Following on from our hands on time with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, we had a chance to sit down and use our best torture techniques on Nico Bihary, Senior Producer on the game.
Read on to find out where it sits in the franchise, how 2K have adapted the property to the third person perspective, and what’s going on with multiplayer…
TSA: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels almost like a standalone franchise, with “The Bureau” headlining, but it does also sit under that XCOM brand. How does it relate back to the main series?
Nico Bihary: Well we’re telling the origin story of XCOM, so there’s obviously some direct linkage there with the rest of the franchise, but with the origin story comes this agency. There isn’t a big bang moment where XCOM just appears out of thin air, and what we found is that telling a story of how they’re formed is extremely interesting.
That era we’re representing in our story, as well as the characters within it, are really fertile soil for a compelling story of The Bureau. So because of that we really wanted to identify this as a game about The Bureau and that agency.
TSA: So it’s almost like the OSS turning into the CIA, that kind of evolutionary process?
NB: Yeah, at first it was mainly a defence network operating under very clandestine methods within North America, within this fiction that we have. It then evolves slowly into this global institution, this global protectorate.
William Carter is a great starting anti-hero, in a way. He’s got the look of a polished G-Man [Government man], but as we get more into our narrative, we’ll find out that he has his own internal conflict as well as the conflict going on with the alien threat.
TSA: With it being set way back in the 60’s, was the choice of this setting to do with the real world alien abduction stories from that period?
NB: I think that in 2011 we had some video footage during an E3 presentation, and if you go back and look at it, it’s even more of a 50’s tone. It’s softer, and it colour use is very Norman Rockwell in style, and there were even military vehicles, which we removed because there is no military coming to save us. The is no red phone that’s going to be ringing.
As our narrative was really starting to come together, as we sculpted the series, the 60’s just started to make more sense, mainly because of the tensions between the Soviet Union and America, as well as all the other political bonfires that were occurring at the time. It really made sense that this organisation could exist.
Not necessarily fighting aliens, but we all know that there was a Bureau, right? It was called something else, but The Bureau did exist. That just really worked and it stuck.
TSA: There’s a much more narrative focus, as opposed to the instances in the main XCOM series, but you do still have these little offshoots on the map. Why have you kept that sort of distribution as opposed to a purely led narrative?
NB: I think, and I know as a player, that I sometimes want to step outside of the obligation of continuing through a story. Sometimes you just want to check out for a bit and just go and shoot some aliens, or in the case of our optional missions, it’s a great opportunity for me, who’s a “minmax” style of player, to get some additional XP along the way.
Also, we have the Dispatch missions, which you have to explain to the consumer what they are for them to understand the true value of. These Dispatch missions allow you to level up agents while you are participating in either side missions or the main narrative, so that you always have a steady roster of guys who you can bring out into the field in the event that one of your favourite agents die.
Or even that you have an Engineer and a Recon guy with you on every mission, but you’d really like to play with a Commando and don’t want to go back and grind from level 1. This is a great way for you to level up that commando, so that he’s within close enough range that he’s not just going to keel over when you bring him into battle.
TSA: You do have a lot of other XCOM hallmarks, such as the home base, classes and a squad alongside you. Was this as a reaction to keep the XCOM fans happy, who were concerned after the announcement it would be a pure action game?
NB: I think we did it to keep ourselves happy!
Ultimately we’re fans of the XCOM franchise too, and the things that we did evaluate from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which does a ton of things right, were things that made sense for our game, like permadeath. Understanding that consumers are ready for permadeath, that they’re OK with that in a game, and they understand the value of it.
The visual language that Enemy Unknown brought to the table, like when you’re taking cover it was very clear that you have good cover vs. partial cover. We didn’t feel like we wanted to reinvent the wheel or re-educate people, so we brought that over. Then there are very interesting hominid aliens, such as the Sectoid and the Muton, and even stuff like the Silicoids, the blobs, which are good cover deniers, they made a lot of sense in our game.
That’s just some of the high level stuff that we brought over, just because… it was a peanut butter and chocolate moment, you know? With our third person tactical cover shooter, some stuff just came over perfectly.
I’ll give you this analogy. If XCOM is a sport, imagine the playing field of Enemy Unknown, you’re playing that from the coach in the skybox perspective, and in The Bureau you’re the Quarterback, the combat Quarterback, which is even a development term that’s been brought up in design meetings.
You’re calling plays on the fly, and can see the defensive line up over there, as they’re repositioning, for high tactical advantage or to gain flanking positions, you can call out balls and move guys around. It’s not a dissimilar sport, but it’s a different perspective on how you play.[drop2]TSA: I think I agree with that, and find it quite a lot of fun from what I’ve played so far. You do always have this tactical management where you have these two guys who you can manage. How have you tried to keep the pacing always moving forwards whilst letting people really get into the nitty-gritty of managing them?
NB: Well it’s a sweet spot, right? [In Battle Focus] you want to keep the pressure on, but at the same time you don’t want it to be at full speed, because you’ve got this UI element which is occluding everything which is going on on screen.
So you can’t punish them, but you can’t stop it outright, because it’s like playing a word search game [against the clock] and if you pause it you could see and then go back and un-pause it to get all of the words. You don’t want to overly favour the player by stopping it entirely with Battle Focus up, nor do you want to overly penalise them because things are flying around too fast while they’re still understanding the mechanics, especially early on.
So I think we’ve got a pretty good spot right now, where there’s still the pressure, enemies are still firing upon you and things are still happening, but you have enough time to react and place your agents strategically on the battlefield.
TSA: How do you try to keep the tactics fresh in the game? I feel a good comparison is to Brothers in Arms, where it could often feel like you’re always just setting a line and then you’re going and flanking, getting stuck into a tactical rut. How are you trying to keep things mixed up?
NB: Well a good thing for us is that we’ve got a variety of different classes. So you can get synergy between those classes however you want and you could take the Recon guy and the Commando.
In addition there are all the abilities that you level into. You benefited from the fact that you could play from a couple of fully loaded out classes, with all their abilities and so you see it all at once, but you know what it’s like when you’ve only got a couple of abilities early on. The next time you unlock an ability it’s like, man, it’s your birthday! The first thing you’re going to do is fire off this ability, and it’s all new and fresh.
So it’s just a case of metering out these abilities, so you’re getting them at the appropriate time, you’re feeling rewarded and you’re feeling progression. Like you say, that’s to avoid you getting into a rut, which is also where the customisation comes in, the different backpacks and some of the later abilities that you get.
TSA: And finally, is there multiplayer? Is there not multiplayer? How would it fit if there is?
NB: So, the short answer is that there is no multiplayer.
The long answer is that this is a very strong narrative experience, and one which has permadeath in it, which complicates things when you have multiplayer and even co-op. So our focus is on the bullseye with Battle Focus, squad based tactical combat, and what those bring to the narrative. We don’t have multiplayer or co-op anywhere on the bullseye, we’re just focussing on the single player.
Thanks to Nico for taking the time to sit and chat with us. For our hands on preview, head here.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is set for release on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 20th August 2013.