCOM’ game is my favorite game.”
The resource management game mainly takes place in the XCOM headquarters. It is where you find out about each new mission, but also where you tell scientists to start exploring new technology or have engineers build a containment area so you can interrogate alien captives. You’ll also have to manage finances, deal with demands from different countries and develop your military force.
Building out the “ant farm,” as Solomon calls it, takes some planning by the player, but can result in bonuses if done well.
“Some things are tied into the narrative and you only get one base,” he said. “But we wanted players to have an emotional connection to their base. In the (on-base) bar, soldiers who are killed during combat will have their names on a plaque to show you what your victories cost in human lives.”
The field squad portion of the game is more about combat tactics, maximizing your weaponry and out-thinking (and out-shooting) the enemy. Squads consist of four to six soldiers, each with their own names, backgrounds and expertise. Use them wisely (i.e., keep them alive) to complete the missions and they get stronger.
The action is still turn-based, so planning and strategy are important at this level as well. Set up your soldiers, hope the aliens walk into your kill zone and cut them down. Guess wrong and players can only watch helplessly as their soldiers get outflanked and end up on the board in the bar.
Solomon said developing the combat portion of the game was fun from the very beginning, but that, for the longest time, the resource part wasn’t.
It created a lot of tension and sleepless nights for Solomon and his crew, but they hit on a revelation that helped them find the sweet spot for “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.”
“The way it has to work – they have to feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship. They give each other meaning,” he said. “You research lasers and now my favorite soldier has a laser rifle. When I shoot, I see a laser coming out. (The connection between the modes) feels more real because there are all these concrete things behind it.”
There was initially a lingering fear with how the game was being developed, he said. Developers ran the risk of alienating players who might like one part of the game, but not the other.
“(Firaxis creative director and ‘Civilization’ creator) Sid Meier “has a quote – ‘One good game is better than two great games,’ ” Solomon said, jokingly referring to Meier as “my lord and master.” “The danger of having two games in one game is that people are going to enjoy one of them more than the other.”
But he said his team tried developing a resource strategy-only game and a combat-only game, and both felt like they were missing something.
The soldiers really had no personal connection to the player in the resource portion and the mission rewards didn’t mean as much in the combat game.
“There are some games that have these multiple modes to them, but nothing like this. In ‘Starcraft,’ you go back to the ship or in ‘Diablo,’ you go back to the town. Those aren’t really games; they are just breaks. In ‘XCOM,’ you have a game, then you go on to another game.”
Trying to find the middle ground took a lot of trial and error. The pendulum kept swinging from overly complicated to overly simplified, Solomon said.
In the end, decisions were made based on how well they worked with both aspects of the game.
“It just came down to stripping out a lot of things that weren’t working and getting a flow in there,” Solomon said. “You come back to the base and say these things have meaning for me. On the soldier side, deepening the class system and customization became important.”
“It was pretty organic. It was a process that I didn’t have a road map for.”
Solomon was very careful not to tread on the memories of fans of the original “XCOM.”
“They have a very large ownership in the game, so it is important to honor the name,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve lost sleep worrying about whether I’ve made the game fun.”
Now, players can decide. The game was released Tuesday in North America and comes out Friday in Australia and Europe. The game will be released on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles as well as for PCs.