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Firaxis Brings XCOM Back for a New Generation of Gamers

We grill the lead producer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown to find out how Firaxis is bringing back this classic PC gaming franchise.

One of the most beloved turn-based strategy games of all times is getting a contemporary update from one of the most successful strategy developers out there. Firaxis is bringing XCOM: Enemy Unknown to PC and next-gen consoles, putting players in control of the entire XCOM organization. The gameplay focuses on managing resources, improving technologies, and overseeing the combat strategies and individual unit tactics, while battling a terrifying alien invasion around the globe. Powered by Unreal Engine 3 technology, this new game is at E3. Garth DeAngelis, lead producer for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, talks about what's in store for fans old and new in this exclusive interview.

Game On: For those who didn't play the original, what's XCOM all about?

Garth DeAngelis: XCOM is a franchise that is very enduring to the hearts of many hardcore PC gamers. It was released in 1993, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest strategy games of all time. It was our job to take what made that game so popular and amazing, and modernize it in 2012. XCOM has two primary game modes. There's a strategy layer where you make these big sweeping, game-altering decisions about an alien invasion, and how you want to deal with that invasion. Also, you can make these more intimate, low-level decisions on the Tactical or Combat layer where you have these individual troops, and they have individual abilities, personalities, and names. You control them one-by-one on the Combat layer. The magic sauce of XCOM is those two modes playing together.

What were the challenges in creating something for the new audience, while satisfying those core fans out there?

That's probably, arguably, our biggest overall challenge. We're looking at a game that is revered by many who told us, "We need to keep the stuff that made it very special." I mentioned the strategy layer, customizing your base, and expanding facilities. At the same time, we need the tactical layer and keeping that turn base. We want the mechanics to be similar, because you need to really plan things out and make these thoughtful decisions. Keeping things like Permadeath, where your soldiers can die forever and the Fog of War. Bringing back all the classic aliens and making sure that the terrain is completely destructible. We had to uphold all of these pillars of the original and bring it into 2012.

What have you updated?

Game design, narrative, and things like that have advanced in the past 15 to 20 years, so we wanted to add some things that made it feel more appropriate for the modern day. We did things like Action cameras, when you're battling the aliens, to make it feel like you're directing or scripting an action movie. The camera swoops down as you break through a glass window, or flank and alien and critically wound them. Things like that really make it feel more alive and dynamic. That was our biggest challenge, and that's what we were attempting to do.

This is an Unreal Engine 3 game. Can you talk a little bit about what role technology played in allowing you to update XCOM?

Unreal has been phenomenal. We're trying to bring something as big as XCOM into the modern day. Destructibility is a good example, and having maps. There are tons of different maps, so you can play through the game multiple times and not see them twice. Then, not just create assets for them, but make sure everything in there can be destroyed and removed. The player can create their own emergent paths as they're using suppression fire. Having the engineers on our team figure that out; they have put in a lot of hours back at the studio. Unreal made it possible. We did make it just like the original, where you can fire and blow away cover. But it's different from the original XCOM. It's not 2D sprites and pixels; it's real 3D geometry assets that are very detailed. Making those work with a destruction system was a minor miracle that the team pulled off.

How are you introducing people to XCOM?

We're calling the tutorial the Controlled Experience, internally, and it's optional. The players don't have to play it if they don't want to, but we highly encourage it. We want to make sure that all gamers, whether they're holding a console controller or a mouse and keyboard, that they can become fluent in the systems of Enemy Unknown. As you know it's a big game, so there are a lot of systems that interplay with each other and a lot of mechanics for the player to learn. I know the first time I fired up the first UFO Defense, that first screen has a half dozen things to do on the right. There was no direction for the player. The bottom line is, we really wanted to reduce the learning curve for anyone to get into this game so they can enjoy that special sauce that is XCOM. That's why we created this Controlled Experience. It's integrated into the narrative. Players can go through it, and all of a sudden they know how to play XCOM. Then we let them loose into the wild. The challenge is there. It's extremely difficult. There are consequences for every decision they make; we just wanted to equip them with the knowledge necessary to make those decisions in the Controlled Experience.

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