To grid or not to grid? How XCOM: Enemy Unknown modernizes turn-based strategy
Turn-based strategy games typically feature a detached viewpoint; the player moves his soldiers or units around a battlefield with the hands of a god. You point, and your little men scurry to a particular place and begin firing, or they are pinned down and killed. The upcoming XCOM: Enemy Unknown attempts to mitigate this sense of detachment by doing away with a visible grid, and by swooping the camera around the action as you place your soldiers in cover and order them to fire on alien targets. I was able to play a series of missions during a preview event in Santa Monica and, while it may be a presumptuous move before I see more of the XCOM shooter title, I’m going to refer to Firaxis’ turn-based effort as “the better one.”
Bringing a classic to modern systems… and consoles
While moving each of your units one at time and firing from cover may give the sense of classic mechanics, the graphics and controls have been updated for modern sensibilities. You move your reticle to select where each unit goes, and the cursor snaps to positions where you’ll be under cover. It’s a wonderful mixture of freedom and precision and, while I’ll still stick to the PC version upon release, this proves that turn-based strategy can work on modern consoles. Translating a classic turn-based franchise to a console-friendly interface is a familiar challenge for Firaxis; their Civilization Revolution was a critical and commercial success. Still, XCOM has hasn't appeared on a console since the mid-90s, and the most-recent XCOM strategy game (XCOM Intercepter) was released in 1998. “That’s our biggest challenge, clearly. Maintaining the spirit of the original, but then re-imagining it in a way,” Garth DeAngelis, the game’s lead producer, told the Penny Arcade Report. “There have been many changes in game design, many changes in how narrative works. Getting that ingrained in the game as well has been a very big challenge.” Fans of the franchise have many demands that DeAngelis thinks the team has met. I was promised a game that would live up to the difficulty of the original, and that preserved the signature feature of being able to level up your soldiers as well as your base. “We looked at the core systems of the original that the game had to have: the strategy layer versus the tactical, the turn-based play, the base expansion. Giving you destructible terrain, the fog of war, the classic aliens. We have a lot of elements there from the original, but we wanted to twist it and make it feel more appropriate in the modern day.” Based on my time playing the game much of that “twisting” is done in the game’s presentation. The camera is dynamic, snapping down over the shoulder of a soldier as he fires at an alien hiding behind cover. The camera moves above you if you select a grenade, allowing you to throw the explosive with precision. Short cinematics pepper the action, showing you how each turn plays out. The game isn’t dumbed down, it simply does a good job of mixing the classic game play with modern camera work and aesthetics. The result is thrilling; the turn-based action feels like war.
The PC version
The game is still played on a grid, but DeAngelis explained that it was important to make it as invisible as possible for the console player. You don’t notice it when you’re positioning soldiers, but the squares become apparent as you select the place you’d like your soldier to take cover. “There’s a grid there, but we looked at modernizing it,” he said. “We looked at some of the other games that we know and love, like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. They have grids; they’re literally 3D chess battlefields. We said we still want those mechanics, but we wanted to remove the illusion that you’re on a chessboard.” The demo stations were a weird beast that has proven to be popular in preview events lately: The game was running on a PC, but with Xbox 360 controllers and the console interface and controls. While the console version features impressive controls, I was promised that the PC version would take full advantage of mouse and keyboard. In fact, there is some question about what to do with the invisible grid on the PC. “We’re concurrently developing a PC interface that maximizes the input for a PC crowd. You can do things like zoom out a little bit further to survey the landscape, and we’re playing with a more visible grid, because when you actually have to do discrete pointing and clicking it makes more sense to see that,” DeAngelis stated. “The console version has an underlying grid, but you can’t see it. It feels more seamless. Showing [the grid] to the PC user? We’re playing with that right now, asking ourselves if it feels better.” I expressed some concern about the PC product, but he assured me I had nothing to worry about. “We do have resources dedicated to solving these problems with the PC.” DeAngelis admitted there was some worry about a hardcore strategy game fitting into the modern market, but he’s confident of the quality of the product. “I think the hardcore fans know and love it and remember playing it, but there is a huge player base that consider themselves hardcore that have never played XCOM before,” he said. “I think there’s an inherent appeal to this IP: aliens invading Earth. We wanted to embrace the original and not lose sight of what made it special. We think it will fit into the modern landscape nicely… Our wrinkle is that we’re not a shooter, we do things differently. We think we can scratch an itch that players have never heard of XCOM and may not even know that they have.” [Update: the article originally stated that XCOM has never appeared on a console. It has since been updated.]