During a press event at 2K studios in Novato, California, I had the opportunity to sit down with the lead director on XCOM 2, Jake Solomon, as well as play a little bit of the game. Unfortunately I was not able to get a full play session in as my computer station experienced some technical difficulties midway through. But from what I did experience, and from talking with Jake Solomon, and the XCOM 2 community manager, I was able to get a grasp on the direction this game is taking and I got a few of the questions I posed in a previous article answered. You can view that article right HERE.
The game starts off much like Enemy Unknown, showing the in’s and out’s of combat. As previously seen in E3 footage, XCOM 2 puts the player in charge of when to engage in combat. Aliens have seized control over the Earth and its up to you, the freedom force, to liberate your human brethren using stealth and guerrilla tactics. However, it’s not as easy as it looks in the preview videos, which show players setting up an “overwatch kill box” (where you cause your enemies to scamper while your other soldiers attack them in overwatch). Where the difficulty lies is that the enemy is actively running patrols even while your own soldiers are concealed. Their movement is difficult to predict and they will most likely spot you before you’ve arranged the proper setup. It takes a lot of patience, perfect timing, and just a little bit of luck…typical XCOM. And when things go sideway, you’ve got to adapt to respond to the threat. Jake Solomon described his gameplay philosophy for the sequel:
“We wanted to make the game more unpredictable. That’s why a lot of the features we added are meant to feed into that…it kind of came down to the idea that we wanted the player to take risks, and in order for a player to take risks you have to give them rewards. One of the big features is hacking…players can now hack bionic enemies or mission objectives…they can get powerful rewards, such as [those that] give your squad a powerful ability or convert an enemy to your team. Unpredictability can be good, but there is also a flipside. If you fail the hack, there will be a random penalty; for example, dropping an enemy on the player.”
There is even further emphasis on risk and reward on the battlefield with enemies dropping important items needed to craft weapons or armor, having the ability to carry fallen soldiers, and certain timed mission objectives. Do you risk going out to retrieve the loot before it’s destroyed and potentially uncover more enemies? Though this feeling of uncertainty and unpredictability is something XCOM wants you to experience, the dev-team also wants you to feel like you have some control of your destiny through the aforementioned concealment mechanic, putting you in charge of when to engage.
Firaxis showed off the overhauled strategy layer of XCOM 2, also known as your base of operations; however, instead of a stationary ant farm, as in Enemy Unknown, you command a mobile base that is even more complex than its predecessor. Jake Solomon describes the new strategy layer:
“The strategy layer is very, very different. In Enemy Unknown there’s a clear strategy to win; you focus on satellites. I guess we’ll see [the players’ strategies] once we put the game in the hands of the audience and see what things they find. We really try to make it a lot more open-ended. The player has a lot of different ways to succeed and there’s way more gameplay in the strategy layer.“
The first noticeable difference is the mobile base of operations is that you have more choice in selecting missions and deciding which rewards to receive for a successful mission. Be forewarned though, the missions you pass up result in the aliens receiving an upgrade or bonus that will make them stronger. Thus, through the decisions you make, you are not only making yourself stronger, but inadvertently making your enemy stronger as well. The aliens themselves are playing their own game where they can win before you do. If that doesn’t stress you out as it is, the aliens can also hunt down the Avenger. If they successfully intercept you, you will be forced to defend your base; if you fail, it’s game over.
Though we weren’t able to dig deep into the research, engineering, or resource management strategy layer, the mere soldier and weapon customizations were overwhelming. You are now able to create your own perfect toy box of army men, choosing the specific class of soldier, race, voice, accents, facial appearance, scars, tattoos, sex, country of origin and a few clothing options. The weapon customization is just as robust, being able to upgrade your guns with mods ala Fallout 4, and change their appearance with colours and skins. Mods are one time use only, so retrieval of these weapons from fallen soldiers is crucial for success. I saw only one armor upgrade that was available to me, which was an exo-suit that looked straight out of movie ‘Elysium’ or ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. Not only did it have extra hit points, but it also had a missile launcher attachment. Suffice to say there will be many more varied techs to create and discover. I asked Jake if there was going to be a proper tech tree in XCom 2:
“We didn’t do a tech tree. The tech are kind of different [in the] sense that a lot of the techs happen in the proving grounds and engineers can do some techs…it comes to my philosophy, and this may be antiquated…in Civ, we have these huge tech trees, but for XCOM 2 we tried to make it such that all tech leads [to something useful]…it’s not that wide of a branch…it’s a little more straightforward. I think it’s part of the mystery of XCOM where you don’t know what things are going to give you.”
Personally I would have liked a tech tree, but I guess I’ll just have to wait for someone else to map it out and I’ll end up in Googling it instead. Even as a veteran player of the series, it’s going to be overwhelming learning all the new ins and outs of XCOM 2; I can’t even imagine what it will be like for new players. Jake weighed in on the difficulty of XCOM 2 for those who are new players to the series:
“(Laughs) That’s a good question. It definitely weighs on us design wise. There’s ways to balance a sequel like XCOM 2. So when you’re making a sequel to a game that sort of trades in challenge then how do you balance the sequel to that? You are going to have a large returning audience that you have to keep engaged, and at the same time you certainly want people who have never played XCOM to be willing and able to pick up XCOM 2 and play. We tried to manage [this] with our difficulty levels…but it kind of comes out of the nature of turn based gameplay…we try not to have any systems that require some sort of expert knowledge. It’s challenging, but meant to be fair…the player has all the information they need and the time they need to make the decision. So we definitely hope new people can come to XCOM 2.“
Part of the fun of XCOM, in my opinion, is how difficult it can potentially be if you don’t make the right decision. It’s punishing, and a single turn can end up in complete victory or defeat. With the previewed new enemies in XCOM 2, it seems now you will be even more so hopelessly at a disadvantage. On the new aliens in the game, Jake explains:
“The Aliens, which there are many, many more in XCOM 2, all have really significant abilities that require you to play a different way and surprise you with the things they do [and] really change the way combat works. We tried to do the same thing with the soldier abilities which are much more dramatic.“
Jake wasn’t lying. In my shortened playthrough, I left a Stun Lancer unchecked and he immediately rushed my back line and incapacitated my sniper for two whole turns! You will have to really prioritize targeting enemies in XCOM 2, otherwise you will be punished…HARD. But eventually we’ll be able to stomp the aliens with our overpowered soldiers, right? Jake further explains:
“In Enemy Unknown there was a power curve where the player got REALLY powerful. We’ve been trying to fight that and it’s really difficult…you want the payoff for the player when your soldiers become higher rank…We’ve had to come up with some really gnarly enemies at end game which we haven’t talked about yet…we try to keep the clamp on the players power curve.“
So my duo squad sight, double tap, jet pack snipers won’t work?
“[Squad sight snipers] are pretty powerful, so much so that we moved squad sight down to the sharpshooters default ability. So every sharpshooter has squad sight. Promotion in XCOM 2 is much slower [than Enemy Unknown]…it may not be till the end of the game where you get a bunch of Colonels…it’s harder to level up to those high level abilities…To a certain extent, I would rather not clamp the player stuff, I would try to and make enemies their equal, that’s difficult to do.“
Don’t be too alarmed about this though. I saw there was a gun mod that had a chance to increase XP gain per kill. With all these gameplay and strategy improvements, they must have incorporated the ideas from my previous article? There will be dynamic lighting, day/night and weather effects (e.g. snow, rain, thunderstorms) according to Jake, but will weather affect gameplay? Jake responded:
“No, I played with that and it’s not a bad idea…it’s something we should think about having some type of enemy boosts or reduce line of sight…I think those things are all certainly possible…it is certainly something we played with in XCOM 2.“
Darn, so close. What about fully fledged boss fights?
“That’s definitely something that has come up. It’s not something we pursued in XCOM 2, but something we always bat around. What would that look like in XCOM 2? I think that’s why we’ve taken this sort of half step towards that. We added the Advent to take the place of the weaker aliens, but we never wanted the aliens to feel too weak. And so we figured these guys rule Earth now…the aliens now have many, many more hit points than the XCOM soldiers…teamwork is the only thing that’s going to take aliens down. You cannot one shot aliens.“
I guess they’re saving all my ideas for XCOM 3. What about making Impossible Difficulty more possible?
“Impossible is now called ‘Legend’ difficulty; it’s not the same. Impossible was truly impossible, speaking as the guy who balanced [Enemy Unknown] and I didn’t do a particularly good job of that as a designer. I was blindly throwing more enemies at the player…while it certainly made it more difficult…it sort of asks the player to break some rules and figure how the AI works and you’re going to have to find a way to win it. So, in the new Legend difficulty it’s actually a much longer game, it takes much longer to beat. Certainly there are more enemies, but it is also [harder] in terms of [the] behaviour of the enemies, and you can have tougher enemies. We actually try to make the game more difficult by it taking a longer time…it’s more possible to beat over Impossible Difficulty. The philosophy for Legend Difficulty is more like, ‘you will pay for mistakes’, not that you have to be lucky to beat it. It’s more like mistakes are very costly in Legend, the AI will take advantage of this strategy…it’s a big philosophy shift for us.“
Lastly, what about multiplayer?
“Multiplayer is back and it’s back in the same format with the points. The only major difference is all the new enemies. Multiplayer matches are wild! We absolutely have a ranked ladder system that will show leaderboards and everything.“
The last couple of tidbits I gleamed from the gameplay, and talking with the XCOM 2 community manager, was that pistols have been removed from all other soldiers, including rookies, and are now a class specific weapon for the sharpshooter. Also, you, the commander and formerly bodyless Starcraft type executer of XCOM, will have an integral part to play in the story.
We’ll have to wait till the game releases Feb 5, 2016 to find out how the final version plays, but everything is looking pretty darn good at this early stage as there seems to be some solid additions to the gameplay, but man, if only they could have read my article during development and addressed some of those “burning questions” I posed. Oh well, I guess I can keep on dreaming.