Tuesday, 30 October 2012

XCom: Enemy Unknown

I remember playing the demo for the original X-Com game on my friend's PC.  Of course, we knew it as UFO : Enemy Unknown then, this was long before those bastardising Yankees got hold of it.  I think it came on a floppy disk on the front of a magazine and I remember reading the accompanying article with a sense of wonder.  You can shoot down UFOs with Interceptors (which you can equip individually)?  You can interrogate aliens?  You can research and manufacture future tech?  And then you get to fight it all out in squad-based, turn-based, isometric combat?  With action points, and different soldiers, all with their own attributes?  Like an uber Laser Squad (another game I had played to death)?  Is this some kind of joke?  This is 1994 for Christ's sake!  What the... but... this... this is amazing.

So we loaded the demo up.  It let us play part of one of the terror missions... I remember firing a rocket or some incendiary ammunition at a Chryssalid and a large part of the display dissolving into flames.  I think we may have cheered.  And then the smoke cleared, and that fucking thing was just left there, still alive, chittering away to itself.  We hadn't even made a dent.  And that was pretty much the moment I fell in love with X-Com.

Happy Days.

Since then I have had a copy on anything that will play it.  I've bought it for the Amiga, for various PCs and on the Playstation.  There is a copy of it on my laptop right now.  I've played it on and off for 18 years.  It is, in my humble opinion, one of the top 5 games ever made (and maybe that's a subject for a post of its own.)  What I'm saying is that I love this game, and like most people who love something I get very protective of it.  So when I heard that Firaxis were "re-imagining" (ugh) it earlier this year, it brought up a lot of conflicting emotions for me. 

I was excited, first and foremost - as great as the original is there are lots of things that could be improved, it is 18 years old after all.  I was interested to see which way they took it and whether it would do the series justice, or whether it would drown under a torrent of quest markers, awesome buttons and effing dragons or whatever.  And, as well as the excitement, I was scared that it wasn't going to live up to my expectations, how could it?  How could anything?

And then it arrived.

(That makes it sound like it plopped onto my doormat.  It didn't.  I downloaded it.  It took ages.  It's a huge file, but you know, progress apparently.)

Anyway finally, finally, after 18 years of hoping, and 9 months of actually waiting, I got to play it.

First things first, this is NOT the original game.  I think that needs to be said right at the start.  In fact there are a whole shedload of things that the original does better.  In keeping with current thinking this incarnation is fantastically streamlined.  It's been streamlined to within an inch of its life.  Action points are gone, most of the soldier statistics are gone; all of them start with the same capabilities and they can't even choose what they carry (beyond some basic either/or choices.)  What's more, a whole range of starting weapons have disappeared - no more auto-cannons, and certainly no more incendiary ammo.  There's also no more micro-management of, for example, interceptor missiles or rocket ammunition.  Your squad size has been cut from a maximum of 24 to 4-6.  The maps are a lot smaller (and can feel like corridors with enemies teleporting in at fixed points.)  The different types of shot have gone and you can't even destroy buildings in order to get at the little grey bastards inside, except by using strictly rationed grenades or rockets.  Armour now adds straight hit points to your soldiers, rather than being a barrier to overcome - and different types of weapons just add more (fixed) damage per shot and possibly increase your critical chance, rather than having a range of possible damage, different weights, different effectiveness against different opponents etc.  You only have access to one base, rather than a possible 8, you can't employ engineers and scientists with actual cash money, there's only one type of UFO craft you can research and build (and so on and so forth.)

See, I miss ALL of those things to a greater or lesser extent (possibly apart from the micro-management) even though I can appreciate why they were changed.  Most people are not like me when it comes to this stuff, and games companies want to sell as many units as possible.  Firaxis obviously decided, like they already had with Civilisation V or Bethesda had with Skyrim, that all this complexity just gets in the way of the "player experience".  (I'm putting words in their mouths but this is quite clearly a conscious decision they have made.)  They're not alone in doing this and I may wish they hadn't (seriously, what is wrong with some numbers?  What's wrong with randomly generating the attributes of your soldiers?) but I can accept that this isn't going to change in mainstream gaming any time soon.  Like I said, this isn't the original game.  I need to get over this and judge it on its merits because, actually, despite everything it has given me some great experiences.

The soldier development is extremely well done.  The designers obviously correctly identified (and this is, after all, why "RPG elements" are so ubiquitous) that players feel much more emotionally connected to characters which they have developed over a period of time, that they have moulded and built up.  So your soldiers get given a nickname and players can customise them, rename them, pick their armour type, what they look like and choose new abilities for them on levelling up.  Players can invest themselves into their soldiers - and then they can take them into a hazardous environment and try to stop them getting blasted to absolute shit.  This emotional attachment to your troops was one of the central parts of the original and the new one takes it by the scruff of the neck and makes it probably the best bit of the whole game.  If you also play on Ironman (where you cannot reload if you make a mistake) it lends everything an almost unbearable sense of tension.  If you mess up, then that soldier who you've put so much time into, and who is relying on you to make it through, is toast.

And combat is another bit of the game which works very well.  The cover system certainly isn't new, as anybody who played the original will tell you, but it's been formalised and made into the central concern.  Your soldiers need to stay in cover in order to survive and this turns any battle into something that can be almost chess-like, as you try to flank the enemies whilst keeping your men and women out of danger.  One of the best bits is the way that soldiers now react to terrain, they will fire around a corner, smash a window or crash through a door automatically, and this together with the small maps and small squads has the effect of making battles a much more immediate affair than before.  That said, there are certainly some downsides to the combat part of the game -  I'm not sure about the way alien squads spawn on the map or the free move they get, and it can be extremely difficult to move your squad accurately through a large UFO as it is often unclear where you are going - but XCom manages to make turn-based combat feel fluid and exciting, which is no mean feat.  I've had games where I've had to execute a fighting retreat to the transport, or where I've struggled until I've gotten my sniper into the correct place and some of these have been genuinely tense and engrossing episodes, which is only to be applauded.

The aliens are also very well designed.  Chryssalids are their same old shit-your-pants selves but floaters are suddenly a much greater threat than before, as they can now flank your soldiers with ease.  Berserkers are a worthy addition, bashing down walls to get to your troops, and Cyberdiscs and Sectopods have also been given a new lease of life - turning into some kind of manga nightmare well capable of taking away your prized officers in a heartbeat.  If you add in the new reptilian Thin Men  and updated Sectoids, Ethereals and Mutons then the whole selection work well together to provide the player with different challenges to adapt to and overcome.

In fact the whole thing is very well presented.  It's like the original game, but if it was directed by the guy who did Independence Day. I kept expecting to see Will Smith pop up and punch a Sectoid on the nose whilst uttering some banality.  Armour is sleek and shiny, your base looks suitably impressive and it's just all very modern.  This is, obviously, very much an area of personal preference. Some people will love the kill cams, the bon mots and the shots of Skyrangers coming in to land, and others will find it a bit off-putting.  It was an area of the game that I was definitely worried about before playing it, but I should probably make a confession.  I like the stuff the soldiers say after they shoot an alien or reload.  Sometimes I even go "hoo-rah" quietly to myself when I kill something.  In my defence, I do fully accept that I am going to burn in hell.

But that aside, it's all very slick and professional, and XCom works because it forces the player to make sacrifices in order to progress and it keeps them constantly juggling resources and making choices - which is what games are all about.  One of the great strengths of the original was that you could take any approach you liked when developing your organisation.  If you wanted to build listening posts across the globe as soon as possible then you could.  If you wanted to develop better weapons, or try to capture a sectoid commander to get hold of psionics then that was also a valid strategy.  Within the restrictions of the game (which were usually money related) then the player was free to take any approach they liked.  I think this is A Good Thing, but there was a downside (isn't there always?) - things could sometimes feel a little bit unfocused and the player could exploit various bits of the system in order to get an often decisive advantage.  Firaxis have taken the opposite approach.  Things are tight in this one.  There is little scope for the player to deviate from the prescribed story arc, but this also has the effect of making everything feel very focused and very polished.  Some of the mechanics they use in order to achieve this are questionable - why can't XCom have more than one Skyranger?  And why can we only intervene in one terror mission at a time?  But the end result is that the player will often have to make some difficult choices in what they can afford to advance, and what they will have to leave by the wayside.  In the main it works well, but it does feel very scripted and the player can often feel that they are being railroaded into advancing the story without being given enough time to enjoy the ride.

As you can see, there are plenty of things that are good about this game.  So why do I feel strangely dissatisfied with it?  I've finished it once through, and I've restarted another game but I just cannot be bothered to play it.  When I first loaded it up I thought it was amazing.  I genuinely thought that Firaxis had totally nailed it, but, the more I play it, the more I realise that a lot of it is style over substance.  Yeah it's exciting, and yeah it's fun and good and all those things - but I just can't see myself still playing it in a year's time, let alone twenty. 

I think that that longevity has gone precisely because everything is so tight.  I know what's going to happen, I know what's coming - so what's the point in playing it through again?  All of the unpredictability of the first one has disappeared.  I've gotten over the bells and whistles, I've made my soldiers' armour bright green, I've watched all the cutscenes, I've experienced all of the plot development and I kind of feel that I've seen everything the game has to offer.  Even the combat has become a bit of a procession at times, sad to say.  There's nothing left to discover, or at least that's how I feel.

To be honest, part of this comes from my own prejudices and expectations and I've found it hard to get over the amount of stuff that has been taken out of the game, but I think there is also a genuine complaint that the developers have disregarded certain elements in order to focus on making a game that is "mainstream" and that appeals to the most possible people.  They've made something that certainly does that, and I by no means think the game is bad - it's a very good game, it really is - but it's lacking the flexibility and depth of the original and I can't help but judge it on that basis.

However those are my personal feelings and one thing that certainly seems to be true is that this game has brought X-Com to a whole new generation of players. I've read things from people who have never played the series before, who have never even played turn-based strategy games before, but who are raving about this. They think it's brilliant, and so it has obviously done its job of "mainstreaming" X-Com - and this is a good thing, as it will maybe make companies more willing to make more games like this. I would like that. I think that would be good. Of course, it may also mean that the next game in the series is even more streamlined and even more linear than this is but you know, as George Michael said, you've got to have faith... haven't you?

The original game is available on Steam now for less than a fiver by the way.  Play both.

1 comment:

  1. Wouldn't an XCOM-style Mass Effect game be something to behold though. It could have all the classic ME story-branching going on, but instead of tps mechanics it'd have a lovely turn-based tactical system. Ah well a man can dream.