Interview: 2K Marin On The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Recently, we, here at eGamer, managed to sit down with Nico Bihary and Alyssa Finley from 2K Marin, and interviewed them about the studio’s upcoming game The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. To give you an overview, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (formerly known as XCOM) is 2K Marin’s take on an XCOM origin story. Unlike other XCOM games which are set in the near future, The Bureau is set in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, where paranoia in the US was really high. In response, JFK sets up an agency to investigate possible threats and conspiracies on American soil, such as the plotting of a Soviet invasion. Following the investigation, the agency discovers that the threat is not of Soviet origin, but rather of alien origin. From that point on, the game tells the story of how this agency evolved into the early incarnation of XCOM, which is the precursor of the organisation in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
At its heart, The Bureau is a third-person tactical squad-based game, where the key of the game is playing as special agent William Carter. As the player, you lead a field team who has to deal with this alien menace, by using strategies and manipulating battle plans in real time. To overcome the alien hordes, you will have to use your team’s special abilities and research weaponry, and equipment, from your alien foes.
William Carter, the main character in The Bureau, is an ex-CIA agent who has fallen down the ranks due to his personal grievances and now works as special agent for the FBI. He uses his own ingenuity and skills to deal with the alien threat, and is forced to take additional agents with him into the field. Agents that support William Carter in battle will consist of: a commando class, a support class, a recon class and an engineer. You can level them all up accordingly. This is very much a tactical game in every sense of the word and is not something that you engage with casually. According to 2K Marin, the game is about understanding the immediate threat and dealing with it effectively. With this in mind, here are some of the some answers from 2K Marin, in regards to our most pressing questions.
Here is the interview in all of its glory:
eGamer: What was the inspiration for the game, and why were the 1960s chosen as the historical backdrop?
2K: The inspiration for the game was how the XCOM organisation would have been in the past. We wanted to imagine how could an agency like that come to exist, and what would the origin story have been. We put the game in the 1960s, as we had to imagine a time not in the near future, before aliens had come to the earth and before anyone knew what to do when an alien had shown up. We were really harking back to a time before Google and before cellphones, where it was plausible that a story like this could be told and then covered up. It’s set in the Cold War period because that was a time for America where maintaining a facade of the strongest country ever was important, and no one could know what was happening in 1962. It seems like the time to tell this kind of story.
eGamer: What can we expect from the aliens in XCOM in terms of variety, threat and design?
2K: We’ve got familiarity from what you know in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and we also break it up a little bit, with a fairly new alien race in the “Lujari”. This new alien race keeps the familiar aliens from Enemy Unknown under their control, through a form of slavery. We liked the design of Enemy Unknown and how it worked in a tactical space because they’re humanoid and react well when taking cover. There will be some new faces, but also new cast mates that you’ll see along the way.
eGamer: The new title distances the game from the XCOM brand somewhat, is this because you’re looking to craft something entirely different, or will fans recognise a fair amount of the source material in this game?
2K: The thing that has to come through is that this is an XCOM game, and there are some clear parallels to Enemy Unknown. We include some of the familiar aliens from Enemy Unknown like the Sectoids and such. We use a similar UI to Enemy Unknown and the way cover is displayed in the battlefield is very similar. We use blue shields and red shields to give you an idea of where fighting is occurring and where you are in danger, this allows you the information on the battlefield to make good tactical decisions and plans. So things like that are two lines between the games, but also the core idea of the XCOM franchise, and things which I think our game has tried to embrace like tactics, tools, teams and tension.
Unlike Enemy Unknown, where you are essentially the commander, or the coach of the soccer team, telling everyone what to do, and not participating in the action yourself. In our game, you’re in the field and your abilities come into play every bit as much as your team’s abilities, and the decisions you make as the leader on the battlefield have the ability to shape the direction of the entire war. If you take one of your agents on to the battlefield, there exists the possibility that they may die, and they are gone forever. That is one of the core differences with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and we’re embracing that as well. We think bringing that flavour of combat to a tactical third-person shooter is an interesting way to open up the franchise to potential new members of the audience who think they don’t, or don’t, enjoy turn-based games. But they can play this game and think, “Oh wow, I kind of like what XCOM is about maybe I’ll check out these other entries in the franchise”.
eGamer: What sort of features will be unique to The Bureau and set it apart from other shooters in a saturated genre?
2K: I think the big thing is the introduction of perma-death which I think is something you don’t see in a lot of these tactical third-person shooters, which really has an influence in how the player plays but also how we design the levels. We have to be very weary of the constraints the player has and we have to take our level design seriously. When you introduce perma-death, you have to be very fair and you can’t just let the player die from stupid design mistakes. If a player dies, it has to be because the player didn’t respect the battlefield and didn’t utilise their agents in an intelligent manner.
I think the other part of that equation is Battle Focus Mode which gives the commander, William Carter, not just control of his team but tactical plans in real-time, which can be fairly complicated and multi-step plans. You can be like I want this agent to take out that guy on the high ground, and I want him to target that guy and fire on him, and I’m going to take this agent and place him at flanking position and have him use one of his abilities, maybe an ability to use pulse waves that pushes enemies back out of cover and leaves them off-balance. So then once those targets are out of position, you and your agents can catch them in the crossfire and use tactical planing, and small squads, to basically out-gun when you are outnumbered on the battlefield. We feel like that is a real key feature for us. We refer to Battle Focus Mode as the “combat quarterback” where you sort of identify the alien threat and make decisions on the battlefield. You’re operating offensively, then you’re making some defensive moves all on-the-fly using Battle Focus.
eGamer: When the game was first revealed as a shooter, it received a fair bit of negative feedback from XCOM fans around the world. Was this a primary reason for shifting the focus of the title, or were initial ideas just not working in the way you expected?
2K: We felt that the first-person perspective wasn’t really capturing the team aspect of XCOM enough to live up to the XCOM franchise. Over the course of development, we went from a first-person perspective to a first-person perspective with an over-the-shoulder view mix where you could pull into a third-person view in battle, and take a look at your team to position them more tactically. It felt as if the spatial and tactical awareness wasn’t as much as it needed to be for an XCOM game, until we brought it into the third-person perspective. It has been an ongoing evolution of trying to achieve that goal, and we feel now that we’ve done a good job of giving that feeling of being in control of the battlefield whilst having troops on the ground.
eGamer: The Bureau is said to bring some deep tactical command based gameplay to the third-person shooter genre. Is it as simple as players commanding squad mates to take cover and such, or does it go far deeper than that?
2K: Once you get your eyes on Battle Focus, you’ll understand that it’s a pretty easy user interface and it’s easy to use under duress to quickly control your agents and combine their abilities, and take tactical advantage of the field. It’s something where the interface itself isn’t difficult to understand, but there is some depth to it for advanced players to understand the opportunities that this gaming space provides them. Your agents and your own character, William Carter, do gain their own abilities as you progress through the game. So it isn’t like you’re going to have everything from the beginning of the game and already know how to use it. You learn about things as you get them, and I think that gives you more advantages in the field and to use things against the alien threat.
eGamer: XCOM: Enemy Unknown blended strategy elements with some nice resource management when you returned to base. Can we expect to see something a bit similar, with players having to deal with growing alien conspiracies when they’re not shooting the damn things?
2K: Our game is more about agent and battlefield management, than about base management. The base is going to equip your army with alien technology, to navigate through the story and provide context. Besides, it’s just a really cool space to interact with in a third-person perspective, which is kind of a different experience. The base definitely has a critical part for us in driving the story, but we’re not evolving the base versus managing your agents. You’re not going to be forced to shop in the base, as you have a crack team of NASA scientists. You’re out on the field collecting information, collecting data, and the scientists are constructing weapons to equip you better for action out on the field, in an organic fashion.
eGamer: What lessons have been learnt from previous games, such as BioShock 2?
2K: I think there are three key lessons, I can pull from the top of my head. One, to take the multiplayer point, this is a singleplayer game and we’re trying to provide the player with the best narrative experience possible, and so there is no multiplayer or co-op. We’re putting all our effort and time into making sure it’s a great singleplayer experience, and I think that’s a lesson. I’ll also say two things that are important to the 2K Marin team are to have customisation of their experience in the battlefield and some choices that are material to the story, in the narrative of the story.
We decided to bring both of those things to play in The Bureau as well, in terms of customisation and agents have perk trees which give you abilities, to make choices about how exactly you want to customise your character. These are choices that will reflect in the tactical abilities you bring to the battlefield, for you and your team, and having the ability to customise that and choose the team you want to play with, and bring them out there. We think that kind of player choice is important. As for narrative, over the course of the story decisions the player makes affects the story and we think that games are more fun, if you can change the way they go.
eGamer: Following the release of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, what does the future hold for 2K Marin?
2K: Our current focus right now is getting the game polished up, and wrapping up this game up on our current line of consoles.
This concludes our interview with the team at 2K Marin. We hope that you are excited for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s release date which is the 20th of August. We, here at eGamer, would like to thank both Nico Bihary and Alyssa Finley from 2K Marin for their valuable time, and Devon Stanton from Megarom for making this interview possible. We can’t wait to review The Bureau when it is released in August.