Aliens Ate My Neighbors: 2K Marin’s Gray on XCOM

By Nathan Grayson, Tuesday, 21 June 2011 13:40 GMT

XCOM went off the grid for nearly a year, and it used the time to do some serious soul-searching. Has it changed for the better? We saw the game and chatted with 2K Marin to find out.


A reboot of the revered strategy franchise.

Spent a year under the knife because it was “too BioShock.”

Coming to Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in March 2012.

Published by Take-Two.

I don’t envy game developers. Us gamers are – to put it gently – a difficult bunch. We whip out our soapboxes and wax entitled about “change” and “innovation,” rattling our sabers at anyone who dares to pump out a sequel that sticks to the straight-and-narrow. But only to a point – and a very specific point at that. Cross it, and you’ve committed a cardinal sin. Blasphemy of the highest order. Now throw a long-dormant but still fervently loved franchise into the middle of that minefield dotted with hornets’ nests and starving cheetahs that are also immune to explosions. Congratulations, you’re XCOM!

Unsurprisingly, longtime X-Com fans very nearly erupted on 2K Marin after XCOM’s debut last year. The alien-annihilating franchise won its revered status with brainy strategy, so – short of a Barbie Horse Adventures cross-over – a fast-paced FPS was pretty much fans’ worst nightmare. On paper, anyway. In reality, the game managed to be more X-Files than X-Com, but I have to admit that “1960s space detective” still held a certain appeal. It just wasn’t the right appeal, apparently, so 2K Marin went back to the drawing board. Make no mistake: this is still a first-person shooter full of snazzy hats and ill-advised hair styles that look nearly as alien as the game’s amorphous enemies. Now, though, it’s sporting a fresh coat of paint – a new direction. Whereas before, the game took flack for being XCOM in name alone, it’s now added spirit to the equation.

“I mean, here’s the thing: when you’re working on a game, you know the first time you show it, people have only seen the tip of the iceberg,” director of development Morgan Gray told VG247. “And people are going to make judgments on what they know. So if that’s what it looked like, it’s totally valid. It’s frustrating when you know there’s more, but I can get why you could say that, and you tough it out and look for the long view. I think – from a development perspective – we’ve been focused less on how to make it less like BioShock and I would counter and say we’re trying to make it more like X-Com.”

“Getting those changes to permeate the core of our game experience has been a lot of what we’ve been doing this year. It’s been like going to X-Com boot camp for the team, creatively – really understanding what’s at the core of the franchise and how we can carry that forward. We had a lot to learn.”

Keep your friends close

Music to fans’ ears, sure, but angry mobs rarely put down their pitchforks and torches because someone asks them politely. And so, after a year out of sight and mind, 2K Marin took the wraps off its thoroughly nipped and tucked handiwork. Fittingly, squad selection was the first stop on the tour, demonstrating a variety of classes and special abilities. Experience gained in the field can now be used to upgrade existing squadmates or purchase new ones – a feature creative director Jordan Thomas described as heavily influenced by Final Fantasy Tactics. Be still, my beating wallet.

“It’s been like going to X-Com boot camp for the team, creatively – really understanding the core of the franchise.”

Even with rose-tinted glasses fully engaged, however, a little name-dropping won’t pull the wool over gamers’ eyes. Fortunately, 2K Marin – at the very least – seems to understand the philosophy it claims to have adopted.

“[Squadmates] don’t get characterization like, say, your Mass Effect squadmate does – where they’re strong narrative forces. It’s not like they’re never going to die because they’re too expensive and too many lines were written. They do have a decent amount of character out in the game world. A lot of it comes from your attachment to them – training them, pruning them to do exactly what you want. So you instill a lot of character,” Gray said.

“Lead designer Zak McClendon has this saying that I’m a big believer in. We’re trying to focus less on ‘I care about these guys because, if they die, I’ll be sad’ and more on ‘I care about these guys because they’re awesome and I want to use them.’ So their utility in the gameplay space is where I think a lot of people will draw their connections.”

Space invaders

After a quick stop at the mission select map – which allows for any number of branching paths at a given moment – it was time to dive headfirst into the field. And when I say “headfirst,” I mean it. In stark contrast to last year’s ask-questions-first, shoot-almost-never demo, XCOM’s latest iteration went from zero to “Zoinks, Scoob, gh-gh-gh-gh-gh-aliens!” in the blink of an eye. Carter and co were combing a seemingly abandoned Georgia town for a key scientist when they happened upon a military tent. In the center, one uniformed man was fervently fumbling his way through important-looking documents like a Twilight fan pretending they actually know how to read. Around him? Corpses.

The moment the fatigue-clad imposter noticed the three-man squad’s presence, he went berserk. Turns out, he was one of what 2K Marin’s calling Outsiders – a race of technology obsessed aliens hell-bent on rebuilding earth in their blocky mechanical image. Also of note: this alien was very clearly humanoid – unlike the Evil Flubber that hogged the spotlight last time XCOM emerged from development Area 51. Taken together, these seemingly minor elements actually form the backbone of XCOM’s latest evolution.

“By putting that emphasis onto the aliens’ intent, a whole number of gameplay elements filled out: the emphasis on tactical combat, utilization of your agents and their upgrade trees, being a commander in a conflict. Our setting was made better. Setting an invasion during the 60s, when even our citizens were considered aliens from the ‘mainstream.’ It just informed so much. Getting those changes to permeate the core of our game experience has been a lot of what we’ve been doing this year.”

XCOM’s E3 2011 trailer.

Gone, then, is the focus on aliens as some mysterious, methodical “other.” In retrospect, that was a fairly enticing – not to mention unique – angle, and XCOM feels a bit naked without it. But a demo’s just that, and 2K Marin hinted that there’s still far more to the story than just another Action-Packed Battle Between Good and Evil with The World Hanging in the Balance.

“Before, it was like the aliens were too tough to combat, so you had to research, research, research – which is awesome, but we also put a gun in your hand. And you kind of want to use it. And you want to use your buddies’ guns. So we sort of swapped roles – whereas before, combat was secondary to investigation, now combat is primary with investigation activities as secondary spice to change up the pace,” Gray explained.

“As a studio, I think we’re incapable of telling just a black-and-white story if you look at our legacy. So the upfront premise starts with an invasion, but as the plot goes on, the other threads start to come to the forefront.”

The Mass Effect effect

Combat soon moved into a more open area, and I’ll be completely honest with you: it looked just like Mass Effect 2. Two squadmates? Check. A radial menu with abilities that recharge after a short span of time? Check. Cover that’s just sort of… around, because, no don’t think about it, you’re being shot in the goddamn face? Another check. Granted, if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best? Even so, it all struck me as a bit half-baked.

Carter placed a shield around his squadmates and performed a simple flanking maneuver while the Outsiders were distracted. Was it strategy? Yes – but of an incredibly basic variety. Shooting also didn’t look particularly weighty or heavy hitting, and the AI’s understanding of cover seemed to have come from 80s action films. Could the tactical proceedings gain some much-needed depth during later levels? Certainly. But I can only judge based on what I saw, and the nuts-and-bolts basics failed to impress.

More immediately interesting, however, was XCOM’s new approach to research and alien technology. Defeated enemies frequently yield research components, which can either be taken back to the base and hammered into human-friendly weaponry or deployed in the field for an incredibly powerful one-off. For instance, after taking down the Titan – a faceless floating monolith that sent everyone scampering between destructible cover – the group’s celebratory breather was bulldozed by a small army of Outsider reinforcements. Well, so much for that whole living thing, then. Pinned down and just about to bite the big one, however, Carter called on the Titan. As it so happens, “outnumbered and outgunned” goes out the window when you have a sentient super laser on your side.

“I’m in favor of the broadest possible gaming audience imaginable.”

After mopping up the last of the Outsiders, Carter and co plunged into a black hole, which spat them out in some sort of strange alien dimension. Floating, mechanized blocks littered an otherwise eerily blank space, hinting at strange things to come.

To boldly go…

Based on what I saw, XCOM’s far from a sure bet, but it certainly has all the right pieces to be something truly special. At this point, it’s just a matter of stitching an admittedly disjointed development process into a cohesive whole. Fingers crossed, obviously, but it still has a bit of a way to go.

Even if 2K Marin sticks the game’s 2012 landing perfectly, however, there’ll still be one dark cloud waiting to rain on its parade: this isn’t classic X-Com. It’s a shooter. It’s “accessible.” And if a license with roots so irrevocably intertwined with hardcore gaming’s heyday is going down this road, then what does that say about the medium as a whole? It’d be easy to respond with doom and gloom, but – as evidenced by the project he’s chosen to work on – Gray’s not one to take the easy way out.

“I’m in favor of the broadest possible gaming audience imaginable. If there are more people playing games, it allows for more games to be financially viable – meaning more people can take creative risks. Like in music, you can have a genre. I can put out my jazz LP. I’m not competing with Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. I’m in the jazz space, and there’s enough people who like that type of thing to make it worthwhile,” he explained.

“But in the games space – for now – every game has to be the be-all, end-all for everyone because our pool’s so small. We have games with different goals – like a Shadow of the Colossus versus Call of Duty, right? Both awesome games. Apples and oranges, but they’re fighting in the same space. So, broadening your game to the biggest possible audience? Not smart. Know who you’re making your game for, target it, and do it. But more people playing games lets us target more and more of those audiences, which lets the business aspect be more viable for us.”

I want to believe.

XCOM will ship for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in March 2012.

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