2K Games Breathes New Life Into XCOM with Unreal Engine 3 Technology

By John Gaudiosi

Nearly two decades after the original XCOM captivated PC gamers around the world, publisher 2K Games and developer Firaxis plan to introduce the critically acclaimed franchise to an entirely new generation. According to Jake Solomon, lead designer on the new title, game industry legend Sid Meier is working closely with the team to bring this unique blend of tactical strategy and action to life, which marks the first time Meier’s studio is leveraging Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology.

“Honestly, it was a thrill to work with Unreal Engine 3,” said Solomon. “In-house, we’ve always used our own tech because of the games we’ve made before. This was the first game where it made sense to look at a licensed engine. Once we explored the tech and saw what it was capable of, it has just been such a blessing.”

XCOM: Enemy Uknown

Set in a retro-future 1960s Earth, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game that pits the player and their troops against an alien invasion of Sectoids. Every decision a player makes is crucial during gameplay, as once a soldier dies they cannot be revived. In addition, the player’s research undertaken during the course of the game has a direct impact on repelling the aliens—and there is a real possibility of the aliens succeeding at the game’s end. To achieve a sense of life-or-death consequences, Firaxis designed a series of cinematics to add another layer of storytelling to the game.

“We used Matinee pretty heavily in XCOM,” said Solomon. “That’s our foundation for all of the cinematics you see in the game. UE3 was essential in allowing our artists to create content in a mature tool chain like that. Our programmers were also able to tap into this tech; it certainly helped with the development of three SKUs across PC, PS3 and 360. The ability to build off of a mature engine like UE3 has made it pretty easy.”

Solomon said that due to the gameplay style, his team wasn’t able to prototype in a day like many shooter teams, but the process was still faster than if they had grown their own tech. Firaxis was also able to seek guidance from other internal game studios.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

“So many of the people within our publishing label have UE3 experience, so we have resources within our label that we can reach out to,” said Solomon. “Industry-wide, you can’t throw a rock without hitting somebody who has UE3 experience. We also used the Unreal Developers Network, which has been a huge help.”

From a visual standpoint, the new game taps into the full capabilities of Unreal Engine 3. To achieve the look and feel they wanted, Firaxis created a global landscape for players to engage in, complete with recognizable landmarks. Solomon said that all of the maps were hand-built, including the more regionalized maps, and these encompass both outdoor and indoor maps. Additionally, the player can play in urban areas as well as wilderness areas, where they shoot down UFOs.

“From a technical standpoint, I’m most proud of our destructible environments,” said Solomon. “That’s something that you still don’t see a lot of. But it’s really fun to use in our game, since it’s a tactile experience. For example, blowing out a wall completely changes the tactics involved in a level and this creates a dynamic battlefield to play in.”

XCOM: Enemy UnKnown

Also playing into this gameplay experience are new aliens conjured by the Unreal Engine 3 toolset from the imagination of Firaxis. Solomon said enemies like the Berserker can literally run through walls. This opens up interesting immersion gameplay, coupling varying Sectoids with weapons that can change the playing field in an instant. Solomon said UE3 enabled his team to create complex levels and craft intelligent enemies that fluidly run on AI that constantly adjusts to the dynamic surroundings.

“I’m extremely happy with the new 3D base that we’ve created in this game,” said Solomon. “Being able to show all that level of detail when you’re zooming in to see the different soldiers and all the units, that’s something that my team just did an awesome job with, technically.”

And that level of detail, and deep gameplay experience, was brought to life using Unreal Engine 3. Soldiers new and old will be able to engage in battle against a challenging alien invasion in this new take on squad-based tactical action in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

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