2K’s Firaxis Games made a lot of changes to the basic design of its turn-based combat game XCOM 2 with its new expansion XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.
The tactical combat title’s expansion launches on August 29, the same day as turn-based Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. War of the Chosen will debut on the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. In this experience, players will take on a new class of aliens, dubbed the Chosen. The aliens will give the game more personality and cinematic story sequences. It will also have options for easier gameplay (I had some huge difficulties with the original XCOM 2 last year.)
I’m glad to hear that Firaxis moved to address the game’s accessibility, as it will now allow the player to set the time limits for how long it takes to complete certain missions. I talked about these changes with War of the Chosen’s creative director, Jake Solomon, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles this week.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What did you want to achieve with this project?
Jake Solomon: We wanted to give XCOM a personality. That’s what the Chosen bring. The idea is that we have these three ultimate enemies, and they all have a very distinct personality. These personalities manifest not just in combat — the way they fight — but also in how they talk to you. They’ll talk to you as you’re fighting and reveal different personalities. You have the assassin, who’s about honor and duty. The warlock is sort of a zealot. He believes in the alien cause. Then, you have the hunter, voiced by Nolan North actually, and he’s this more cynical, lighthearted character.
They talk to you in combat about real events — things you do in combat, your history with them, how you’ve done against them in the past, how the other Chosen have done against you. Even on the strategy layer, they’ll talk to the player.
GamesBeat: Are they human?
Solomon: Not exactly. But they can speak to you. You have this interaction with them. They’ll comment on everything you do. On the strategy layer, they’ll comment on things you do there. They’ll comment on achievements you’ve had — if they’re trying to hunt you down, if you’ve succeed against them. It adds a lot of personality.
It’s not just the Chosen. We also have these factions, three resistance groups. They’re meant to be the counters for the Chosen, the three big enemies. Now, we have three powerful resistance factions that can join with XCOM and counter each of the Chosen. Those factions have leaders that are also personalities, who will also comment on how things are going.
We even have little details we’ve added where — after a mission you fly back to the base. While you’re flying back, we have the voice of the Advent, the government controlling Earth, trying to spin what you just did for them. They’ll say, “Don’t worry, that was just a small dissident faction. No one was wounded.” You get a sense from that side, and then in the base, if you go to the bar, we have Resistance Radio, which is the resistance side of things. They’ll be sending out propaganda for what you just did.
There are lots of new voices in the game in addition, of course, to all the gameplay features. Overall, the initial goal for us was to add a lot of personality to XCOM. Sometimes, you’d be fighting for the world, but you couldn’t hear voices talking about it. We’ve added the sense of important people talking about this, commenting on the things you do. It feels more warm, more alive.
GamesBeat: So, you have the alien enemy, which is somehow aligned with these human-like enemies?
Solomon: The Chosen are kind of like really special, powerful leaders of the alien army. You’ll fight them multiple times over the course of the game. They’ll jump into missions, and you’ll have to fight them. The assassin uses stealth and her swords. The hunter is more of a long-range sniper. And the warlock uses psionic abilities.
The idea is that the aliens created these characters to be perfect champions. They told them their goal in life, the Chosen, is to hunt down and destroy XCOM. The thing is they’re not operating as a team. They’re kind of racing each other to be the first one to beat you. Whoever beats you, they’ll become the ruler of Earth, basically — or that’s what the aliens have promised them.
Of course, we’ve added a bunch of other new enemies as well. We have the Lost, a sort of zombie enemy. If the player goes into certain maps and encounter certain situations, they can get swarmed by these Lost. They’ll be large groups of enemies. It’s a different combat experience, where you have to fight off a lot of enemies at once. There’s an Advent priest, a psionic unit. The purifier is a flamethrower unit. A lot of new enemies to fight.
GamesBeat: What’s the state of XCOM at this point in the story? Do we have one big moving base this time?
Solomon: Yeah, you have one big moving base, but the difference now is you have these resistance factions that have joined you. Now, you work with them to go out on covert actions, send the troops out on cover actions, work with the factions, and recruit faction soldiers, which can be far more powerful than any soldiers we’ve given you before. The soldiers from the resistance groups are very powerful, and you can build them up over time. As I say, they’re meant to be a counter for the Chosen.
GamesBeat: Is there anything different about the design of the combat in addition to the new troops?
Solomon: Oh, for sure. The Chosen change things up. The faction heroes change things. They’re also very powerful units. We have a bunch of ways to tweak combat. We have a ton of new missions to do. We even have things called sitreps. You might go on a mission, and you’ll see a little warning pop up, “Hey, be careful on this mission. This is now modified. You can only take three soldiers.” And we’ll balance it with fewer enemies. There are a lot of these little sitreps. Another one might say, “Every soldier that goes on this mission can go back into concealment after they lose it.” “There are high explosives all over the map so be careful.” There are lots of elements that change combat from the way XCOM 2 combat used to work.
GamesBeat: The original XCOM 2 was a hard one for me. I missed some upgrades in the early going, and that handicapped me all the way through.
Solomon: For some people — there were two race elements in the core game. There were timers. Missions had all these set times to beat them. And then, the strategy layer itself had timers where you had to beat the entire game by a certain point. We’ve added what we call second wave options. We’ve added options that players can use when they start a game. They can click things to make it different. One option we’ve added is, “Double the timers on missions. Double the timers on the strategy layer.” We definitely understand that that type of gameplay doesn’t work for how everyone plays the game. We added a lot of elements, so players can enjoy the game at their own pace — more like how Enemy Unknown worked.
GamesBeat: As far as what works in each battle, how would you describe some of the tactics and combinations of soldiers that the player has to go in with?
Solomon: It’s become — because we’ve added all these new elements — very organic. The player brings soldiers in. That’s modified by the sitrep on the mission, potentially, and what soldiers you’re able to bring in. You can bring in some of the new faction heroes. Then, you have missions now that are very organic and dynamic as well. You can go into a mission, and it seems like a standard mission — go over here and destroy this one thing. The problem is that the Lost are in a nearby area, and they’re drawn to sound. As you start fighting, you draw these swarms of zombies.
The interesting thing is the Lost will fight XCOM or the aliens. You get into situations where you’re trying to do this tactical battle against the aliens, but then, the Lost show up and attack both of you, so you both ignore each other while you try to get the zombies off your back. At the same time, a Chosen can drop in and modify combat. It’s very dynamic.
An important element along those lines is that the Chosen aren’t meant to be — they’re not just interested in wiping out an XCOM squad. They’re not meant to just do a lot of damage with super-powerful weapons that you can’t beat. Instead, they’re more interested in disabling XCOM soldiers. A lot of their attacks don’t even do damage. They just disable soldiers. What they really want to do is move in and interrogate your soldiers. They can do that psionically. Or, they can capture soldiers and take them off the battlefield. They have ways of interacting with XCOM that aren’t just, “I’m so hard, and I can hurt you really bad.” They’re meant to be tricky, tactically — an interesting twist for the combat.
GamesBeat: The element of making sure you don’t lose your best soldiers is a constant.
Solomon: That’s changed somewhat as well. We have a new mechanic where soldiers who go on missions, even if they don’t get wounded, can get tired. At first, that sounds even more punitive, but what it causes is that you have to create this much larger roster. The game forces you to build a very big roster of characters. You can’t just rely on six heroes. You’ll develop 12 heroes or more.
The idea is that when you lose a soldier, even in the expansion pack, it’s not as big a deal because you’ve been cycling all these soldiers through. You have a much larger squad. We’ve given you a lot of tools for these soldiers to be more powerful. One of those is that soldiers now form bonds with each other. Every soldier has a compatibility with every other soldier. If you send soldiers who are compatible with each other on a mission together, they can form a bond, and they get a bunch of free abilities while they’re together.
We’ve given you a lot of tools. Soldiers definitely get more powerful in XCOM 2. You can buy a bunch of new abilities for your soldiers with a whole system of ability points. We want the soldiers to get more powerful. We want you to have more of them at your disposal. We want you to have these faction heroes who are even more powerful. There are lots of elements that balance things out.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve done a lot more work upgrading design compared to, say, graphics.
Solomon: It’s a lot of systems, a lot of design, a lot of new enemies. We’ve also added cinematics as well, though. We have an entirely new intro for the game, a new finale, a bunch of cinematics in the middle. There’s a lot of new story as well.
GamesBeat: And you can now play the other version in the form of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
Solomon: That, I will admit — there are few times in my career that I’ve been as surprised as when I was watching that presentation. Just like everyone else, my jaw dropped a little bit when I heard the phrase, “As you see, Luigi has taken half cover.” What world am I in right now? I couldn’t believe it. But I realized that this is finally how I can introduce XCOM to my daughters. I can finally play something like XCOM with my daughters, introduce the basic concepts. Then, when they’re old enough, maybe we can move on to XCOM together. That was really cool to see.
GamesBeat: Do you think it means there’s something very basic going on here? The appeal of cover and flanking?
Solomon: I guess so. It’s neat to see these things become standards of gameplay. It’s good. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something awesome. I liked the jumping mechanic. They’ll come up with some cool twists, and I’ll definitely steal them [laughs]. I never thought I’d see Mario taking cover with a gun. It comes out on the same day.
GamesBeat: Do you have a schedule of more DLC as well, or is this the focus right now?
Solomon: As far as what we have planned right now, this is it. This has taken us, the whole team, since we launched the game. It ended up being so big for us. We’ve filled XCOM 2 to the brim now. To beat the entire game takes even longer now because there are all these new missions, new content, new story. It’s added quite a bit to the main game.