XCOM 2 has been very much on my radar since I saw it in motion at E3. I’ve watched hours of playthroughs and have heard a great deal of commentary on how the game is shaping up. But having spent over 100 hours with the original (including The Long War mod) and its expansion, I really wanted to take a peek behind the development curtain. With just over a week before launch, I’ve got my window.
The Art of XCOM 2 gives an inside look at the iterative process that brought us the much-anticipated sequel. It opens with an introduction from Greg Foertsch, XCOM 2’s Project Art Director, and the pages preceding give just as much context as his words. The first page past the plain logo is a two page layout showing an alien seemingly helping a human stand back up from a fallen position. It’s an inspiring thing, unless you focus on what’s happening around it. Below stands an idle guard, holding sentry in front of this statue. In the foreground, more guards check the identity of a frightened man, surrounding him. Behind them, a guard threatens the driver of a car passing by. All around this are beautiful neon-lit buildings stabbing the sky as testaments to the human/alien progress, but the cost is as plain as the terror on the face of the man being questioned. This is not how we envisioned the future.
The aforementioned introduction from Greg Foertsch is a highly complimentary nod to the work of his team as they iterated heavily through concepts and improvements to the XCOM look and feel. In it he states that this is but a fraction of the concept art that was generated over the last few years, and based on what comes from the rest of this book, I don’t doubt him. When I’m looking to review an art book, I look for several elements — art that is evocative of the look and feel the team strived to achieve in the final product, sketches and concept work that helped guide the build team as they created the game, and a peek behind the creative curtain at things that might have inspired the concept, even if it was left on the cutting room floor. The Art of XCOM 2 has all of these things and more.
The book opens with previsualization elements — the conceptual art pieces that help set the tone for the game. In this case, the Insight Editions team worked with 2K and Firaxis to collect some incredible art that rings equal part Blade Runner and abject terror. Neon and fluorescent lights dance in the streets together as a soft orange glow blankets a towering four-armed alien statue in the distance. Ships hover over cities as more statues showing the aliens walking with children sit in the median between car lanes. Everywhere, Advent lasers scan humans as they go about their daily lives to “keep them safe.” It’s clear that the team quickly thought through the combat elements in these pieces as cover elements are as easily identified as the solar-powered planters and massive neon signs that adorn the walls.
Also in this chapter is the target the team wanted to hit for the facial looks of the soldiers, complete with chiaroscuro shading, the standard XCOM armor, and my personal favorite — the Berserker and Muton. The 3D render and the “beat down” animation sketch convey a brutality that could (and likely does) translate directly to the game.
There were over 85 environments to tackle in XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within, but if there was one overriding aspect that people nitpicked in the original, it was that the environments felt predictable. The Firaxis team took that to heart and came up with a fantastic solution: procedurally generated environments. Lead Technical Artist Zelijko Strkalj explains in the book that a shift to Physically Based Rendering allowed the team to bring a fantastic new look to real-life landscapes and objects. He also hints at a few Easter Eggs we might find if we are observing the environments closely, so we’ll have to keep an eye out.
I really enjoy how The Art of XCOM 2 iterated early on the concept of gridded cover-based combat. Much of the artwork after the Previsualization section have annotations that explain their scale in the combat zone. It was pretty clear that the team kept this scale in mind as they pushed the envelope for the game’s design.
Next up we get a glimpse into how Advent, the security arm of the alien threat, integrates into society. Rejuvenation stations, clone storage, and most disturbing of all, cathedral-esque propaganda centers fill the next few sections of this chapter, showcasing how this human faction has helped the alien threat integrate into society. But not everyone lives in the cold marbled futuristic cityscapes. The next portion of this chapter shows the run down and dilapidated shanties and abandoned towns that people outside the city dwell in.
The final portion of this second section, and perhaps the most chilling, gives our first view of the inside of an updated alien UFO. Autopsy rooms reminiscent of the ones set up in the XCOM base, navigation, and other modular parts send an immediate message about the alien’s view of human life. Beyond the ship is an alien facility of some sort, revealing grotesque experimentation vats and tables, as well as other disconcerting but unidentified constructs. While these might just be set pieces in practice, I liked that the team focused this hard on these background details, showcasing them here in detail.
Chapter 3 focuses on the Alien overlords that have seized control of Earth, and the taut-skinned Sectoid with it’s sickening permanent grin sets the tone nicely. The last 20 years on Earth have made the aliens far more powerful than they were. Sectoids, for instance, have grown more terrifying through the use of genetic splicing and manipulation, standing more upright at a staggering seven feet tall. There are nearly 40 different iterations on the new Sectoid, some of them downright nightmare-inducing.
In The Art of XCOM 2, we also get our first look at a new alien species — The Archon. The Archon looks like it could have come straight out of Deus Ex or been a summon from Final Fantasy. It is a floating humanoid with golden wing structures. These wings can fire pinions at enemies below them, or they can use a devastating beam staff as their melee weapon — all of which is demonstrated with 22 concept art pieces, culminating with the final iteration that we’ll see in the game. This final form is uniquely more humanoid than almost any other alien, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how they achieved this final form.
The Berserker has always been a terrifying foe up close, but the Firaxis team wanted to give him a little more bite, literally. Now with an articulating lower jaw, complete with rows of terrifying teeth, you’ll have a choice of being clubbed to death with your own severed arms, or having your head chewed off at close range. Similarly, The Faceless went through a great many iterations, resembling many classic horror monsters before settling on a melting pile of human-shaped flesh. Rounding out the roster is another new creature, but could be easily classified as a throwback to earlier XCOM titles — the Viper. Resembling a female hooded cobra with arms, the Viper Many other creatures receive an incredible amount of iterative storytelling and articulation experimentation, but I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. If you’ve not yet played the game, I suggest you skip the final page of Chapter 3 until you’ve put in a few hours. I loved how much work the team put into evolving the creatures from XCOM: Enemy Within. With 20 years of evolution, they’ve begun to change into something more humanoid in many cases. Those who haven’t, however, are simply more grotesque or horrifying. Getting to see that evolution from the artist’s own hand is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
The Advent is the human enforcement arm of the alien threat, and they get an entire chapter. Resembling Cyclone armor from Robotech, the Advent have advanced weaponry and protection, including mechanized soldiers. As Senior Concept Artist Aaron Yamada-Hanff explains, “These soldiers are the aliens’ direct hand in controlling Earth”, and “their armored troops are the mailed fist that keeps order”. What’s underneath the exosuits these Robocop-esque soldiers wear is something to discover for yourself, but we can all imagine something isn’t quite right with human soldiers willing to enforce against their own kind.
Troop carriers, trucks, armor, mechanized suits, cars, and cargo loaders round out Chapter 4 and lead into the XCOM team, proper. Creative Director Jake Solomon explains that they wanted to move away from the babyfaced always-smiling soldiers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within and move to something more “Sons of Anarchy” in look and feel. Sure, your rookies may show up young and doe-eyed, but through combat they can become grizzled, bearded, scarred, and a little broken. Lead Character Modeler Chris Sulzbach explains that they wanted to convey a sense of permanence through customization once you’ve reached a certain rank, which conversely makes you feel the impact of losing a squad member that much more should they die in the field. With a wealth of new armor options, no longer will your squad look like cookie cutter soldiers. This is shown in fantastic detail with over 120 basic armor and clothing iterations flowing directly into an equally vast array of specialized armor like the exoskeleton and powered armor. The amount of work shown here is unlikely the full compliment of possible combinations, which is very exciting.
The final chapter of the book focuses on the weapons and technologies you might encounter in the game, as well as special effects the team wanted to use to convey the various environments and your interaction in them. Lead Effects Artist Stephen Jameson shines in this chapter, as does Lead Weapon Artist David Pacanowski. Their work on the redesigned Skyranger spans 39 concept pieces across four pages, culminating with a two page shot of the game-ready iteration we’ll use in-game. The Avenger, the base from which the remnants of XCOM will strike, is equally as well explored here. I loved the medium used in these drawings. They resemble graphite pencil drawings, with a great deal of detail amidst the unique streaking and smearing techniques.
The next section of this chapter focuses on some of the familiar and well-used weapons, such as the conventional sniper rifle, grenade launcher, and assault rifle, and moves directly into the weapons used by the Advent and aliens. The weapons are more sleek, refined, and often integrated directly into wrist-mounts, preventing them from being dropped into enemy (that’s us in this case) hands. The latter weapons and drones are best left as a surprise, but suffice it to say that they are a hybridization of alien, human, and Advent technologies.
The final page of this 192-page hardback book is an eerily beautiful piece of two-page concept art. It is a swamp in the forest, the ground aglow with an unnatural purple mist. Tentacle-like tendrils have sprouted all around the concrete barriers that were left here so long ago. In this case, new growth is unlikely a welcome thing, and as a lone soldier stands amidst it, those tendrils have begun to come to life.
If there is one thing I was sad to see missing in this book, it’s the cover artwork. A Sectoid head made from human skulls was grotesque, the cover artwork below sends a real message about our place in this universe. I would have liked to see how that cover came together, or just to have a better high-resolution image of it.