Wednesday, October 24, 2012

XCOM: ...and Now. (2012 Firaxis.)

I meant for this follow-up article to follow within a few days of my profile on the 1994 original. However, when I got the new XCOM on launch, I realized something. There would be dozens of articles within days of launch written by foks who had put a handful of hours into the game and written to hit a deadline. I knew after a few minutes playing that I was going to be into XCOM for some time to come, and the best way to talk about it would be from someone who had sunk enough hours into the game to consider themselves a veteran. In the last two weeks, I've sunk nearly 85 hours into this game, making it the second-longest played game on my Steam account, beating out Borderlands which I played weekly with friends for months, sometimes staying up all night. Early this morning, I finished the game in the manner it is intended to be played: Classic Difficulty, Ironman mode. I now feel qualified to talk about it.

XCOM has the guts to do something new.
 Instead of eventually beating the game being a matter of persistence, you can sink dozens
 of hours into a game of XCOM, and lose. Planet is taken by the aliens, Game Over.

So many of the reviews I read and listened to did the same thing. Spent a few sentences talking about what a good game XCOM is, and then the rest of the review talking about flaws, many of which were just design decisions they didn't personally understand. Make no mistake, there are a few bugs here, and they frustrate, especially in a game with permadeath and a mode which does not allow you to reload saves when something unfortunate happens. However, even in its current state, XCOM is a triumph. Turn-based strategy is a genre that is mostly found in niche titles or older games, with the notable exception of the Civilization series. XCOM has the potential to change all that, with a big-budget, slickly produced title that modernizes the gameplay and provides modern polish.

The game is, like the original title, about running a global organization to combat an alien invasion against a foe that outnumbers, outguns, and strikes without warning anywhere in the world. They start with weaponry that can kill a human or destroy a building, while the best soldiers in the world with our finest technology can only kill one of their weakest number with concentrated fire, assuming they don't panic before doing so. What provides hope is the strategic and tactical command of the leader of XCOM (you) and the researchers and engineers who take bits of alien technology and study and replicate it in order to develop new weapons, armor, ships and techniques for turning a bunch of scared rookies into a force capable of striking fear into alien hearts. Turn by bloody turn, difficult choices are made, and the tide slowly turns from barely surviving to kicking the aliens the hell off our planet.

You can customize everything about a soldier except their assigned class, Country of Origin, and gender. I named this squad after characters played by myself, my wife and friends in tabletop RPGs over the years.

In the strategic layer, you need to manage limited resources to build up the base, get satellites covering most of the globe, research and develop the tech for the soldiers on the ground, build and arm craft to shoot down UFOs and manage global panic to keep your funding in place. The game is played through the tactical missions, but won or lost based on the strategic layer. The missions are usually "find and kill all the aliens," but sometimes there will be a VIP to escort or locate and protect, bombs to defuse or civilians to protect. The pace of the game is careful and deliberate, with risky play resulting in failed missions, wasted resources and dead soldiers who need to be replaced with raw recruits. The best and worst turns of the game are when you make a minor mistake, exposing a new group of aliens to your squad's position, and your soldiers are at risk, even if they have advanced equipment and abilities.

Every soldier is assigned a class on promotion from being raw recruits, and as they participate in missions and kill aliens, they level up, gaining more powerul abilities. You can customize the soldiers, they gain nicknames automatically, and it hurts to lose a leveled-up soldier knowing it was your fault. That's going to happen. I lost surprisingly few soldiers in my successful Classic Ironman game, but two of them were Colonels (the highest rank) with dozens of kills each, and they died in the same mission on two subsequent turns. Each soldier can move twice, move and fire, or just fire their weapon without moving. Certain special class abilities or weapons require you to stay still, and others end your turn as though you had fired a weapon. You make hard choices. Save India, Canada, or Russia? Reload now, not knowing if you should instead get that soldier ready to fire on an alien you can't see? Try to outflank the enemy and risk alerting more to your position, or take a risky 35% shot and feel maybe like you wasted a precious action?

The result of poor planning, squad panic, rushing forward too quickly, or just plain bad luck.

Having played a bit with the multiplayer (point-based, competitive mixed squads of humans and aliens on static maps) and beaten the game on Normal and Classic Ironman, albeit with two wins out of thirty games attempted, I don't think XCOM is quite done with me yet. I might not take on Impossible difficulty with any degree of seriousness, but Firaxis is committed to long-term support, especially with a game that has done so well. Reviews have been nearly universally rave, and DLC is planned, with the first post-release content announced yesterday. A subplot focusing on China with custom maps and new missions will be the focus of "Slingshot," with a Chinese gangster available as a hero character, and the possibility of early access to a powerful endgame weapon as the reward. With more DLC planned, and the inevitable expansions and sequels, I feel bad. So much death is coming. Aliens, poor squaddies, and a whole lot more of my free time.
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