Just in case my three-part, 15,000 word interview with Jake Solomon, lead designer on Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown, wasn't enough for you, here's a follow-up chat with the effusive main brain behind the X-COM remake. This time, we're finding out about how much soldiers' special abilities define the game, what's been done to ammo and why the perception that this new version only has one base isn't quite right.
RPS: The special abilities, like grappling up to higher ground, are there loads of those?
Jake Solomon: There’s a lot. I mean, it depends. We have special abilities that can come from armour and items, and then some items can be upgraded to have more and more abilities. Items and armour are obviously unlocked, so anybody will be able to put those on – any class can have any kind of armour. And then the other abilities come from the classes and the perks. So you’ll choose ‘I want this ability, I want that ability’ and those are class-specific, but then some come from armour. Some are innate, every character can do them – overwatch, hunker down which doubles your defence, and things like that.
RPS: To what extent are players going to be using those abilities instead of a move or a shoot? Are they the bulk of what you’re doing?
Jake Solomon: No, I think that we’ve tried to keep movement really important, because – and this is actually interesting. [laughs] Well, I’m telling you that it’s interesting, it doesn’t mean that it’s interesting… Movement has always been really important, flanking cover which I showed and height advancement. We tried to build a lot of things into the environment, otherwise it gets static and the player goes ‘oh, well I’m a sniper and I picked headshot so I’m just going to use headshot all the time.’ And you don’t want to use cooldowns too often, you don’t want to have some things that are more abstract.
So what we try to do is have really big bonuses for environmental benefits – like when I flanked the Sectoid [in the demonstration], it seems minor, but that’s a really big bonus, flanking cover is a really big bonus. If [the enemy unit is] in high cover, especially if they’re hunkered down, flanking is the best thing you can do. We wanted to keep the player moving, moving is still probably the best thing you can do. So you’re always moving and then taking a shot.
The other abilities… you certainly use them, but I guess it just depends. Some abilities you wait until they come back up. Let’s say run and gun on the Assault class, that’s a good it example. It has a very long cooldown, so you use that but you know that when you use it that’s it during this engagement, or if other aliens show up in the middle of this engagement, you’re not using that again. That can save your ass a couple of times. So… yeah. [laughs] Was that a yes or a no question?
RPS: Nooooooot exactly.
Jake Solomon: Well, then, 7? Is that a good answer?
RPS: [laughs] That’ll do it. So the cooldown is simply just a cooldown, there’s nothing you do to tweak that?
Jake Solomon: Yeah. The cooldown is necessary but it’s not like all abilities have cooldowns. Let’s say the rocket launcher – at one point that had a cooldown on it, and it was funny because there were people out there who analysed the screenshots and they were like ‘oh my god, the rocket launcher has a cooldown, it’s the fakest thing I’ve ever heard of.’ And that hurt because by the time it came out we had already been around and changed the rocket launcher to just an inventory thing – you only have this number of rockets unless you perk. So it’s the sort of thing where cooldowns aren’t as common, but yes, we use every trick in the bag, so either you have this many charges or you’re only carrying this many rockets, or this item only has one use or we do have cooldowns.
RPS: So basically any point where someone’s having fun, you get in the way and say ‘no!’
Jake Solomon: Right, we say ‘hold on a minute, you’re having a good time.’ [laughs]
RPS: How much have you been tracking the response online now there’s more information out there?
Jake Solomon: Yeah, I’m surprised at how cynical some responses have been. I mean, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and I probably shouldn’t say this because I’m not that tuned into the response but people do keep me abreast of it. But ammo is a good example. People say ‘oh my god, they got rid of ammo, they’re trying to make this game too simple to play.’ And I was shocked by that, because ammo didn’t matter in the original. I changed ammo because it didn’t matter. So what I did was I said ‘okay, you’re going to run out of ammo a lot more, and if you use something like Suppression it’s going to use a ton of ammo because you’re firing the whole time.’
That’s the sort of thing that I was surprised people were unhappy about, because the only change I made was alright you’re not putting the clips on your guys, but let’s be honest in the original game the clips were huge and they weighed 1 and the lasers didn’t even have clips. So in our game laser weapons overheat, and you can actually run out of ammo so reload is actually a tactical decision. We actually tried to make that sort of thing matter more. I don’t blame people, but it was a little bit cynical, they were like ‘oh I can’t believe they got rid of ammo’ and we were ‘but we didn’t! We made ammo more important!’
Some of those things have surprised me, some of those things have not. I mean, time units…
RPS: I’m not going to ask you about those again, don’t worry. There were a couple of moments in my original playthroughs of X-COM where, because I was crap at it back then, I’d run out of ammo and need to go loot alien corpses for clips. That was quite exciting, when you found one that did have the right clip and you’re ‘oh my god, I’m back in the game!’
Jake Solomon: I mean, those are the tough calls as a designer, right? People have those memories… I won’t call them one off, but they’re experiences that, if you try to design for them, it’s very, very difficult and in some cases it fights the overall system. That’s a good example – I had that memory, and ‘oh, you can put dudes in your backpack’. That’s great, but… designing that kind of stuff, you have to devote effort to it rather than something else, so, y’know…
RPS: Oh, I must ask about the bases. You’ve only got one base in the new one, right?
Jake Solomon: Yes. [World-weary expression]. Yes. Are you looking for ammunition, Alec? [laughs] Yeah, you only have the one base, and then as you saw there in the hanger, you can expand your Interceptors and Satellites to other hangar bases on the other continents. So depending on what continent you choose to start the game – like, ‘I want to start in Europe because of bonus x,y,z’ – then as the game plays on you can then expand your satellite coverage to other continents which have other bonuses, and you can also expand your jets into hangar bases on those continents.
So you still have to cover the world, and if you don’t you will lose that part of the world. But it’s true that research, engineering, barracks, those all happen at a central location.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year.