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Welcome Back, Commander: A Conversation with Firaxis About ‘XCOM 2’

Turn-based strategy has never been so hyped, so here's the lowdown on what to expect from the upcoming sci-fi tactical shooter.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown rebooted its parent series of sci-fi strategy games in a big way. Universally acclaimed and celebrated for its difficulty and replay value, not to mention the relationships players established with their crew of alien-blasting avatars, Enemy Unknown won several game of the year awards and provided the kind of shot in the arm for turn-based tactics that few were expecting in the modern era.


Inevitably, then, a sequel is forthcoming: news of XCOM 2 broke ahead of this year's E3 conference, makers Firaxis setting its next game in a world where the alien invaders won, and are now facing up to the resistance of guerrilla forces. We covered the game briefly (and speculatively) once already, here, but at E3 in Los Angeles VICE Gaming got the chance to sit down properly with Garth DeAngelis, senior producer on XCOM 2, to delve deeper into what this anticipated sequel is going to deliver.

VICE: Garth, tell us what's happening, right now, with XCOM 2.
Garth DeAngelis: We have just done our gameplay reveal here at E3, confirming that XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and, naturally, it's a turn-based tactical strategy game, again. What we've done is put a little twist on the XCOM premise. We've said: what if XCOM, the unit, never actually won the events of Enemy Unknown, which is kind of cool because a lot of our players lost, as it's a challenging game. That led us to have some internal discussions about what the world would be like if XCOM didn't win. So, if you fast-forward 20 years into the future, the aliens have fended off XCOM, they've scattered them to the wind, The Council (of XCOM-supporting nations) has turned on XCOM and now the aliens occupy Earth. They've built their own mega-cities, they've set up this new world order, to sort of act as this propaganda where they want to draw in the rest of humanity to these cities because, in them, disease is cured, and there's no more poverty or crime. But all that's come about via some nefarious reasons, and so the stage is set for XCOM to have to rebuild itself, so it can take Earth back once and for all.


The E3 gameplay demo showed the character Central returning from Enemy Unknown. Will we see more of these connections between the two games?
Oh yes, you will see some returning characters, and it is a continuation of the timeline. This is the same universe, and it's important that the remnants of XCOM, even though they got scattered, are present. You saw Central, but you will just have to wait to see who else is remaining, too.

Ahead of Enemy Unknown's release, few could have predicted that a turn-based game, born of an aged franchise, would prove so popular. What do you put its massive appeal down to?
That's a great question, and I'm happy that it is popular because, personally, I'm just a huge fan and it's an honor to work on this franchise. There are not too many games out there that are quite like XCOM—it truly is its own beast. We are technically under the strategy genre, but when you break it down it's such a unique mixture of a lot of concepts—you have a high-level strategy game where there's this sweeping war and you are making a lot of decisions trying to build a resistance, but then you control everything, from boots on the ground to firefights with the aliens. And then you have the timeless nature of turn-based mechanics. Combine that with the beauty of the art and the cinematics and cameras and it's a unique package.

What would you say are the key differences between Enemy Unknown and the game that XCOM 2 will ultimately be?
There are a few key differences, and the one that we are most proud of, and excited for people to play, is the procedural nature of the game. There are a lot more procedural components in the maps. In Enemy Unknown we had static maps, and they were great, and hand crafted, but if you played the game for a second time you saw the same exact layout. You're not going to have that experience anymore, as now the maps have completely unique layouts and it will be very rare, if not impossible, to see the exact same one twice. On top of that we have procedural objectives. You obviously have to wipe out each map's bad guys, but you must also try to foster the resistance, and there are other sub-objectives, too. Perhaps you need to hack a workstation to breakdown a security system, or you might be sabotaging a monument, or building, as you saw in our gameplay demo. You need to recover important intel to help push the resistance forward, so there's always something else to do. It's not scripted, like Enemy Unknown was—anything could show up at any time, anywhere in the game.


That level of procedural generation must have presented the team with some new challenges.
Oh yes, it changes a lot of pipelines and processes on how we put things together, and we had to learn a lot from what we did on Enemy Unknown, the way that we handcrafted those maps. There is a lot of value in doing that, from both an aesthetic point of view and a layout perspective, so we took what we learnt and we subdivided that information into this procedural patchwork system. So, you still have logically designed components, but they can be mixed and matched in a bunch of different ways.

'XCOM 2' gameplay trailer from E3 2015.

In Enemy Unknown players developed some very strong emotional attachments to each of their characters, going so far as naming them after people close to them. I expect that's something that you'll be aiming for with the sequel—but did that level of connection surprise you?
I would say so, yes. I played it a lot before it was released, and I was experiencing those emotional losses when characters died—but I was a little surprised that when I was losing a "family member" in XCOM, that would also resonate with everyone else in the same way. But it really does, and it seems like everyone who played Enemy Unknown has their own emergent personal stories about whatever they wanted to create in their minds, with the soldiers, and that's a huge part of what XCOM 2 is about.


Were you holding certain soldiers back, too? Ensuring that they wouldn't be on the front line, even at the expense of leveling them up?
I did that. I always put my wife on the backlines, in my C Squad, so that I don't bring her out that much. I wanted to keep her safe back at base, and a lot of people were doing the same thing.

Mechanically, is XCOM 2 going to play in exactly the same way as its predecessor?
It's a mix, actually. We have a lot of core components that we've carried forward from Enemy Unknown. When you look at the foundations of combat, we really loved the cover system, we loved things like the fog of war and all the alien and class abilities that could be had, but we took those baselines and wondered: how can we inject some fresh new mechanics into that? We've got this new narrative, and with you playing the resistance, with the tables being turned to the extent where you're almost playing the invader, it made sense to emphasize elements like concealment. So, when you enter a map in XCOM 2, things do feel very different. The aliens don't know you're there, and you're able to sneak around, setting up traps, or ambushing unsuspecting groups of enemies.

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What sort of influences are in the mix for XCOM 2, be that on the visuals or the gameplay?
1994's original X-COM: UFO Defense was our source material for where we started with Enemy Unknown, and there are so many influences on the new game. We obviously love the trope of the underdog resistance that you see in so many movies, like They Live or even Elysium. The latter, visually, has inspired some of our game armor and weaponry.

And what about modding potential for the new game?
Because we are running on PC, we can provide a robust toolset to the community and they can mod to their hearts' content. XCOM 2 is a very system-driven game, and those are prime candidates for awesome modding. We look at big titles like Civilization and Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V and others, at how they've been altered by the PC community, and we can't wait to see what the players do with XCOM 2. It might be that we see total conversations, as we have the Unreal editor, or just partial modification, as we are releasing the gameplay source so people can change alien numbers and abilities and things like that, to make the game feel very different. We can't wait to see what people do with it.

XCOM 2 will be released in November on PC and Mac.

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