The XCOM series is one that is close to my shriveled up heart with the original series being one which kicked off my love of gaming. Firaxis and 2K’s reboot of the series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, helped bring the series back to life as well as reinvigorating the turn-based strategy genre for a new generation. As well as getting a chance to play a preview build of the game, I also had the opportunity to speak with Greg Foertsch, the Art Director of XCOM 2, and ask a number of questions about the game.
So in terms of the new alien designs, what can players expect and where did you get the inspiration for the changes to old alien units?
So there are a lot of new aliens and some that have been revisited. A lot of is actually just trying to incorporate some human DNA into them, so for example the sectoid and muton now have a few more human features to them. With that it’s just trying to find a middle ground between what they were and the new human side. So for the existing characters, they’ve undergone that process while for some of the new characters we looked at a lot of different inspirations.
For some we looked at a lot of pop culture or UFO lore. The ‘Faceless’ is good example; for that character we were kinda looking at the creature from the black lagoon and we also took a bit from Pan’s Labyrinth. So we drew a lot of inspiration from everywhere… even when we look at something like its skin, we got a bit of that from the dude getting melted in Robocop– the original version.
So from there we start to cross pollinate ideas with each other. Another example is that the ‘Andromedon’ suit actually has its colour scheme based upon one of the very first NASA space suits and so he’s got this bright blue with orange piping. Even with his arms, like we wanted to see if we could make a cool looking character with the Lost in Space looking robot arms with the coil arms and elbows. So he’s one of my favourites and we looked at a lot of stuff like that.
XCOM is about a menagerie of (alien) characters so we tried to look across the spectrum. The ‘Archon’ had touches of the ‘Engineer’ from Prometheus mixed with the classical depiction of Greek and Egyptian gods. So we look at all those things and we start combining them together trying to find some little familiar bits and things that work to make the smooth out more outlandish additions.
So these human alterations are largely to keep up with the thematic changes that you’re bringing to the narrative in this installment?
Yeah, all along in the XCOM story we see constantly how the aliens have been playing around with DNA and mixing genetics. So now, the sectoids have evolved and the mutons as well, so we kinda looked at them to see what would happen over the course of twenty years with incubating new changes. We really wanted the sectoid to feel physically more imposing than in Enemy Unknown but still be distinctively sectoid… so he’s kinda ‘half-baked’. So his skin isn’t completely formed yet and he’s still got some of that glistening moist skin that the sectoids had so it almost looks like what it would be to have someone without the top layer of their skin.
So he hasn’t completely evolved and we really wanted to have him retain a little bit of his sectoid-ness. Especially in the eyes and when he runs; he’ll sometimes ‘glitch-out’ and run on all fours. His run-cycle will sometimes loop and you’ll get to see this part of him where kind of, like, scampers and his old genetic memory- his muscle memory reverts… and then he stands back up. So yeah, those are some of the changes we’ve added.
Cool. So another thing which appears to have some new additions are the maps. From what we’ve seen, you still have a lot of rural areas to work through but you also have some interesting new sci-fi cityscapes. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah, so the city centres we’re trying to make these gleaming white, pristine, very clean… almost clinically clean places. Like we want to almost make them soulless. It’s funny that the first environment we showed was a city centre at E3 and I remember reading a comment that said: “The grass looks fake”… because it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be but nobody had a context to put that in.
So again, we’re trying to create a contrast… whether it’s between characters or abilities. We try to shove all these things apart so you can get a real range. So with the environment it’s the same thing. So you’ve got this soulless, very pristine city centre and then on the other side of the spectrum is wilderness which is super lush, vibrant, colourful, and just more tactile. It’s also like you’re thinking “I know that gas station. I’ve seen that before… that broken down gas station”. Then you contrast that with stuff that maybe you’ve never seen in the city centre… but even then some them will be like restaurants and proganda centres which look almost like churches- they were inspired sort of by cathedrals. Then you look at the gene clinics which look like hospitals.
And so there are places which, when you enter, have things that you can connect with so we’re basically taking something familiar and giving it a twist of something fantastical.
Like trying evoke a sense of the uncanny with the aliens?
Yeah. So whether it’s creating abilities from the design side or creating aesthetics. We are generally trying to create this real spectrum of experiences. So now we’ve got things like small towns where you’re fighting in houses and backyards. Shooting around playgrounds and other weird experiences where people can look at it and say “Wow. That feels like a neighbourhood”. It’s just a very different feeling fighting through the residential areas and is just a really different twist and I think is something that a lot of people can kinda connect to.
Familiar but different, sounds cool. So in regards to character customisation, what inspirations have you drawn upon? Will I be able to compose a team made up entirely of 80s action movie heroes?
Yeah yeah. You’ll be able to make models which look like famous characters. We’ve got a Crocodile Dundee looking hat so you can make them look like him or maybe Jesse Ventura from Predator. So we’ve got all these options for customisation and we’ve got all these kinds of cool looks that you can kinda combine together. We’ve got bandanas and different hairstyles, as we’re really trying to make it as robust and broad as we could make it so people could create a real range of characters to play with. We did this so that players could get attached and connected to their characters to make it more personal. The connection that players got with their characters was magical and I thought it was really cool to see that. So we’ve tried to amp that up with this installment.
So as well as adding in tattoos and scars and other cool stuff like being able to change their nationality which is actually a huge feature this time around. You can also change the voice as well as the hair colour and eye colour… you can even put in nose rings. The range of stuff you can do is really cool and I hope people enjoy it as much as we have.
That makes sense. This time around, XCOM is less a paramilitary organisation and more a ragtag group of resistance fighters.
Yup. Alongside this, you can actually put characters into the character pool as soldiers or VIPs that come up in your future. So you can make your partner or family members as VIPs because you don’t want them to die- or well… not as easily die. So you can designate where you want these characters to go from the pool. So you can spend a while making all these characters to then see them pop up in your game… which I think is pretty fun.
That’s pretty a big and awesome feature. You mentioned before about being able to change the nationalities of characters, and in Enemy Within (The Expansion to Enemy Unknown) you gave players the option to change the language which soldiers would speak in. Will this feature be carried over in this installment?
Yup. You’ll be able to choose the language that your soldier speaks and you’ll have the option of a number of different regional dialects and voice actors to choose from. There will also be an option in the menu to have all the soldiers speak their national language by default. So yeah, it’s little things like that which help you to play.
Awesome, glad to hear it. So my final question for you is a bit more personal; out of all the new and awesome you’ve added in to the game, what is something that you’re particularly proud of? What is something that you’d like to bring attention to in the final game?
So a broad answer to this is the procedural generation, with all its depth and fidelity, holds up really well… I’m super excited about that. I like that even though these maps are procedural they still feel almost like they are as handcrafted as the ones in Enemy Unknown. To me, they don’t have a procedural look to them and I feel like we found a way to implement the feature without any sort of compromise.
I guess one particular asset I like as well is the Skyranger. As an artist comes and says something like “Make it a dropship that nobody’s seen before”. So I think to myself “how am I gonna do that?”. I feel like the new Skyranger feels fresh even after working for months on it. Like when you spend ages working on something, you start to get tired of it… but I’ve never tired of this design. It’s a fun little thing I quite like which I don’t think has been seen before.
Cool. That’s pretty awesome and I look forward to seeing the fruits of your labour more closely. Thank you for your time.