Let me begin with a confession: I am a huge XCOM fanboy! I loved the original XCOM and its eXpansions/sequels from the ‘90s. I loved the Firaxis reboot – XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within. I adore the Long War mod. I just love it. I didn’t even hate the 3rd-person game, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Having said that, I think that I have established that I can still be objective when called upon to discuss a game’s merits and flaws. So, I will do my best to be entirely open-minded.
A few days before I arrived in Baltimore for Firaxicon, without anyone actually saying anything, I had somehow determined that I would get a chance to play XCOM 2. Maybe I heard it somewhere, read it, or just imagined the whole thing. So, when I got there, the first thing I did was to ask many of the grey-shirt staff members when I would get to play the game. People looked at me like I had two heads. Of course, no one said as much, but I got looks. I kept asking about it until a kind man named Matt, a Firaxis developer who worked on XCOM 2, kindly told me that there wouldn’t be any such gaming sessions. I was bummed out. Seriously. He did direct me to where I could play Civ:BERT, buy swag, and check out a Civ museum, though (which I greatly appreciated by the way). But I was still disappointed.
After the 10:00 a.m. “Welcome to Firaxicon” talk and a super high-five conga line of developers, Matt and I ended up talking some more. He smoothed things over and reminded me that there would be a talk about everything XCOM 2 later that morning. He also asked if I would be involved in any of the interviews. INTERVIEWS?! There are going to be interviews! I raced over to my new bestest friend, Jessica, at the PR table and signed up to meet with Greg Foertsch, the art director for XCOM 2.
So, what follows, in no particular order, is a combination of everything I learned from various sources, including that interview.
As far as I can tell, XCOM 2 doesn’t happen on an alternate Earth or in some other reality. It happens in the same world where XCOM: EU/EW occurred. Only, instead of winning the game, it appears that the XCOM group failed to repel the invasion and takeover that shortly followed. Maybe during the base invasion they were defeated or even later on when the reinforcements (I think) arrived. Either way, the XCOM organization lost and the Earth governments surrendered. In the 20 years following the alien takeover, these intergalactic critters have reforged and improved human society. Or so they led the general populace to believe. The human insurgency is what the sequel is all about. We’re finally taking back our world. HELL YEAH!
Let’s begin with the inclusion of procedural map generation. No more of the same gas station or pizza joint appearing in Mexico, Japan, and Africa. This isn’t the Matrix after all. With these new maps, we’ll get new tundra, arid and temperate biomes. We will get to see rainfall and snowfall particle effects, but I’m not sure if weather will actually impact the gameplay. It would be great if they did, though.
Speaking of particle effects, there appears to be a dynamic light source now, so the shadows really pop out. I also saw some concept art assets showing a dilapidated small town somewhere in Middle America. In fact, it looked as if all the units and buildings – basically all of the art resources – got a facelift. New textures for everyone!
Why is that important? Sure, everyone wants the prettiest game, but in XCOM 2, the environment can be destroyed. Not just a wall, car or statue, but a whole structure can be brought down affecting nearby units, and possibly killing some of them. I think this series will take several leaps forward because of this. The set repetition present in XCOM:EU/EW might be handled at last.
We saw two new units: the Advent Shieldbearer and the Archon.
The Shieldbearer appears to be a support unit that, if left alone, will raise personal shields over nearby Advent and alien units. It’s now priority target #1. The Archon is a flyer that seems to be replacing the Floater and Heavy Floater. Does it have anything to do with the naming of the unit? Heh, who knows? The Archon has an area of effect attack that looks like an orbital bombardment. Never mind the Shieldbearer, the Archon is the new priority target #1. But the Chryssalid, returning from previous installments, can now bury itself and ambush you unawares. Okay, that’s priority #1. Although, the new and improved sectoid can mind control your dead soldiers, so… I think you get the drift. These new units and reworked older units are all nasty. As the mission progresses and situations change, your targeting priorities might shift too. You can no longer turtle through the map looking for the most lethal unit, because now, they are all lethal.
Several interesting new and old mechanics were also discussed: stealth, hacking and the overwatch update (a personal favorite of mine).
Hacking is skill-based and doesn’t require a mini-game to succeed. When I say mini-game, I am referring to the many titles out there that have a new UI pop-out as you try to hack the system, making you go through some tangential exercise just to open a door or something. Not in XCOM 2. Here it’s a skill that can be upgraded as your character advances in rank. I am sure there will be some RNG going on – this is XCOM after all. So, what can you hack? Practically everything, or so we were told.
Overwatch has received a significant upgrade. What exactly does that mean? Well, the old version of the skill usually resulted in a single alien triggering all overwatch units, which in turn fired on it until it looked like hamburger. Sure, a rookie or squaddie would do that, but would a “named” veteran unit? I don’t think so. In overwatch 2.0, when the enemy unit dies, the remaining attackers go back into overwatch. That’s great, but now it’s difficult to tell if the Assault or Assault equivalent unit will be as effective. What about the Lightning Reflexes (where overwatching units automatically missed) skill? I asked Greg about that, and he wasn’t sure if it’s even in the game.
There is also a new concealment mechanic which might make the absence of Lightning Reflexes easier to swallow. Players will have the ability to place their troops on the map (undetected) before battle and ambush alien/ADVENT squads before they get their infamous free move. Now, that’s what I call equality.
One thing that the developers quickly mentioned is mission objectives. I don’t know if it will take a similar turn to what was introduced in The Bureau, but within a single mission, you might have several objectives revealed as you progress. Not every instance will be a kill or rescue mission either – for example, the recently revealed “Dark Projects” that the aliens research as they advance throughout the game. The developers have spoken about this new mission format ad nauseum and it makes me wonder if there is a game-master type of AI that will control the flow of the whole game.
Alright, enough of my hypothesizing. Here are some questions that were directly answered by Garth DeAngelis, XCOM 2 lead producer.
Question: With the new ADVENT reinforcement mechanic in play (as demonstrated in the videos presented at Firaxicon ‘15), is there a reason to stay within mission and kill every alien/ADVENT like before? As in, can a player gain some benefit for killing all the enemies means you have succeeded in meeting your mission goals, even if all other objectives have not been met?
Answer: If you kill all the enemies and reinforcements, then you automatically complete any primary or secondary objectives that are still active. But, if you missed an objective during the course of the mission – let’s say you need to download data from a terminal before ADVENT closes the connection, then that objective is still lost.
Of course, killing all the enemies can be a viable tactic. Aside from giving your recruits critical experience, it also gives you additional chances to get loot or corpses for the resistance. You’ll still have to balance this against time-sensitive objectives, and on missions where there’s been a bump in enemy power or you’re running rookies. In this case, you may want to actually get out of town rather than risk extending the firefight.
Question: Does staying in a mission for too long expose your operation to additional threats or raise the worldwide threat level as the ADVENT/Aliens realize that your movement isn’t just a ragtag guerilla force?
Answer: ADVENT and the aliens always take you seriously, and they’re playing their own game, so they escalate based on their own timetable and “Dark Events” that come up. If you kill more of them, then that reinforces their belief that you, the resistance, need to be eliminated.
Question: Do the aliens/ADVENT move around the map like they do in the Long War mod, or are they still relegated to a set spot? Or is it both?
Answer: It’s both – some units will move around the map and others may stay in place until alerted. Since the maps are now procedurally generated, the AI has to figure out what’s going on with the layout as well as the player.
Question: With the reworking of the overwatch mechanic (2.0), does anything else change besides the Assault class and possibly lightning reflex skill? Other than the obvious changes to the firing mechanic?
Answer: Overwatch has changed a lot because of the new sequential firing rules, which are simple but also have a big impact on the tactical game. The way it currently works is: First unit on overwatch fires first, and the result is calculated. If the target is still alive, then the next unit on overwatch gets a shot and those results are calculated. When the target dies, any remaining units on overwatch will wait until another enemy comes within range. This lets you plan out your overwatch strategy in more detail and means that your team won’t overkill the first enemy that comes in view. Keep in mind that this is how it works in multiplayer, too, so you can’t sacrifice one unit to blow through an overwatch screen!
Okay, that’s a lot to take in already, but here is where they really flipped out on us: full-blown mod support. That’s right. From the get-go, all resources will be available for modders to use. The Unreal code, the art, the AI, everything. The developers are huge fans of the aforementioned Long War mod, and they all seemed very excited about what the community could come up with. One participant asked them about how deep the tools were, and if co-op could be programmed into a mod. Yup, yup… CO-OP play. After he was told that it should be possible, he rubbed his hands together and said that he would do his best. I believe him. All in all, it was an excellent presentation… but I did leave one thing out. At the end, they showed us a video from the game of the Commander being brought back, so that might support my earlier hypothesis of where the game takes place. I’m not sure how everyone will feel about that development.
My need to play XCOM 2 has only grown as a result of my trip to Firaxicon. During the interview, Greg told me that there were more alien units that they haven’t revealed yet. Was he pulling my leg? I don’t think so. I can tell that the dev team loves this game. I know that I do!
I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for any other tidbits leading up to release. In the meantime, I’d like to thank Greg, Gareth and everyone at 2K/Firaxis PR that helped me collect this valuable information. The resistance is strong and unbent.