Now that the alien occupying force of XCOM 2 has had twenty years to impact how humans live within their closely-controlled cities, it seems they have instituted a firm style of uniformity and cleanliness. For developer Firaxis Games this follow-up approach presents them with a new challenge. For the sequel, Firaxis has made the jump from hand-crafted maps to procedural generation in an attempt to solve the lack of variety the original game had.
Though the studio had already confirmed procedural generation for XCOM 2, Firaxis has now gone into details on how they plan to implement the the feature, and the answer isn’t complete procedural generation – but it isn’t entirely random, either. It’s a mix between the two, and it aims to strike a balance between chaotic maps and familiar elements.
The art director for XCOM 2, Greg Foertsch, acknowledged that the limited procedural generation left over from the development of Enemy Unknown was far too random, and often placed items with no real strategic benefit to gameplay. Players would often find random trash, rubbish and half-cover items placed in areas where no soldier would logically go, and the result was maps that sometimes looked cluttered with random objects. It’s an unappealing aspect that, according to Greg, is a relic of the past.
“Random’s not fun – that’s the lesson we learned. The procedurally generated levels in Enemy Unknown, they were more random. Maybe that was a bridge too far…. And, visually, it also looks terrible.”
Going forward, Firaxis Games has created an engine that they call the ‘plot and parcel’ system, where the general land plot of a map is hand-crafted by Firaxis devs, and certain places of space within it – called parcels – have buildings and areas randomly placed into them. These items are randomly pulled from a bank of pre-created buildings and objects, which fit into each map’s theme.
These parcels are sized in three categories (small, medium and big) and have a variety of respective modular buildings and items to pull from. This means that while the general shape of maps will be hand-crafted by XCOM developers, a lot of the content that goes into each map will actually be random, resulting in maps which keep surprising gamers and prevent things from getting stale.
Though the actual buildings themselves aren’t hand-crafted, Firaxis Games reports that their walls and floors will be completely destructible. This marks the first time in the XCOM reboot that flooring will be destructible during mid-game combat, which means fall damage may now be a factor in gameplay within XCOM. It’s a gameplay element from the original DOS Games that was initially scrapped in the reboot, and will undoubtedly add a new element of strategy in how soldiers are positioned. High cover is great, but if the enemy can blow out the floor from below, it will deeply impacts how soldiers should move in the battlefield.
Between the ‘parcel locations’ is the general plot of the map, which will be statically created by Firaxis’ developers. The plot area will oftentimes be roads connecting the random parcel locations in cities, or paths through the forest, and will feature a common layout. Despite this, it does contain a certain amount of random happenings. As Lead Producer Garth DeAngelis puts it, it’s where the ‘randomness’ that didn’t work out in the initial game finally has a chance to shine, as it fits into the new system better than it had ever fit in the original game:
“All the stuff you see that comes up on the road, like where the cars are, the lights – that’s all random rule. It has a pool of things it can put there. But we think more about it as like a little bit of a diorama set than, ‘I’m going to put an individual trash can here’. In addition, the connective tissue does have random cover that propagates on top of it. So, cars in the streets, where telephone booths are, where the security checkpoints you saw in the announce trailer are, those come in as well.”
It was already revealed that secondary objectives were included as a new gameplay element, and DeAngelis has confirmed that the modular content will play a role in those objectives. Players may be tasked with blowing up a certain building, hacking a randomly placed terminal, or protecting a certain device placed in one of the buildings. This allows plot-centic primary objectives to continue to deploy, but also gives gamers a chance to attempt secondary objectives at the risk of their men – much like MELD from the original game’s excellent expansion pack, Enemy Within.
The critically-acclaimed reboot did achieve high replayability despite the repetitive maps, but it’s great to see Firaxis Games is taking the step to improve any weakspots in their armor. Procedural generation is a big step in increasing replayability, and in tandem with increased mod support, fans are sure to be playing XCOM 2 for a long, long time.
XCOM 2 is currently schedule for a November 2015 release, exclusively for PC.