Interview: Dissecting the Autopsy and Research Features in ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’

Besides worrying about aliens popping out of the dark (and trying to pop your head off), one of the most memorable features of the original XCOM was the ability to research those sinister Greys and develop new weapons and tech. Well, you’ll be able to cut right into the invaders and discover all of their secrets on the operating room table in October’s XCOM: Enemy UnKnown when the Firaxis remake hits the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

I recently spoke with Firaxis Designer and Programmer Jacob Solomon about bringing alien dissection back and what it means for the new game’s single player campaign. Plus, we have new screenshots of some of the alien invaders reimagined for the new game.

“It’s one of those things that makes XCOM different,” Solomon explains to me when I ask why gamers will be interested in going “Alien Autopsy” on XCOM’s invaders. For Solomon, it’s an added layer on top of the rest of the game, making it more than just a strategic shooter: as head of the XCOM organization, players are responsible for finding weaknesses in the enemy and delivering advantageous tech for their agents out in the field.

Here’s how it works: enemies killed in the field can be brought back to XCOM HQ, where scientists can research their weapons and tech (and even their corpses). A Sectoid corpse, for instance (one of the smaller gray aliens), might produce vital information about some of their weak points, or deliver more intel which will allow XCOM scientists to build plasma weapons based on the alien technology. Or, if you have the right gear, you can bring some aliens back to the lab alive in special holding tanks for interrogation (although this could be a little riskier). When players choose to study their “subject,” it’ll trigger a brief cutscene accompanied by a lengthy research report with detailed information about the scientists’ findings–lengthy codex-style pieces created by the game’s writers and designers.

Solomon promises that every research effort will yield some kind of reward for players, including new items that they can build, additional tactical information. Interrogation has the added advantage of providing players with boosts in different areas of research based on their own expertise (for instance, one of the game’s flying aliens, if captured, provides a boost to flying technology). Solomon says that all of the alien types can be captured, but it’s still a risky venture. For Solomon, this kind of feature makes XCOM less of an abstract strategy game where a player has to pay attention to meters and charts and more of a concrete one where a player can see the tangible effects of their choices.

“You cannot ignore autopsies, because they give you some very powerful upgrades. So as an experienced player, you really know that you can’t ignore the autopsies.” But if, for whatever reason, a player doesn’t want to make the time commitment to autopsies, one of the bonus functions of a continent like South America is that while it’ll produce fewer resources, the research is instantaneous as opposed to the normal average of three days in game time.

And as in-depth as the research tree that Solomon describes to me is–encompassing all of the game’s enemies and weapons–there’s a separate one entirely for the more advanced Engineer units. To access this track, players have to build a special facility called the Foundry which will have the bonus effect of unlocking additional research rewards.

Besides being a resource, though, Solomon sees the aliens going back to the lab as an extension of the game’s story that the player can choose to explore to whatever depth they wish. ’[The enemies] are not just these 2D figures that appear on the battlefield… you certainly have an emotional connection to them and they kill your soldiers–but more than that, then they’re an actual resource that you can research.” For Solomon, autopsies and research are a means of deepening Enemy Unknown’s narrative and fleshing out the enemy in a way that creates a better emotional connection for the player.

“The research reports are long and detailed and I truly believe that maybe 5% of players will truly be interested in research reports.” For that majority, the game will allow them to skip to the new item of piece of research that they’ve successfully unlocked. Solomon says the research reports are for that minority that wants to “nerd out” together. The Firaxis team’s aim with this content is to allow those super-curious gamers to dig into XCOM’s pseudoscience and back story to get more context to the alien invasion, as well as the invaders’ weapons and tech.

Some of that content contains shout-outs to the original XCOM, bringing back such obscure nuggets like the fictional element Elerium-115 (“When you bombard this element with gravity,” he explains,”you produce massive amounts of energy”), some of which was based on the writings of UFO conspiracy theorist Bob Lazar who claimed to work at the fabled Area 51.

While he says he loves this kind of blackmatter, it was important for the XCOM team to not make it mandatory for the majority that simply wanted to play the game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be invading the 360, PS3, and PC on October 9th.

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