XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM Second Wave options officially released by Firaxis, patching in on Tuesday

Evan Lahti at

When it isn't flanking Mutons, The Second Wave gets busy making the already-brutal XCOM even harder.

The Second Wave, a menu of toggleable XCOM campaign mutators, is being integrated into Enemy Unknown tomorrow in a free update. An unfinished version of the code was originally noticed by modders in October, who produced a tweak that switched on many of the settings less than two weeks after the game released.

The free update includes (but isn’t limited to) the following options. Many of these are unlocked after you beat the game—if you’ve already completed XCOM, you should see the full list.

  • Damage Roulette: Weapons have a wider range of damage.*
  • New Economy: Randomized council member funding.*
  • Not Created Equally: Rookies will have random starting stats.*
  • Hidden Potential: As a soldier is promoted, stats increase randomly.*
  • Red Fog: Combat wounds will degrade the soldier’s mission stats.
  • Absolutely Critical: A flanking shot guarantees a critical hit.
  • The Greater Good: Psionics can only be learned from interrogating a psionic alien.
  • Marathon: The game takes considerably longer to complete.
  • Results Driven: A country offers less funding as its panic level increases.
  • High Stakes: Random rewards for stopping alien abductions.
  • Diminishing Returns: Increased cost of satellite construction.
  • More Than Human: The psionic gift is extremely rare.

*Unlocked prior to completing a campaign.

Below, more details about the update from XCOM’s lead designer, Jake Solomon.

PCG: Modders originally discovered an unfinished version of Second Wave and released a mod that enabled much of it. Did the work of these modders help troubleshoot Second Wave?

Solomon: Oh, yeah. In fact, I ended up changing it a little bit because of stuff they found when they turned it on. There's Marathon mode, which makes the game much longer. Somebody I was reading said, "It sucks that the soldiers don't heal right. They should heal slower as well." I thought, "That's a really good idea," so because of that, I monitored that and I read the comments on it. I adjusted some of the balance because some people felt like the starting random stats weren't balanced well. I adjusted those. Then I added the soldiers healing slower in Marathon mode. They were maybe an unwitting partner in it, but they definitely helped by having that out there. Their ability to test that already was very helpful for me.

Can you give an explanation for why Second Wave wasn't included at launch?

Solomon: I'm a pretty hardcore fan of the original game, and when I look back on the original game… I don't want to give myself too much credit here, but this is sort of hindsight. The original game was much more of a simulation. Modern XCOM is much more of a strategy game. I've heard it described as board-gamey, which i think is fair. I think that the simulation aspects of the original game had… It had some really high highs that are difficult to replicate. But it also had some unevenness. I trimmed some of the unevenness of the game by making things a little more discrete, making the choices more discrete. But by doing that, it also trims some of those high highs. Some of those high highs come from the unexpected nature of the simulation in the original game. This was kind of a way for me to experiment with that and bring that back in the framework of the modern game.

When Second Wave goes live, there are four options that will just be automatically unlocked for everybody. But then there are 16 total options that are hidden behind beating the game. It's retroactive, so if you already beat the game, it will recognize that. You don't have to beat the game after Second Wave comes out. Some of the options are taken directly from the original game. The damage that your weapons do, the range of it, is increased drastically. Really powerful plas weapons may only do one hit point sometimes when you fire. It's rare, it's very rare, but it can happen. Weapons can also do up to twice the amount of damage they do in the current game. It sort of takes what XCOM is and makes it even more XCOM-ey, in the sense that you have these moments of elation where every weapon almost has a chance… Almost every weapon can deal serious damage. But on the flip side of that is that you have some powerful weapons that, every once in a while, may do what looks to be a glancing blow when you really needed a powerful shot. It's the sort of thing that, I think, really adds some additional unexpected elements to the gameplay. But I think that design philosophy is probably more at home in the original game than it is in the game that we made.

Because I love the original so much, and because I think there's still value in it, I wanted people to be able to have that experience. But I didn't want it to be the core game. I wanted to have that kind of unpredictability… I think it could create an uneven experience if you didn't know explicitly what you were getting into. Now it makes sense, because people have played the game a lot and put a lot of time into it. We want to continue to do whatever we can to help people find replayability in the game. This certainly will help with that. But it's not something that I would want to release with the core game, just because of how unpredictable some of these elements make the game. And some of them make it really hard. Some of these gameplay options can make the game really difficult. That's the sort of thing that may make sense now, but doesn't make a lot of sense to release with the core game.

So it was more of a design decision than a production decision.

Solomon: Yeah. I actually wrote the code for the Second Wave very late in the process. It was never intended that this would come out with the core game. It was always intended to be add-on content. But I was also submitting this very, very late in the process, when we were well past the time to add features. Poor Garth [DeAngelis], my producer… The way it works at Firaxis is is that the lead designer, the creative lead, is in charge of the project for the majority of its lifecycle. But towards the end, the lead producer takes control of the project, which is as it should be. I admit that, even as a creative guy, it's best that I'm not calling any shots toward the end of a project, because I'd just never stop. I was submitting this stuff kind of under the radar, and poor Garth was like, "Jesus, you're killing me here. Please stop with all these changes."

What do you consider the most challenging variant or combination of Second Wave settings?

Solomon: [laughs] Well, there are some pretty… There are some that are unlocked after you beat the game on Normal or Classic, and then there are the ones that are unlocked after you beat the game on Impossible. You probably already need help if you're beating the game on Impossible. We've got some where… There's one called E-115. When you turn on that option, the Elerium—which is obviously your big alien resource that you need to build more advanced hardware and research—has a very short half-life. It adds a half-life to Elerium where it will begin to degrade every day. It will degrade in your storage. You lose Elerium the minute you get your hands on it, and you continue to lose it.

"We want to be the cheapest entertainment that you can get out of any medium, not just compared to other games.”

 
There's something called War-Weariness where the overall funding levels around the world drop inexorably with every month. As the war continues, the funding levels drop. There's another one, Total Loss, where when soldiers die you lose everything they're carrying on them. They're just these things that make the game really challenging. If you were to combine those with Marathon mode, which makes the game much longer and makes everything more expensive, you would have what I think would be a much more Dwarf Fortress experience, where it's not about winning the game so much as it's about, "Oh, I made it to August," or "I survived until June 15." It will be interesting to see, because there really is no way to account for how these things can be combined. I think you really can get into a situation where the game is not beatable with some of these options all turned on.

I'm almost thinking of XCOM with some of these settings turned on as a challenge mode. "Okay, Jake, you and I are going to play the game with these settings. Let's see who can get farther."

Solomon: Right, exactly. Really, the goal is just to allow people to wring more value from their dollar. At Firaxis we pride ourselves on… We want to be the cheapest entertainment that you can get out of any medium, not just compared to other games. Certainly Civ does an awesome job of this, and we want XCOM to approach that, where your value in terms of the time you've spent on games is a really good value. I saw that you posted on Twitter about the hours you've spent on games. That's something that really matters to us. We want our games to be the kind that have lots of hours for people.

A lot of people would say that if you did more to officially support XCOM modding, that would be an the surest way of increasing the lifespan of the game.

Solomon: That's fair. That's something we're still open to. Already we're kind of amazed at what people have been able to do. I think the next step is to reach out to them and say, "What are the roadblocks? What can we do to help you?" We're very inspired by the stuff that they're doing on Nexus Mods. Even if it's just rebalancing. People have found ways to start the game with a lot of soldiers and things like that. I think that's fair. For us, this is the first step as far as the official effort to give players more replayability, but that's something we have not forgotten about.

I’m curious about Marathon in particular. How long is a typical Marathon game? Twice as long?

Solomon: It should be anywhere from one and a half to two and a half times as long as a normal game. It could be anywhere from maybe 30 to 50-60 hours. I was trying to shoot for a game that approached the original game's length.

I feel like I want to play with Absolutely Critical enabled, just to see how it feels. I'm curious what to expect. It seems like it would make the game easier, but again, aliens are going to flank me too, right?

Solomon: Yes. I think that over time, that probably does play into the player's favor. They'll be able to take advantage of that tactically. The AI is going to know about it, but the player is going to be able to use it to their advantage, I think. Critical shots are what really mow down your soldiers. You can't predict, sometimes, where you're going to get flanked.

There are some like that where… Hidden Potential and Not Created Equally, the ones where the rookies have random stats and the stats go up randomly. Eventually, mathematically it all evens out. Some of your rookies are going to have lower stats. But what really happens is that you're going to get some rock star soldiers who will probably tilt the game in the player's favor if they know how to use them well. I think you can offset that, perhaps, with something like Red Fog. That's the sort of thing where it just makes the game harder. Any wounds you take are going to degrade your aim. They're going to degrade your mobility. You're not going to be able to move as far. You're not going to be able to shoot as well. Your will is going to go down. That's a setting where there's just no question. It makes the game harder. But with some of them, like Absolutely Critical, the player may be able to use that in their favor if they play really tactically.

MORE:Interview with Jake Solomon about difficulty, death, and XCOM's poorly-received Slingshot DLC.