XCOM: Enemy Within plays like a finely-tuned board game. The complexities of running a multinational, anti-extraterrestrial peacekeeping force are boiled down to a few key designs; its notorious difficulty blossoms from how these simple mechanics interact to create complex – and interesting – challenges. But this elegance also makes Enemy Within predictable, even exploitable, in places. XCOM 2 wants to flip its buttoned-up predecessor on its head by substituting chaos for order.
If you’ve followed our coverage thus far, then you already know it’s opposite day in the XCOM universe. In XCOM 2, XCOM has failed in its mission, the aliens have occupied Earth, and now only a small band of resistance fighters remain to combat the alien threat. I recently spoke with lead designer Jake Solomon about how this role reversal has transformed XCOM 2 into a more randomized, freeform strategy game.
“In Enemy Unknown, it was all about the satellites,” Solomon said. “That’s how you kept yourself from losing the game, how you gained money, recruited extra scientists and engineers, and so on. I overburdened that system, so, for XCOM 2, we’ve broken all those [satellite benefits] out into completely different, competing tasks.
“Advancing your income means doing one thing, while recruiting new staff means doing another. And all these actions cost time, because the Avenger (the flying base XCOM ‘procured’ from the aliens) has to physically fly somewhere and spend time doing something. So you’re constantly being pulled in many different directions at once, which forces you to be more choosy. We want players to think, ‘There are lots of things I need to do right now, but I have to choose one and hope for the best.'”
XCOM has always been about making tough choices and dealing with the potentially disastrous consequences. A misstep in combat, or not budgeting your cash wisely, can quickly snowball into catastrophe. But as Enemy Within matured, certain strategies rose to the top, eliminating much of the guesswork. Rigidly adhering to a few high-level priorities can see you through most playthroughs.
XCOM 2 wants to get away from this predictability. It wants to eliminate the clearcut, right and wrong paths through the game. Here, each campaign is different, requiring you to budget your time and resources accordingly. “There’s a pretty clear way to play the strategy layer in Enemy Unknown,” Solomon said, “build as many satellites as possible as quickly as possible. Here, there’s no clear way to play because you get different challenges each time.”
You never know what missions will appear, or where they’ll appear, or when. Rumors you can investigate may appear in one game, but be absent in another. It’s a campaign that demands moment-to-moment assessment of priorities, as time is not on your side.
XCOM 2 wants to get away from predictability, and eliminate the clearcut paths through the game.
As Solomon explained, “The aliens win by building these secret facilities all around the world. The player can delay this win condition – but not stop it outright – by sneaking in, planting bombs, and blowing up these facilities. This’ll buy you some extra time, but is very, very difficult to pull off. Just the other day we cranked the difficulty on these missions because we want them to be very big, epic events. They’re also totally optional, it all just depends on how your game is going.”
When asked if XCOM’s goal is to simply stop these facilities from being built, Solomon said this wasn’t the case. XCOM has a counter-objective they’re pursuing that involves discovering the secrets behind these alien facilities, but he didn’t want to spoil anything else. That includes if and when this game will be coming to consoles, but chances are we won’t hear anything on that front until after XCOM 2’s PC release in February 2016.