Between Robocop and an X-Wing Pilot: Designing XCOM’s MEC

All gave some, and some gave all.

The battlefields of XCOM: Enemy Unknown never reward brute force. They're minefields of alien weaponry and psychic talent that can quickly cut down even the most heavily armored soldier. All except for one. Clad in a massive suit of cybernetic armor, the mechanized exoskeletal cybersuit is designed to soak up damage and dish it out in kind. Ananda Gupta, senior game designer on XCOM: Enemy Within, explains how his team created this two-ton war machine with a human touch.

"I’m really fond of this image," said Gupta, "because it’s not a common image: the idea of a woman having her limbs amputated so she can get into a giant robot suit to shoot aliens. XCOM has always been about men and women from all over the world doing whatever it takes to fight the aliens, and this image drives that home."

It all starts with the classes. "When I joined [XCOM: Enemy Unknown] in July of 2011, there were definitely some things that needed work," said Gupta. "My first week on the job was a week when 2K was visiting. Part of their feedback after playing the game was they cared more about the guns than they did about the soldiers. It fell to me to fix this problem, so I introduced character classes."

Prior to Gupta's arrival, Enemy Unknown didn't have the heavy, assault, support, and sniper classes. A soldier's abilities were tied to his or her weapons. If you needed a sniper, you gave a soldier a sniper rifle. If you wanted someone to use suppression, you gave that person a gun with suppression. It was the guns that were special, not the people.

This meant that losing a soldier, even an experienced one, was really no big deal--which is antithetical to a series known for asking you to face tough choices and accept the consequences. Switching to a class-based system got you invested in individual troops by giving them a distinct identity and play style. And if you lost a decorated soldier in battle, it not only impacted the battle at hand, but could have far-reaching ramifications on your overall war effort.

You might also be disappointed to see Todd "Butt-Kicker" Gunderson kick the bucket. Enemy Unknown isn't one to dictate how you identify with your soldiers, if at all. It simply gives you the tools to do so. When Enemy Within came around, Gupta and his team asked themselves, among other things, "How can we further people's investment in their soldiers?" The answer, oddly enough, was robots.

Enter the mechanized exoskeletal cybersuit, or MEC for short, XCOM: Enemy Within's newest soldier class. It's an immensely powerful unit that comes with a heavy price: a MEC is extremely expensive to manufacture, and the pilot must undergo a radical transformation.

Even the most materialistic among us tend to think that what makes one human, what gives one an identity, resides in the brain or the heart or somewhere in the core.That transformation puts the soldier somewhere between an X-wing pilot and Robocop. Gupta knew he didn't want to lock these people inside their suits, but there had to be some degree of sacrifice. "This is a good example where design by going to art for help can reframe a problem," he said. By working with lead artist Dave Black, Gupta devised a scenario in which the suits and the pilots were separate, but the pilots had to forfeit their arms and legs to interface with the suit. It is a major sacrifice, but not a dehumanizing one.

"There's philosophy to be discussed here," said Gupta, "but we don't say that a quadriplegic is less than human. Even the most materialistic among us--and I use 'materialistic' in the philosophical sense to refer to people who don't think there's any such thing as a 'mind' or a 'soul' or anything like that--tend to think that what makes one human, what gives one an identity, resides in the brain or the heart or somewhere in the core. Since a MEC trooper's [head and torso] are retained, we're still dealing with a living, breathing soldier, one who has made some very deep sacrifices to protect the world from aliens."

In the early piece of concept art shown above, the MEC takes on a very alien design. The collapsed torso, inverted knee joints, and extended forearms--while visually striking--give the unit a very inhuman aesthetic. Only the head poking out from the chest reminds you there's a person inside, a design choice that would carry through to the MEC's final iteration.

As Gupta stated, we are still dealing with a "living, breathing soldier," so further iterations of the MEC tried to reflect this with a more humanlike appearance. In the examples below, the suits have the same basic shape of a human, but this gave the team the opposite problem from before: now the MEC simply looked like a giant human. The design needed something to distinguish itself from the pack, besides its size. "We always wanted the MECs to walk and move a little differently than other units."

There was also the issue of what to do with the MEC's arms. Should they be holding a weapon, or should weapons be integrated into the arms themselves? "This was a massive problem for the art team," said Gupta. "From an animation perspective, our cinematic, over-the-shoulder kill shots didn't read very well with the weapon integrated into the arm--it wasn't very dramatic. It made more sense to let them carry their weapon. It's a lot like Robotech in that way." Holding a weapon, instead of being a weapon, also had a humanizing effect on the MEC's design by mirroring the fighting stance of other soldiers.

These weapons can be used to devastating effect by a MEC trooper, who excels at locking down sections of the battlefield. "So many of the MEC's abilities have to do with area-of-effect or environmental control--like the flamethrower or proximity mines or the cover destruction ability--that it made sense to create a new class. I think the MEC found a really good niche for itself in addition to being a giant robot that looks awesome and kills aliens."

As Ananda mentioned, the proximity mine launcher is a perfect complement to the MEC's role in combat. This shoulder-mounted, secondary weapon fires discs that attach to a surface and wait for unsuspecting enemies to pass before detonating. They can be used to funnel enemies down a specific path, to cut off an escape route, or to cover your team's blind spots.

"The fact that MECs don't take cover also means enemies will generally have better shots against them," Gupta added. "This means they can be used to soak up damage for the rest of the squad--if the player is willing to take that risk. There are a number of abilities in the MEC trooper's skill tree that bolster this role, but of course that's a trade-off just like with other soldiers' abilities."

Armed to the teeth and clad in power armor, MEC troopers are XCOM's trump card. They can go toe-to-toe with the toughest aliens, and can take hits other soldiers can't withstand. But under all that metal and circuitry, these soldiers aren't all that different from the rest of us. "They can still drink a beer, and enjoy that beer," Gupta noted. "All the parts needed to enjoy beer are still there." XCOM: Enemy Within will be released November 12th for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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