Strategy Week continues with this exclusive interview with Feral Interactive, a publisher that has brought plenty of great games to the Mac, including the Batman Arkham games as well as the first two BioShock titles. This week they release the Mac version of the fantastic and highly lauded XCOM: Enemy Unknown in a special Mac-only ‘Elite Edition.’ We discussed their new release, favorite strategy games and why sci-fi and the strategy genre enjoys enduring popularity.
Can you give us a brief introduction of yourself and the game for those that are unfamiliar?
I’m Mary Goodden and I’m the Writer at Feral Interactive, who bring triple-A games to the Mac. As the name suggests, I “write” most of Feral’s web content, from news posts and minisite text to support site FAQs.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Elite Edition is a strategy game about an alien invasion. It’s set in the near future and puts you in charge of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (XCOM), tasked with defending Earth from the invaders.
Gameplay is a mix of turn-based combat and long-term strategy; you get to command a squad of elite soldiers in tactical battles against the aliens before returning to XCOM’s underground headquarters to build new facilities, train up your squad and keep the worldwide panic level to a minimum. That last bit’s crucial–if every member nation panics, they’ll lose faith in the XCOM project and withdraw their funding!
The Elite Edition includes the base game and all previously released DLC: two extra content packs, a game-changing update, the game’s soundtrack and a selection of desktop backgrounds and ringtones.
The Slingshot pack sends you off to China on the trail of Shaojie Zhang, a Triad operative who claims to have information vital to the XCOM project while the Elite Soldier pack contains lots of new customization options for your squad.
The Second Wave update adds 16 new modifiers to the campaign mode, so ambitious (or masochistic) commanders can make things more interesting with things like randomized soldier stats and increased weapon damage.
What attracted Feral to the XCOM series and made you want to bring it to the Mac?
Like many strategy fans, we love the XCOM series for its sci-fi setting, its black humor and its unique gameplay. XCOM: Enemy Unknown really does the original games justice while forging its own identity. It’s full of brilliant little details, such as the option to customize your squad members’ appearances, names and voices, which effectively lets you send yourself and all your friends (and enemies) into battle!
The only downside to this is that death is permanent, so if a Sectoid takes out your best friend, they’re gone forever. Fortunately, the XCOM headquarters features its own Memorial Wall (complete with bagpipes), which you can visit in-game and pay your respects to the fallen.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is based on the 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown. Were you fans of the original? What aspects of this game do you think still appeal to gamers today?
Members of the Feral staff who were gaming in 1994 were indeed fans of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (known as “X-COM: UFO Defense” in North America), and get all misty-eyed whenever they talk about it.
Those of us who were more into our comforters at the time will tell you that while there are many aspects of the game that still appeal to gamers today, the most significant is actually the punishing difficulty. UFO: Enemy Unknown was notoriously hard, and that resonates with today’s gamers in a world where games sometimes sacrifice depth for accessibility. It’s a myth that all gamers want an easy ride–some of us love a challenge!
While XCOM: Enemy Unknown is much more forgiving – it offers an “Easy” difficulty and a full tutorial to ease new players into the game – it stays true to its roots with an “Impossible” difficulty and an “Ironman” mode, which prevents you from re-loading your game should you make a mistake.
Are there any differences between the PC and Mac versions, in terms of gameplay and content?
Well, technically there is no PC version of the Elite Edition, as it’s currently a Mac exclusive! This is the first time the game and all the DLC have all been made available in a single app. Other than that, there are no differences in terms of gameplay or content, but as with all Feral games, there are a few Mac-only features that we add during the porting process.
One is the pre-game panel that all Feral games have, which allows you to access documentation, generate support reports and adjust certain settings before you start the game. We’ve also added full support for a bunch of gamepads that, with the exception of Xbox 360 controllers, don’t require third-party drivers.
Were there any other development challenges?
Adding full support for nine languages was tricky. Although we always support English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, we’re less familiar with Polish, Russian, Korean and Japanese, so testing them (and writing all the documentation) was quite a mission. Do you know what “Nanofiber vest” is in Russian? Neither did we.
Apart from that, development has gone fairly smoothly. The game uses Unreal Engine 3, which we’ve had quite a bit of experience with since it’s used in the Batman Arkham games.
What was the most fun/exciting aspect of developing this game?
Well that depends who you ask. For everyone other than QA, the most fun aspect was probably listening to their anguished cries, as entire squads got taken out by a single Cyberdisc in the final stages of a 100% playthrough. I’m pretty sure that any game that elicits some kind of physical reaction is doing something right.
As for the most exciting aspect, that would be the e-mail from 2K letting us know that the game was approved and ready for release!
Despite media telling us our attention spans are getting shorter, a more cerebral game genre like turn-based strategy endures. What about the style of gameplay do you think makes it stand the test of time/diminishing attention spans?
The battles build suspense by not having aliens attack you straight away; you have to send your troops out into the fog of war to find them. Every turn is a gamble when you can’t see very far ahead! Your squad might get the drop on the enemy… or they might wander into a gang of Mutons.
I see what you mean, though. XCOM doesn’t provide the instant gratification of an action game. Instead, it offers a different kind of reward, and that is seeing your carefully planned strategy slowly come to fruition. For example, if you excavate under your base in order to build an extra satellite uplink facility, it could be several in-game months before you’re able to reap the benefits. Likewise, you begin the game with a squad of rookies, and it’s only after several missions that they acquire the most interesting and powerful abilities.
XCOM is also devilishly good at coaxing just another five minutes out of you with a compelling reward loop. Battles end with a haul of loot that you can’t wait to get back to base and start researching and building with, and the base sequences end with lots of shiny new weapons that you can’t wait to start using out in the field!
It’s Strategy Week on GameAgent. Any other strategy games you like or would recommend?
I’m biased, but I’d have to recommend the Total War series to fans of turn-based strategy. You lead a nation across a vast campaign map (in Empire: Total War’s case, one that stretches across three continents) managing everything from trade and diplomacy to technological research and industrial development. Battles in the Total War games are fought in real-time, so they offer the best of both worlds.
I also love Sid Meier’s Railroads!, a brilliant strategy game originally developed by Firaxis, who also created XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It combines business simulation with the timeless pleasure of building a model railroad, and like XCOM, it’s extremely addictive!
This game deals with the idea of an alien invasion in the future. Are you fans of the sci-fi genre? What other sci-fi stuff do you enjoy?
Like many gamers, we’re all fans of the sci-fi genre because games lend themselves so well to the exploration of other realities. In games you can be anyone, go anywhere and do anything! Take Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example. Its story, about a future where people upgrade their bodies with biomechanical augmentations, would be fascinating in any medium, but because it’s a game, you get to experience those augmentations for yourself.
We enjoy sci-fi in other media too, but asking an office full of nerds for their favorite series is asking for trouble. It only took one mention of The Phantom Menace for things to start getting a little… personal. However, we’d like to make special mention of Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series. He may not be around much longer, but his creations still shine brightly in our imaginations.
What’s the likelihood of an alien invasion in the near future? Any advice you can dispense based on your experience creating XCOM in the event of one?
Aliens have actually been living amongst us for years. Next time you’re at the Genius Bar, ask yourself: never mind the haircut, is that level of expertise completely… human? Even though the Geniuses seem benign (for now), Feral are still preparing for a full-scale invasion by building an underground base beneath the Sauce Factory.
My personal advice to anyone concerned about the well-being of their friends and family would be to invest in a large fleet of hybrid space fighting craft armed with plasma cannons. If for some reason there aren’t any in the vicinity, just stay away from Chryssalids.
Anything else you’d like Mac gamers to know about this game? Any tips for beginners?
There are many great wikis and strategy guides online that help beginners and advanced players alike learn more about the game. We certainly found these invaluable during testing, marketing and development.
However, our advice to newcomers would be: just play! It’s more fun to discover the game for yourself than it is to read about it second-hand, and although you’re bound to make mistakes, risks are what make XCOM so exciting.
Thanks again to Feral Interactive for their time. You can keep up with them further by following them on Facebook and Twitter. XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Elite Edition releases for the Mac on Thursday, April 25, and can be found at the GameAgent Store!