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The Artistical - XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCom: Enemy Unknown – G.I. Joes without the ridiculous PSAs, or cheesy names up for artistic Review.

I’m going to start off by saying I’m not much for strategic games. Alright, I said it, now on to more pertinent things like why I decided to play this game. I’ll be quite honest with you, it was the hype. It was every person on the internet whose opinion is worth two nickels in a dog’s bungus telling me that that I needed to play this game no matter what my race, creed, or crime. It really wasn’t that simple though unfortunately; let’s just say it wasn’t feasible from a financial stand point to make such an acquisition at that particular juncture when that game’s “zeit gheist” was taking place. So yes, I’m a little late to the party, and no, I don’t have the super in depth backing on every aspect of the story beats late in the game, but I was extremely excited to write a piece and have accumulated just about…

(checks steam library)

… six hours on the main campaign. I’d say that’s just about enough to look a game up and down, fun or not, and give you more or less the gist of what the artists possibly had in mind under development. As well as that I hope to give you some insight into what I appreciate about its plastic goodness as well. Let’s get started shall we?

So my first impressions of the game overall were definitely good. Hell, I had impressions of the game before I even started playing, not that I was immediately predisposed towards saying I was going to love it or not, I just had faith. Tentative, caring, tender, faith.

Fortunately, my trust was rewarded. XCOM is amazing, from its head down to its toes, it is everything you want from strategy. It is engaging, has a balanced risk/reward system, and some would say most importantly of all, it’s true to its roots (I only played the original for all of about 30 minutes, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it pays homage in multitudes) I booted the game on up, watched through some civilian massacre at the hands of tools they have no comprehending the true power of, and then with bated and shallow breath, I began the tutorial. Six hours later, I’ve created twelve of my closest friends, and fiancé, as characters in the game. Watched her, and three others die. Found that too much to bear, then wiped everyone’s identity. (Knowing full and well I couldn’t stand to let another person so near and dear to my heart die at my hands even in a fictional sense)

After sufficiently moving through the simulated grieving process and paying homage at their shrine, I have picked myself up by the boot straps, captured me some mutons, and developed myself as quite the alien tukus-mashing machine. I love this game, but I know full-well that it’s the sort of thing which when spread out over the course of a week in 3 hour periods, is not going to turn out well. No. This is the sort of game for dimming lights, putting on your over-sized head set, lowering the mic and talking into it at your fictional characters as you give them words of command and encouragement they have no way of hearing. I would be spitting in the face of every single father in my blood line for the last seventy generations if I lied and told you I haven’t said the phrase “Alright boys, lets do this one by the numbers.” At the beginning of the last four missions, feeling an exponential sense of coolness each time it is said.

And overall, I feel like that is a good way to sum that game up. “Let’s do this by the numbers. That way we don’t get dead. That way we buy sat-um-uh-lahts. That way we get more money to do things by the numbers with.” The only thing is, instead of it becoming some routine, the game throws you so many curveballs you’d be a fool to make any mistake close to settling into any patterns or schedules in the game other than the magical key word every scared-shitless “commander” knows and loves. “Over watch” Use it. Know it. Look at it from across the battle field and shoot at it without any fear of penalty save for a slight accuracy hit.

Now for the fun(ner) part, the part where I babble on and on about this stuff I claim to know a delicately perched saltine cracker box full of. Art. I’ll let you in a secret. I so dearly wanted to be a character artist when I was in college. So much so that it was all I ate, slept, and did when I wasn’t on Facebook or playing flash games. Hours a day spent in front of programs like Zbrush, xNormal, Autodesk Maya, and 3DS max, and not a single one I regret. Training myself and honing my abilities as a 3D artist, over time, I began to analyze and see games, specifically character art differently. Things like poly budget, texture resolution, shader usage, and other trickaroonies employed by the passionate and talented development teams became like a second language for me. For this reason, my appreciation for the art that goes into characters, and the work I know those people are fervently pushed to put out is heightened to a degree. (only a slight one though really) So you’ll know when I say that the character art is possibly the weakest creative link in this game, you’ll know I mean it out of love. I say that though, then immediately turn around and contradict myself. Let’s watch.

Really though, when I say that, what I mean is that it is weakest only in the sense that the assets really weren’t meant to be seen up close. I game on PC (cats out of the bag now I guess) so when I play a game, I play it seeing it at its highest resolution. Because of this, I can determine that the artists who developed for this game obviously meant for most assets to be viewed primarily from a distance. This is a common and fairly vanilla tactic in budgeting data flow for your game. If someone is going to see something so far away that it will be hardly viewable at any other resolution than 500980X3288472, then it is hardly worth the time and effort to place work into refining that texture or poly count to a higher number. It goes without saying that Civilization and most other Sid Meier-based games are meant to be played from a near-top-down perspective. After considering this however, you begin to realize how they almost work it into their favor. Not even almost, I’d say they completely pull it off.

In showing close up views during cut scenes and briefings in conjunction with a softer, less detailed environment and model, you begin to see something come together. Action figures. I’m not sure about how many of you players out there got three hours into the game, unlocked your first laser weapon then thought. Jesus Christ, didn’t Cobra something have something exactly LIKE that, but in red?

Apparently I’m not alone in this thought pattern. The art director, Greg Foertsch, proudly admitted to a direct influence from 80’s miniatures and G.I. Joes as this was an integral piece of the aesthetic for the first game. Browsing through the concept art book, you begin to piece together a modernized militia of hokey yet endearingly sincere members of an elite team of alien killers.

“XCOM! SATURDAY MORNINGS. ONLY ON FOX KIDS!” (Not sure if fox kids is even a thing anymore. But they’re who would play it I assume.)

I think back to that terrible nineties era as well. Back when things like Godzilla got an entire 26 episodes or so of animated cartoon time alongside other movie spin offs such as EVOLUTION. YEAH. WHO REMEMBERS EVOLUTION? I do. As a moronic preteen corn syrup based life form, I watched the crap out of that show. I remember they had over sized guns with very vague details and “widgets” on them, and they fought a villain that sounded remarkably similar in tone to Tim Curry… I think. I could just be making up a cartoon show for children based off of the classic 2001 hit movie from Columbia Pictures Corporation AND the DreamWorks special effect team, that’s right, you guessed it, Evolution.

(You actually guessed it because I just said the name of the movie three sentences ago in all caps so don’t go getting a big head.)

(Also Julianne Moore was in that movie. What the hell? You see her ass I’m pretty sure.)

But I digress. (Get used to that) The idea that half of this game’s art direction was taken directly from Saturday morning cartoons makes me want to boot up and log a good 30 hour session tomorrow playing every character by name and roll from M.A.S.K. While I’ve not known anyone to speak about the game who was an adult when the original was released back in the early nineties, I do know plenty of people who have gone back to play it currently who were kids when the shows it’s based on were popular. I have to say, subconsciously planting that artistic seed in the gamer’s head from the beginning is a master stroke on behalf of Firaxis.

After all has been said and done though, the character design as it stands by itself is incredible in my opinion. The form and silhouette of each class and role impeccable. Manly characters stand tall and proud ready to defend the nation and be plastered onto what could have been hundreds of sensationalist propaganda posters promoting the game I’m sure. And the Women, appropriately proportioned curvaceous battle bitches ready to kick ass and tell that alien scum to “Get your hands off her, You Bitch!” only to be followed shortly afterwards by gratuitous amounts of rocket fire. Many people applauded Firaxis for their strong-stand-on-feminine-realism in their game. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Really though, people should look at their design overall and take a few tips. I haven’t even started talking about the aliens.

AND THE ALIENS. Dear god. Such nostalgic pop-culture beauty has never been attained in such a tremendous fashion before to my knowledge. Sectoids, who will come to be known as “fodder”, basically are inspired directly by the “little grey men” of urban folk lore. Every character has something interesting about them, and even the most basic troop in this game is no exception. Complete with enormous glowing eyes and chest patterns, these guys stand a mere three-to-four feet tall in your wake, but their feral stance and lope gives them something strangely more menacing to their demeanor. You realize very quickly when they don’t hesitate to blow a few of your dudes away in the tutorial that they’re not messing around.

I won’t spoil too many other enemies for those who haven’t played, but it is evident that internet culture as well as grind house sci fi and past classics have influenced many of the way these villains’ look and feel. Fighting them on the battle field, you never obtain more of a heart stopping moment than when you realize you are up against something COMPLETELY different. It is in my opinion that the silhouettes and color swatches employed during development really hammer that home. Your Sectoid looks different than a Thin Man, looks different than a Muton, looks different from a Chrysalid, which SURE as hell looks different from a goddamn Cyberdisc. Goddamn Cyberdiscs. Basically the developers made sure you never THINK you’re shooting at something you can kill, when you actually can’t. Profile and silhouette are shotgun blasting you in the face even when you don’t realize it.

Seriously, next time you’re playing the game, stop for a moment and look at how each Alien has near completely different posture, emotional animation range, and color pattern. Firaxis pull a design choice like this off with such grace and ease that it would make your head spin. That is if it weren’t already due to some consarned floater making what must’ve been a twenty percent shot from across the field.

This extra layer of attention pays off in spades even from the first moment you see a unit on the field. Friend of Foe? Infiltration, support class, or big ol bruiser? (Sounds… cough… familiar TF2… cough cough…) This is something I will probably harp on consistently throughout this blog: The importance of profile and what a characters looks like from fifty yards away. Chances are if you can’t tell what their general purpose or roll is, then the artists weren’t trying hard enough.

Finally from the artistic roster, I would like to gather a great round of applause for the environments. Civilization did an amazing job of combining elegance and concise accuracy in the objects on their maps. XCOM replicates and displays this ability to near perfection as well with some slight caveats. On the battle field, cover is almost always clear and obvious, but that is not always the case. There are times when I was not sure if something was cover or not and wound up just placing my badass sniper, who’s nick-name ALONE was cooler than 1960’s-Neil-Armstrong holding a Ruger Blackhawk in one hand and a beef Chimichanga in the other, out in the middle of the field next to what turned out to just be a pile of dumb trash. I’m probably just a moron. Either way, we honor the death of Major Lazer Eagle, may he forever Overwatch us all, taking reaction shots on all who trespass against us. Honestly though, the vagueness of certain foliage and other battlefield elements were the only artistic problems I really had with the game’s environmental assets. Colored lights and tense placement of set pieces such as collapsed bodies and pre-decimated buildings initiate you into setting unlike any other. I often sat and just stared for a good thirty seconds or so before moving a unit just to get a lay of the environment. Whether starting outside of a coffee shop, a half destroyed bridge, or German forest, you knew each scenario would bring something new and dangerous.

The second and final environmental point I wanted to draw attention to was the base. Now before I had played the game at all, I had plenty of mental images from what people had told me, but no WAY did I imagine such a place of wonderment and joy would so quickly (read as slowly) unfold before my eyes. AGAIN, the theme of Saturday morning cartoons and action figures breathes a heavy moist breath on the back of your neck the entire time you’re managing troops from your Thunderbirds Era underground Hive Base. I’ll admit as well, my fiancé I sat in amazement watching the little characters move around, running on treadmills, observing captured aliens, and generally doing the best they could to look busy when all the while they were probably thinking to themselves “Holy Crap! Holy CRAP! Aliens are actually going to lick our buttholes with razor tongues if we don’t launch a satellite over Russia by the end of this month.” Really the whole thing felt like some amazing human-ant-farm full of interesting actions and lighting, as well as that same plastic-coated low-LOD that gives it such a unique feel. Closing in on any one room revealed that there was rarely more hard surface detail in place than there needed to be, again, focusing as much on form in the environment as well as the characters, and leaving the rest up to our childhood experiences.

The soundtrack to the game was helmed by Roland Rizzo, who had been with the series from the beginning. An ominous tone, and plenty of heavy synthesized notes are undeniably traced back to Michael McCann. The man responsible for Deus Ex’s cutting edge audial line up. Browsing through the base and picking out whether to research plasma rifles or cut open some asteroid-bound-butt-smacker has never felt cooler than when you’re doing it to this song. I’ll let the music speak for itself.

Obviously the moody and brooding tones match the feeling of the situation you face in that game for more than one reason. There are those who would argue that the music is drab and boring. I can tell you my pulse only QUICKENED when I ran across my third set of Floaters in one match only to have the battle drums bound through my system once again. There are definitely OSTs which are nearer and dearer to my heart, but Rizzo and McCann have made the noise that stands for dimming the lights, made the noise that sounds like flicking on the blue neon, and audibly transported me to a world where I am needed more than ever.

I believe to many people, XCOM is more than a game, it’s a calling. It’s a call that asks the question, is better to be feared? Or Respected? Then shoves an alien rifle in your mouth and blows your head off before you can mutter “bo-..”. XCOM demands that you play by its rules, and I can do nothing but respect it for that. It is a game that, in the wake of a newer generation of unforgivingly “hardcore” experiences, makes no mistake of letting you know, to “Remember, We, will be watching.”

Over and out.

Wait… no actually I have a joke.

And a question. Joke first though.

Okay. What do you call an extra-terrestrial who loves alcoholic beverages?

An ALE-ien!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But I'm curious. What was your favorite enemy unit from the game? And which room of the base do you think it'd be easiest to hide a stash of 40 year old porno mags in? Your answers I salivate for!

Also, are you interested in reading a bit more. Here's an article complete with rather awesome video interview featuring Greg Foertsch himself! Ch-ch-ch-checkit!

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About anglorumone of us since 2:59 AM on 08.02.2012

The Artistical

My name is Bill Tate.

I will tell you a few things, I love video games. More importantly than that. I love video game ART.

(I'm actually still not sure if it's more important. I need to get some fact checkers in here on that.)

I've studied game art for a long time now. During my secondary education I considered working in the industry under that field as a career path. While I've determined that might not necessarily be for me, I will do something which I've developed sort of a knack for along the way, talk. I love talking to people, also I love talking to people about stuff. And what is more fun than to write and discuss the STUFF you love most?

So, long story short. I'm an art-nerd-man-thing.

If reading about the art direction for various video games and game industry trends interests you, then you're in the right place!

A little about me!

Top 3 games:
- Jet Set Radio Future
- The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
- BatMan: Arkham City

Current Location: Tempe, AZ
Place of origin: Lakenheath, UK

Currently Playing: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Feature in progress: Conventional Art: Trade Shows and colored spot lights - a study

Review In progress: Not sure really.