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Don’t call it the shooter: 2K Marin re-unveils its XCOM game

You’re probably worried about this if you’re an X-Com fan: the fabled “XCOM shooter.” You know that the X-Com series is different from most. It demands a higher caliber of player and a more intense degree of punishment for failure. That’s what makes it so rewarding – that’s not what we get from most modern shooters.

Based on my conversation with 2K Marin, who is handling development on The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, I’m not too worried anymore.

“We’re gonna treat our players hardcore — just like a classic X-Com game,” The Bureau creative director Morgan Gray told GamesBeat. “There’s no run-and-gun. If you can’t use your brain — if you’re not smart — if you’re not using everything at your disposal up to and including the battlefield itself? You’re gonna die.”

You are going to die.

The fact that Gray knows how important that is to fans didn’t convince me that The Bureau is going to live up to the X-Com name, but it did convince me to give 2K Marin a chance.

The Bureau, as the studio calls it for short, is due out  for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on Aug. 20 in North America for $59.99. It’ll hit international markets on Aug. 23.

The developer has put a lot of time into this title. 2K Marin’s last release is BioShock 2 and the beloved BioShock 2 expansion Minerva’s Den. As you’re reading that, I bet you immediately started to paint a picture in your head of an X-Com game slapped on top of the BioShock 2 gameplay.

That’s wrong.

“It’s pretty much classic X-Com,” said Gray. “But we wanted to move it away from the classic isometric god-view mechanics of the previous games. We wondered what it would be like to be the guys in the battlefield. So we’re moving away from a military general watching the battle via predator drone back at home, and we’re putting you in the boots of the squad leader who’s down there ordering his men, under fire, with his own neck on the line.”

The Bureau is a third-person tactical squad-based shooter. The team wanted to express the core tenets of X-Com in a real-time manner as opposed to the turn-based battles of Firaxis Games’ recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown and previous entries X-Com: UFO Defense and X-Com: Terror from the Deep.

For Gray, the franchise is all about — as he puts it — “the ‘T’ words.”

“X-Com is about team, technology, tools, tactics, terror, and tension,” he said. “All those words describe the gameplay loop of the classic X-Com. With The Bureau, we are basically taking those ideas and filtering them through a real-time perspective.”

In addition to the aforementioned brains required to play XCOM, 2K Marin wants to bring squad management, light base management, alien-technology research, and more. If it happened in Enemy Unknown, it probably has its place in this game, but you just might perform the action in a more direct and real-time manner.

One of the most important core mechanics, for Gray, is tactics.

“When I say tactics — that is with a capital ‘T,’” he said. “Tactics. I underline it. I bold it.”

The Bureau is essentially a squad-based combat game. Gamers can give commands in real-time to their computer-controlled teammates using a mechanic called Battle Focus.

“You’re able to issue movement orders for things like flanking, covering fire, finding height advantages as well as ordering soldiers to fire off their specific special abilities that they’ll earn through leveling up,” said Gray.

One thing the game won’t have, however, is multiplayer. The developer wanted to focus its efforts on the narrative and getting the single-player gameplay right. That is probably smart since that is what most X-Com fans love.

Learn the origins of the XCOM organization

One of the areas where 2K Marin plans to set The Bureau apart from Enemy Unknown is in the narrative.

The Bureau follows the story of intelligence agent William Carter in 1962. It’s the height of the Cold War, and Americans are worried about Russia invading or starting a nuclear war.

XCOM 2K shooter Marin

To fight against that potential threat, the U.S. government covertly establishes an organization, called The Bureau, to take on the first line of defense against a hypothetical Russian invasion. The covert agency is also in charge of hiding the “dangerous truths” that could spark mass hysteria in society.

Of course, things don’t go quite as The Bureau anticipates.

“The game is an origin story,” 2K Marin associate producer Andrew Dutra told GamesBeat. “The organizations that make up The Bureau eventually become the XCOM organization. Instead of fighting the Russians, aliens come down instead. On its heels, The Bureau has to switch gears to combat this new threat.”

That’s when they reach out to Carter. As a field agent, Carter as a reputation for getting things done. The Bureau brings him on to lead a team into the field to fight skirmishes with invading alien forces.

“We like the conspiratorial aspect,” said Gray. “Government conspiracies are great vibes to play with. You’ll be there for the birth of XCOM, but you’ll also get to be there for the coverup of XCOM. The world cannot know how close America came to defeat. Our enemies cannot know we were on the ropes.”

“Picture a modern military, special-ops war game set in 1962 where you’re fighting frickin‘ aliens with super-massive sci-fi weaponry, and you’ll start to get an idea of what The Bureau is trying to accomplish,” he said.

But I thought gamers didn’t like difficult shooters?

In my conversation with Gray, I noted how proud he was when he revealed that the game, like its predecessors, will feature permanent death for your squadmates. He claimed it is one of the very few third-person action games to have something like that.

“It’s super hardcore for the third-person space,” he said. “Most third-person games don’t have a concept of anyone dropping at all. In our game, you can lose a dude that you customized over the course of five hours that you’ve based all of your tactics on. You can lose him and still have a hell of a lot of game to go. You’ll just have to get on to the next operation with a noob in his place.”

This is very reminiscent of how Enemy Unknown lead designer Jake Soloman talked about that game before it came out. He knew that players found enjoyment in putting so much on the line.

2K Marin knows that also.

XCOM 2K Marin Shooter

But a difficult turn-based tactics game is one thing. A skill-based punitive third-person shooter is something else. Specifically, it’s not something that has lit up the sales charts lately.

I asked Gray how he planned to introduce the learning curve to players.

“Our goal is to slightly ease players into the difficulty, but we want to quickly teach them the rules and to respect our world,” he said. “But there’s obviously concern about doing something extreme on the difficulty curve, but I think what we’re seeing, as this generation passes, is that the industry is going back to game-balance standards from decades gone by.”

He pointed out recent releases like From Software’s third-person role-playing game Dark Souls and, of course, Enemy Unknown as examples of titles that players love because the games demand so much more from them.

“Part of the thing that made [the original] X-Com amazing was that it demanded skillful play,” said Gray. “It demanded that the player respect it. In turn, once the player was able to succeed, it was all the sweeter for it. Our hunch is that gamers of that same predisposition exist out there in the third-person space.”

He also pointed out that some people prefer games like Rainbow Six over Gears of War because of the different skills that title promotes. He realizes, however, that his team is taking a risk.

“We know that by making a difficulty statement that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” said Gray. “That’s cool with us because XCOM isn’t supposed to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s for a very specific type of gamer. The XCOM fan is a little more hardcore.”

This isn’t just the “XCOM shooter”

Like I said earlier, I’m not convinced this is going to be a great game, but I also shed a lot of my doubts in my chat with Gray and Dutra.

The development team is saying the right things, and this is a hell of a lot easier to swallow after getting a superb, classic-style XCOM game last year from developer Firaxis. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be as open.

But we got Enemy Unknown, and it was great. Maybe XCOM has more to offer than just one style of play. I’m ready to give this a try.

“Our hope is that we’re giving the classic XCOM fans a fresh vibe by going real-time and getting on the level with the troops,” said Gray. “But this game  is also for people who don’t like turn-based games. We’re going to give them an XCOM experience that is true to the roots of X-Com and hopefully turn them into XCOM fans. Then, hopefully, they’ll try the original X-Com games.”


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