Archive for XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: XCOM

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by trivialpunk

I think I long ago abandoned all pretence of being a horror-focused blog. Horror is my favorite genre, but it’s not really breaking a lot of fresh ground. Or even old ground. Hell, you’d think with all the undead lying around that someone would have turned some fresh soil. Oh, I know, I’m just whinging as a set-up for this entry. Gaming has come a long way, and will go even farther, so it’s always nice to see something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown float across my screen, and then roost there like a fat spider picking away at both my time and waning sanity in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a refreshing re-imagining, and a well thought-out game. Titles like this, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops are proof of the growing awareness of various developers of the value and flexibility of the medium they’re utilizing, as well as the creation of the sort of business models that would allow for this kind of experimentation. Not only that, but it also points to a growing community that cares about quality, with the infrastructure to make itself aware of the real creme of the crop. These weren’t cheap to produce, and they took some pretty crazy chances. So, for all the risk, effort and time that was taken in the creation of XCOM, let’s spend some time picking it apart. However, as a result, I’m going to be spoiling large swathes of the game. I posted an un-spoiled review earlier today, so feel free to skip this one and go to that one if you don’t want to be playing XCOM: Enemy Inconvenient.

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In my previous review, I remarked that, when you’re playing XCOM, time is of the essence. That’s true in more than just a cliche way. A large portion of the game comes down to making the right decisions, and sacrifices, in order to have the right gun in the right place at the right time. On the whole, it’s sort of a time-management game for the tactically-oriented xenophobic in all of us. This is part what makes the game more addicting than crack cocaine. There’s always something to do, and you’re always being rewarded for your efforts on a delayed schedule. That means that, at any moment of game-play, there’s either something to do, or something coming off the assembly line. There are always decisions to make, and a steady stream of improvement and revelation. Basically, you’re being drip-fed behavioural reinforcers (to borrow some old psych jargon) on a semi-random schedule. Designing a system in this way is the absolute best method for reinforcing a response (encouraging a behavior). That being said, the value of the reinforcer depends on your investment in the game. Getting the kick-ass interceptor, building, equipping and launching it, is only reinforcing if you value the outcome of the game. This is, in part, reciprocally aided by the reinforcement, but is also aided by your level of immersion and commitment.

XCOM has a really well unified aesthetic. Even though the tactical and base development sections of the game are radically different, they are connected through cut-scene sequences that ensure a steady narrative. You never just cut away to the base. You take off, you fly, and you land. Then, you’re back at the base. Very little time passes in the intermediary, but XCOM goes through this song and dance every time to ensure that your experience is consistent. As a result, you’re never jarred out of the narrative, and you’re always following the fire instead of the smoke (Community plug: six seasons and a movie). The game moves forward based on events that take place during game-play, so there’s no real sense of level progression, unless you’re looking for it. Changes come gradually, and aren’t too jarrying (even the best suits of armor are a bit toned down), so you see the results of your work slowly come to fruition. The beginnings of most levels have a quietly-creeping-forward section during which you explore the map. XCOM could throw you right into the fray, but it knows that by making you take the time and make the effort, you’ll appreciate it that much more. It shows a real commitment to pacing. These things, as well as the sound-effects, cut-scenes, technology-levels, and plot-devices, all work together to deliver a fairly consistent experience across all modalities.

Of course, pacing and schedules of reinforcement (SoR) aren’t the only temporal toddlers in the XCOM sandbox. There’s an adage I once heard that says that all aspects of a game should feel similar to create a unified experience. Doing this requires that all the aspects of the game fit a similar arousal curve. XCOM is all about delay, tension, delay, then resolution (payday!). Sure, your soldiers only need a few days to recover, but a lot can happen in six days. Yeah, satellites only take twenty days to build, but you can lose more than one nation in a month. Okay, you’ve already built your psi-school and done your relevant research, but will you be able to find and train enough psychically-gifted youngsters before your professor gets paralysed and has to wait until his floaty-chair gets built to start teaching again. That, or the doom clock runs out. The absolute worst culprit, and easiest to demonstrate, is the dynamic camera-angle shots. First, the camera zooms in, then there’s a pause as your character takes aim, another over-long pause, and then the shot. Even with all the build-up, there’s no guarantee of a hit. Aliens do the same things, and it’s never gratifying to have to watch a slow-motion cut-scene crit your characters to death. There’s a palpable tension, though, as you watch and wait, especially if the odds of a hit aren’t in your favor. That eustress, combined with the risks of taking any action, keeps you coming back for more.

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Risks you say? Oh yes. You see, as I mentioned earlier, this is basically a time-management game. You’re always racing against some sort of clock, and betting one variable against another. This takes a back-seat in the tactical game-play (aside from the terror missions), but it’s arguably present in all aspects of risk-assessment. What I mean, when I talk about risks, is present primarily in the base management portion of the game. In order to progress, you’ve got to spend time researching the latest alien jijaw, or technological doowhatzit. This takes the attention of your research team, however. As a result, you may not be researching the latest weapons. However, because you researched the plot-sensitive item, the plot will move forward, so the aliens will get stronger. You can’t just spend your time researching weapons, because you’ll need resources to research and build them. You need to go on missions to acquire alien resources, and specific missions to acquire money. That, or wait for your monthly-stipend from the not-the-UN. To increase this, and your chance of getting missions (which happen semi-randomly), you’ll need satellites, interceptors, weapons, and healthy troops. Again, though, you’ll need money and resources for these things. You’ll need to spend time to gather the resources necessary to produce them, and still more time to put it all together. However, the more missions you go on, the more troops will be injured. The more often you get missions, the fewer troops you’ll have unharmed for each mission. So, you’ll need more troops, more missions to train them on, more interceptors, more satellites, and anon. That’s not even mentioning facility development. You see how I said there’s always something to do?

All of these considerations are being weighed against the overall clock. If you lose eight nations, or the doom clock counts down, then you’re boned. Every mission you embark on (except the terror missions) increases the panic level of two countries while lowering that of the one you did the mission for. As a result, every time you hit the field, ready to combat the alien menace, you’re moving closer to destruction. Every mission is a chance to lose a soldier. Every nation you want to cover is one more satellite (etc). Every nation lost is one less source of income. Many missions will give you new things to research, which require more time. Time, though, is one luxury you don’t have in abundance. One nice thing is that they won’t ramp things up too far until you’ve performed the requisite objectives to make things move forward. Assaulting the base, after you’ve captured a living crystal, is an example of this. You don’t start seeing the really hairy troops until after this. Then again, this is another dagger in disguise. It makes you want to ease into the transition, and bulk up as much as you can, but if you faff around too much at that point, then you’ll have even less time in the later missions. It’s not difficult to lose a nation if you do too many missions. As I said, you’ll always be receiving a panic increase on some nations, and it’s difficult (read: impossible) to protect everything, even with the satellites. Sometimes, you won’t be in a position to do anything. Sometimes, you’ll back yourself into a corner. Sometimes life (read: XCOM) is unfair.

So, aside from pacing, SoR, and a unified aesthetic, there are a lot of variables to juggle, with a very Sophie’s Choice decision-making game design. These temporal tots weren’t raised around teratogens, though. Besides creating a very addicting game, they also serve up the narrative experience on a silver platter. By your third hour, you’re in the thick of it. You’re invested in this all-or-nothing struggle against a terrible enemy, and with that commitment comes the true effect of all of these temporal shenanigans: stress and immersion. You really start to value the victories and dread the failures. So much planning and busy-work has gone into the game that you not only want to win, but you don’t want to lose. That, more than anything else, mirrors the plight of the XCOM commander better than anything else, except for one slight difference: it’s not “want,” it’s “can’t.”

Two more things before we round things off. I mentioned in my previous review of the game that I had trouble figuring out the depth of the game. There were cues worked into it: the limited number of psychic abilities, the strength of the enemies, the bewildering research speed, and the wording on my armor sets (“est” is by far the most over-used suffix in gaming history). I guess I just wanted there to be more. After all the build-up, the end is kind of lame. I’m not even getting into the physics that don’t make sense, or the obvious sequel set-up that is obvious. There’s only one additional type of interceptor. There are only three tiers of weapons, armor sets, and enemies. There’s only one type of robot, with a couple variations. There aren’t very many huge maps, and the last encounter is disappointing to say the least. I only lost two soldiers on that mission, and they fell to the sniper fire of my own mind-controlled unit. The random encounters, multi-player, and different modes give it definite replay value, but it’ll lose part of the mystique. It’ll all be a bit “been there.” Still, it’s an experience that every gamer should have, if they can. Hell, non-gamers, too, if we can swing it. I recommend travel agents and short-order cooks for their time-management skills and long-term planning abilities.

Lastly, I’d like to list off all the things in this game that require time (as a resource) as a sort of supplement to the overall article.

Research. Elaborate engineering projects. Healing after a battle. Rebuilding an interceptor. Repairing a robot. Launching a satellite. Transferring an interceptor. Customizing the load-out of an interceptor. Excavating. Forge research. Building new facilities. Hiring new soldiers. Psionic testing. Scanning the globe. Battlefield skirmishes.

If I’m missing anything, please let me know. Basically, this just serves to illustrate exactly how much of the game relies on time as a resource. Until next space! (six seasons and a movie!)

XCOM: Pithy Remark

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on January 8, 2013 by trivialpunk

Aaaaaand… we’re back! Back in class that is. Yes, now the whims of fate are directed by my weekends instead of the other way around. That being said, I did find time in my fate-bending schedule to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown for three days. Three days. Do you know how long its been since I’ve all-nighted a game like this? Any ways, I’m sure you don’t want to sit here and hear about how good the game is. So, you sit there and I’ll go on about it from here.

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I’ve heard that it was based on a game from the long, long ago: UFO Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense, depending on where you live. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (from the minds of Firaxis and the wallets of 2K Games)  lets you take on the role of the Commander of XCOM: a military organization that was hastily put together to defend the earth from an encroaching alien menace. You receive funding from the various nations of the world depending on how well you keep their populace from panicking, and the strength of your satellite-interceptor response network. You research the technology and creatures you capture to improve and accelerate your development, as well as improve the life expectancy of your various ground troops. Developing the base, doing research, customizing load-outs, managing your networks, ordering construction and deploying your troops are all done from the XCOM base. Once you’ve received a mission, through force of communique, or by scanning the world (a handy mechanism for speeding up time), you select your ground-team and move on to the turn-based tactical game-play.

XCOM does a wonderful job of synthesizing base management with its tactical components, without making either of them seem vestigial. Taken together, they produce an enthralling experience that had me forgoing both sleep and company for another pot of coffee. The tactical interface is pretty intuitive, and easy to pick up. I would say difficult to master, but as mastery usually amounts to figuring out play-styles that work for you, it’s more fun than difficult. That’s not to say that the game isn’t difficult, though. I’d recommend saving-and-loading often, because time is of the essence.

Many of the primary mechanics that the game employs in regards to base management are time-sensitive. As a result, and because the tactical portion of the game is so dependant on the base management (and vice versa), one small slip can have you combating alien ground-troops by having a squad of barely-functional rookies furtively wiggle their eye-brows at them. Some of my favorite moments came after particularly difficult missions, when all my best trained troops were out sick with plasma burns, and I had to complete a particularly nasty challenge with a handful of rookies and a top-notch sniper.

I want to discuss the temporal and spatial aspects of the game in more detail, but I’ll need to spoil a few things to go on with that, so I’ll put together a second post tonight with a more thorough analysis of the game-play, so as not to ruin it for anyone that’s just here for an opinion. Let’s just review this sucker! There are a large number of maps, but they do tend to repeat a bit. However, as the enemy spawns are randomized (except in the pre-assembled levels), and the game has a few different challenge modes, you won’t really notice. Moreover, as you advance you unlock different abilities, so many of the levels open up a bit as you become more mobile. It also might be because I had to play the game through twice-over to beat it, because, the first time, I messed up in the base management portion of the game.

“How did you manage that? Do you have a lemon where your melon should be?” Yes, and no. I’ll let you know now: you can excavate, build, and order multiple items at the same time. So, you don’t have to wait for that satellite to finish, or a room to get excavated, to issue more commands, provided that you have the resources and man-power. That’s a free tip, because I had no idea. As a result, my satellite network was weak, my income was piddling because I was only monitoring three nations, four nations had already withdrawn their support, and my troops were just getting lasers when they needed plasma rifles.

I probably wasn’t going to be able to recover, because if you lose eight nations, or if the overall “Doom Counter” clock strikes midnight, then your carriage is turns back into a pumpkin, with its orange goop splattered all across the countryside. It’s a pretty delicate line to walk, especially if you’re going to do it well. Even on my second play-through, I still lost four countries. All of which raises an interesting question, “If you’re going to be killed in any event, then why are you withdrawing support from one of the few world-wide organizations that has been put together to fight this menace?” It’s not like there are many others. Prompts let you know that the nations themselves are fighting, but they don’t have the reality-bending power of your ridiculous research team, nor the frankly bewildering skill of your engineering department. Given that XCOM is making progress towards destroying the alien menace, it seems a bit churlish to withdraw funding just because you couldn’t keep your citizens from panicking. Then again, I’d be pretty upset if the one steady hope for humanity only deployed one 4-6 man group squad at a time. It’s hard to justify the funding when your population is rapidly dwindling under the claws and weapons of a horrifying enemy and your go-to squad is off somewhere killing ten, large-headed cream-puffs in exchange for two-hundred dollars.

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Like any, the game has its problems. It’s a 3-D, isometric-view, tactical game, so there’s an awful lot of environment clipping. Rarely, a trigger won’t go off, so an ability won’t work quite the way you want it to. The game uses cut-scenes and dynamic camera movements to create tense moments during game-play, especially for kill-shots and enemy spawns, but they can get a bit tiresome. Of course, I’d been playing for almost 19 hours straight by the time they did, so it might have just been the lack of sleep. It’s chance-based, so you’ll probably miss a few shots that seem ridiculous, while the enemy makes a few that will have you clenching your teeth in impotent fury, but there are enough of the opposite events to keep you smiling (They won’t bring back your highly-trained Support-units, though). The most glaring issue is camera movement. There’s no level map, so you’ll have to move around the level a lot. Depending on the terrain, this can be an exercise in patience. Tall structures, multi-storied buildings, or weird angles can cause the camera to freak out, or speed around the level. Nonetheless, if you use the mouse-wheel height system carefully, and get used to feeling out an area’s length instinctively, then you’ll be fine.

That being said, there is still one depth-issue I’d like to address. It’s difficult to tell how long XCOM is, or how deep the rabbit-hole goes, so prioritizing facility development can get a bit sticky. For instance, scientists exist primarily to allow, or speed up, different types of research. However, near what I came to realize was the end of the game, I had so many scientists, and research credits, that almost all of my research finished within a couple days. So, it was a bit difficult to tell if I’d need any more, or if that was just a waste and I should expand the engineering department (much like my local university). It’s hard to tell if you should invest in laser weaponry, or wait for plasma. Should you send some troops for psychic testing, or would that be a waste at that point? Do you invest in building an awesome interceptor, or are there more models to come? Which resources do I keep?! Of course, this is all part of the game, and it’s nice enough to wait around for you to finish certain events before really ramping up the challenge, but it can be a bit bewildering the first time through. On my third play-through (because there will be a third), I’m sure things will go a bit smoother. Then again, that’ll be an iron-man run, so I’ll probably be regretting those words in no time.

Playing without save-scumming, a practice I tried out for about an hour before weeping quietly in front of my memorial wall (Yes, it has one of those), really gives one the impression of fighting a desperate struggle against a powerful, nebulous foe. In terms of mechanics-as-metaphor, the entire game delivers its experience very well, without making it all seem hopeless. I’m sure, with what I know now, I could go back and save that first play-through, and really savor the challenge. It’s worth the time you put into it, and it’s quite a singular experience. That’s why I’m giving it this week’s highest rating: Two Banana-nut Muffins out of One Small Lock of Albert Einstein’s Hair, Lovingly Combed and Preserved in a Hermetically-Sealed Batman Lunch-Box.

I’ll get back to XCOM tonight with a more thorough, and spoiler-filled, analysis of its temporal and developmental components. Until then, keep watching the screeeeeeeennsss…