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The Mod Squad: XCOM - Enemy Within Interview

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I’ve been watching the skies, waiting for news about XCOM: Expansion Unknown ever since the first teaser trailer landed. Turns out I would have been wiser watching my inbox instead because that’s where I found an invitation to speak to Firaxis about the Enemy Within expansion at Gamescom. I spent half an hour with senior games designer Anand Gupta. As well as details on the contents of the expansion, we talked about the theme of the game, Lovecraftian possibilities and moral choices. Oh, and base invasions. Then Gupta casually mentioned that it’s possible to rip out a soldier’s heart.

RPS: During the presentation, Enemy Within was described as a ‘Civ-style’ expansion. Is that a Firaxis staple now and what exactly do you mean by it?

Gupta: I describe it as same stage, more actors, more sets, more props. It’s not a prequel, it’s not an additional episode on the end of the game. It’s the same alien invasion as in Enemy Unknown, but we’ve added more variables and more challenges. At Firaxis, we make these big strategy games and we structure them so that they are accessible but still complex. When you have these games, especially XCOM which has the tactical and the strategy component, the way to expand it is not in bits and pieces, it’s to do a lot all at the same time, all integrated into the campaign.

This is one of the things that makes DLC very hard for a game like XCOM. It’s a little easier for Civ because Civ is not asymmetric, but XCOM is very asymmetric. Even making decent DLC for Civ is very challenging, but there are more options as to how it can be expanded than with XCOM. For this game, we prefer to make Brave New World and Gods & Kings style expansions, and that’s what Enemy Within is. It’s a comprehensive set of new content.

Here at Gamescom, we’re talking mostly about tactical stuff, but we know that the spirit of XCOM is that it has both, the strategic and the tactical, feeding into each other in interesting ways. Missions in one affect the other and you can’t tank either one or you’re in trouble. We know that the spirit of XCOM dictates that we expand both of those things.

RPS: But you’re not talking about the strategy side yet?

Gupta: We’re talking about it a little. For example, the mechs and the G-mods that you saw, that has a strategic aspect to it. There are resources to develop and manage, new facilities to build in order to enable the development paths. That’s all on the strategy level but there’s other big strategy stuff we’re not discussing yet.

RPS: The G-mod abilities reminded me of Syndicate. Proper Syndicate.

Gupta: Oh yeah.

RPS: It has the look of it, with the separate body parts outlined and upgraded. Has the idea of body modification been on the cards for a long time?

Gupta: It’s funny that you mention Syndicate. I’m a huge fan of the original. I haven’t had the chance to play the new one, but the old Syndicate I played a lot of. I remember the final mission. You have your starting area and you move two pixels out and there are rockets all around!

When we were looking at what to do with Enemy Within – well, the theme came to me very early. We were brainstorming and discussing things and I wanted to explore what I think is one of the most compelling themes in XCOM – that you are bending the aliens’ technology to your own will and using it against them. How can we take that further? In Enemy Unknown, you gather alien tech and make new weapons and armour. With Enemy Within, you take the aliens and make them part of your soldiers in a more fundamental way.

RPS: There’s a line in Enemy Unknown, the engineer, whose name I’ve now forgotten, says that he fears what XCOM, or humanity, may become as they adopt the technology. Enemy Within seems like it may be the fulfilment of that fear.

Gupta: It’s interesting that you mention that. In Enemy Unknown, Doctor Chen is very cautious, he has strong moral reservations about cybernetics. I was listening to that exact line and I thought it could be interesting that he’s reluctant and yet that it becomes his path. Ultimately I decided that we had to change that line. We revised Dr Chen’s attitude a little. He still has a reluctance, a reticence, about cybernetics, but that line comes across more like – “it’s ok, provided we can keep it under the correct scrutiny.”

RPS: I think those dialogue sections at the base, that new level of storytelling, is something that Enemy Unknown succeeded at. It’s as much a difference from the original as some of the mechanical changes, but it worked for me. Even though it still has the B movie look to it, there’s a sense of apprehension and fear. Do you explore that more in Enemy Within? The idea of body modification horrifies me. I’d probably faint if somebody pierced my ear.

Gupta: One of the things that I’ve always liked about XCOM is that the moral choices are in the player’s head not on the screen. One of my favourite reviews of Enemy Unknown was from somebody who had never played the original. He described a terror mission in which chrysalids were bearing down on his squad and there was a civilian caught between him and them. He could take the chrysalids out with a rocket but not in a way that wouldn’t also kill the civilian. He ended up firing the rocket and waited for a pop-up to tell him that he’d made the right choice. Of course, that didn’t happen.

I agree that the idea of body modification at this level is horrifying, but it’s awesome as well!

RPS: This is the line that XCOM walks. You become more powerful but the aliens tend to counteract your confidence. Which allows you time to reflect on what exactly you’re doing to your men, whether it’s sending them into a suicide mission or grafting an alien leg onto their backside for added mobility. It doesn’t matter how big you get, they’ll find a way to hit back. Like the mech fighting the…

Gupta: The Mechtoid, yes.

RPS: It is called a Mechtoid! I knew it had to be. I would have been very sad if it wasn’t.

Gupta: Well, yeah (laughs). There was a design meeting where we were talking about this. Originally we had the Mech Muton, but then we looked at it and we thought, well, the Muton is pretty big anyway. He’s bulky and aggressive and powerful, so adding some sort of exoskeleton doesn’t make much impact. So in the meeting, we said ‘we need a mech alien but it has to be a bigger version of something’. So I figured, let’s go all the way and have a mech sectoid. Somebody immediately said…’mechtoid’? And a star was born.

Something that players find really fun about XCOM is the soldier narratives. We don’t lay out soldier narratives. We are not Mass Effect with scripted soldier plotlines. Even the DLC was pretty light-handed, Operation Slingshot. And so, players’ imaginations fill in the blanks. They ask questions – are these volunteers? The people who go into the mech suits – which they can’t be extracted from – are they soldiers who volunteer and say, ‘I will do whatever it takes to defend the Earth’. Or is there something more sinister happening? Are they perhaps being pushed into the decision by the commander?

RPS: I’d never thought of it like that.

Gupta: Well, that’s precisely what I mean. It’s up to the player to decide these things. We give you a user interface and let you decide what parts of your interaction with that interface and world mean.

RPS: My XCOM folks are definitely heroes. The bravest of the brave. The last stand. They want to be the last stand because they are awesome people. And they’re going to be a more convincingly international bunch now, right? With accents?

Gupta: It’s not accents, it’s actual language. It’s something we had wanted to in Enemy Unknown but we ran out of time. It’s a daunting engineering problem. I see fan commentary that says, ‘they can just flip a switch to turn on extra languages’. It’s not that simple. Loading VO data, especially when its dynamic and you don’t know which one is going to be triggered, is non-trivial. Our engineers did a great job of solving that problem, so that now the soldier’s language is basically a customisation option. You can pick between English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Polish. And so now we have an XCOM that feels international as opposed to the group of heroic Americans.

RPS: Do you have British accents?

Gupta: (sighs) No, we don’t. We explored that a little when Yahtzee said he’d record Australian accents for us, and we thought ‘that’d be kind of fun’. But we couldn’t logistically organise that.

RPS: The reason I ask, not about the British thing in particular, is that it ties back to storytelling. Making XCOM feel international is important for me. I like the idea of these people from all corners of the world, coming together to save all of the corners. Speaking of story, why is the name of the expansion Enemy Within? What does it refer to specifically?

Gupta: I alluded to that earlier. We’re taking the idea of using alien technology further, bringing it inside the soldiers’ bodies. The cybernetic enhancements and genetic modifications are unlocked by performing autopsies. You can imagine what Dr Vahlen is doing – she’s like, ‘oh, this is a nice bit! I’ll grab that.’ Once we came up with the theme of Enemy Within – and it’s hard for me to remember which came first, some of the ideas or the actual theme – we had a lot of stuff we wanted to add. It’s a strong theme.

RPS: It’s interesting that you talk about theme so much. It’d be easy to list new mechanics but theme is obviously important to you and to the expansion. Strategy and tactical games are often best described using numbers rather than themes.

Gupta: Narrative has also been a tough tightrope to walk with XCOM. We start with this incredibly strong core idea of defending the Earth against alien invasion. One of the things that I have some regrets about with Enemy Within, and regrets are unavoidable, is that we couldn’t change the opening movie very much. I said ‘can we put in some new scenes here?’ and they said, ‘yes, you absolutely can, but then you get no other movies.’ I’d rather have the other movies than a new intro.

But what we were able to do is to change the opening quote. So, the Unknown quote is the Arthur C Clarke quote about ‘two possibilities’. We took that out. Now it’s a Buckminster Fuller quote, the architect. The quote is: “Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.” The quote in Enemy Unknown captures the situation very well and the quote in Enemy Within captures the player’s progression.

RPS: It’s interesting that the first quote is about humanity and the second is more about XCOM. It’s about the player. Some of the new stuff that’s in there, like the splinter grenades.

Gupta: Needle grenades.

RPS: Needles, splinters, it’s all the same to me. Is that alien tech or is it derived from alien corpses?

Gupta: That comes from the chrysalid autopsy.

RPS: How much more of the adaptation of alien body parts is involved? XCOM soldiers are going to be dressed in gore at this rate, with Existenz guns.

Gupta: There’s a gas grenade now, which is based on the Thin Man’s poison sacs, which we are adapting and synthesising. Don’t try to use it against the Mechtoid because he’s sealed and doesn’t care if you gas him. The little sectoids will be very disappointed by the gas grenade though. We’ve added a lot of new foundry projects, the Mechtoid in particular adds some cool stuff. The tech tree in my head has changed so much that I don’t want to promise these exact unlocks, but we have added stuff like enhanced speed and health for mechs and robotic units…

RPS: How exactly do the mechs work?

Gupta: What you’ve got to do is research the correct tech, which opens up both of the paths, allowing you to build a genetics lab and a cybernetics lab. It’s pretty cheap to build in terms of money because I don’t want you to have to choose between that and your satellite (laughs). And then you can submit soldiers for augmentation. You pick a soldier, put him or her into augmentation, and they come out as a mech trooper. They can’t be rookies, they have to have a class already. This is important because all soldiers who become mech troopers have access to the full mech trooper training tree, which is a new class, but they also get a passive ability based on what class they had before.

RPS: So there are sub-classes within the mech class?

Gupta: Well, it’s just one passive ability but it does mean there’s a different choice when augmenting a support or a sniper. Then that trooper has base augments, which are the mech version of civilian skill upgrades. Limbs and an armored torso, which can be unscrewed and replaced with new types. Then they can be placed in a exoskeleton mech suit, which is built separately like a suit of armour, but unlike XCOM’s base armour, these are customisable.

There are three tiers of mech suit – the Warden, the Sentinel and the Paladin. Mech I, Mech II and Mech III. Each tier you get a choice of which tactical sub-system you want. So you can have a flamethrower or kinetic strike, which is sci-fi for giant powered fist. At level II you get to choose between grenade launcher or restorative mist – the first launches grenades really far, the restorative mist is an area effect medkit. At level three you get the choice between proximity mines, which are a great tactical device. You can fire them across a map, but they don’t set off when allies stand on them. Or you can have the Electropulse, which is a point blank area of effect electric attack, which does damage and stuns enemy robots, so it’s a cool countermeasure against cyberdiscs and sectopods and Mechtoids. So there are eight possible mech builds. It was really important to have that level of customisation between suits.

RPS: Once you decide to modify a soldier that’s it, there’s not turning back? Is it the same with genetic mods?

Gupta: With g-mods, say I pull you into the genetic lab…

RPS: Please don’t.

Gupta: …and squaddie Smith is…

RPS: Terrified.

Gupta: …about to get a second heart plugged in, I can then later decide I want you to have the other chest mod instead. I pay again and give you a different one. So unlike mech soldiers, which have fixed tactical subsystems, you can replace G-mods with alternatives. You waste the cash you spent on the old one though. But we wanted to let people respec.

RPS: You want to put a second heart in me and then rip it back out again. This has become uncomfortable.

Gupta: Yes. I urge you not to think too hard about that one.

RPS: Is it the same in that there are two choices for each part?

Gupta: That’s correct. There are five body parts – eyes, skin, brain, legs and chest. Each of those has two choices and the reason we allow the respec is because we wanted the choices to become available at different times, so you won’t get the two skin upgrades at the same time probably. So we don’t want your best guy to end up stuck with the first tech you receive.

RPS: Do you think – and this includes multiplayer – that people will find good squad builds fairly quickly? Entirely modified squads? Are basic soldiers still useful.

Gupta: They’re definitely not obsolete because they do have unique skills. I do think that the new hotness factor will make people lean toward the modified soldiers.

RPS: Right. But will they end up being better versions of the basic human soldier?

Gupta: In multiplayer there’s more of a trade-off, because of the values as well, but in single player adding this stuff makes you better. But you’re constrained by how much Meld you have. Do you know about Meld?

RPS: A little. Tell me everything.

Gupta: Meld shows up on most mission types: abductions, crashed UFOs and landed UFOs. The Meld canisters have self-destruct timers on them. The’re randomly placed around the maps and they start ticking down when the mission begins. Players who have become accustomed to a cautious style will now face a trade-off. We don’t want to punish that style, playing smart, but Meld is definitely something you want to reach for. There are always some easy spots and some hard spots, depending how far they are from where the squad starts, and we guarantee that on any given map you’ll always have at least one easy spot and one hard spot. So even if you play conservatively you’ll be able to get the easy one, but getting the hard one will be tough. For players who decide that Meld is a high priority because they want to advance along these capabilities, they will want to develop new tactics to make sure they get them.

RPS: I’m very cautious. I creep for hours at a time, which can become boring. If a soldier ends a turn without cover, I have to drink a measure of gin to steady my nerves. Having something to push me to take a risk is a good thing, I guess. How quickly do they deteriorate?

Gupta: It varies heavily. Some of the hard ones will be barely in double digit turns.

RPS: I was thinking of the bomb missions, which are very rushed at times.

Gupta: It’s rarely that tense. It’s a different dynamic, but we have the same approach in that recovering a canister doesn’t take an action. Run a guy up and you’re good to go.

RPS: Can you destroy Meld?

Gupta: Oh yeah. If you recover it and then the canister is destroyed, you still have the Meld. If you destroy it before touching it, Dr Vahlen will have something snide to say to you.

RPS: That happens a lot.

Gupta: If you are able to clear the map of aliens before the Meld has expired, you’ll automatically collect it. You don’t have to hunt the map looking for canisters – I mean, we do, but not when you’ve won. You don’t have to keep an alien alive to avoid finishing the mission.

RPS: Is there any advantage to destroying it – some kind of high explosive effect that means it can be a reasonable trade-off?

Gupta: No. It collapses in on itself. But the trade-off is that Meld canisters provide high cover.

RPS: I was speculating when I saw the teaser way back when that you’d be wading into Terror From the Deep. Any chance of that in the future?

Gupta: Jake (Solomon) definitely doesn’t like Terror From the Deep. He feels that underwater environments lose the terror of XCOM, which is that the aliens are on main street and in the fast food restaurant.

RPS: I like that it shifted from the sci-fi B Movie to the Lovecraftian.

Gupta: Personally, and this isn’t some faux announcement, if we were going to go Lovecraft XCOM, I’d want to go all the way Lovecraft XCOM.

RPS: The teaser does mention a new threat. It’s not talking about Mechtoids, right?

Gupta: I’m really looking forward to talking about that (laughs).

RPS: I’m really looking forward to hearing about it.


RPS: OK. But there are more things than Mechtoids filling up the bestiary?

Gupta: Oh yeah yeah yeah. We’re adding a bunch of new enemies.

RPS: Everybody has asked you this. Base invasions. I’m not even wording it as a question.

Gupta: I love the way you’re thinking.

RPS: Multiple bases isn’t something that I missed. I thought I would but then I didn’t. Now that there are more facilities to build, is there any reason to have several bases? Specialised modification headquarters and jazzy stuff like that? That said, I very rarely fill up my base. Do you feel dropping multiple bases was the right decision?

Gupta: Yeah. They create a number of issues. For example, we have named characters. Having them at the main base inherently elevates it to the level of senior base, so the rest are second class. What do they give us? The shuttling of resources between bases is a pain as well. Are they completely autonomous? Do I have to send them resources – it’s the sort of dynamic that is fun in a Civ game, supporting a new city, but not here. Or maybe they are autonomous in which case what’s the point in having them, separate from one another. There’s a lot of reasons why they weren’t the right move for us.

RPS: Are the changes on the strategic side similar to the tactical changes? As in, you’re bulking out what is there rather than fundamentally changing it?

Gupta: I can’t really answer that just yet (laughs). And we’re actually out of time.

RPS: Thanks for your time!

XCOM: Enemy Within is an expansion. It’ll be out on November 12th.

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