I was poking around in the archives yesterday and noticed that there was a comment from earlier this year regarding XCOM and its lack of replayability. I agree that the game has a serious replayability problem, and I’m a little surprised I haven’t heard much about this. Would you care to elaborate? Also, since Firaxis have been hinting at it, what would you like to see in an expansion?
Yes, I think it’s fair enough that I should elaborate on this since my original review is so glowing. I wrote that in the middle of my second playthrough, before I’d managed to formulate the tactics that so reliably broke the game and run up against the now painfully-apparent limitations of the campaign and the geoscape map. Games are at their best when you first play them; you don’t know the rules and you don’t know the structure, and the fact that it’s so opaque means that anything seems possible. This was the perspective from which I viewed XCOM, but time – and the classic Ironman playthrough – has changed that perspective considerably. I still think XCOM is a good game, but it’s one that I have no real desire to go back to (aside from the odd desultory crack at the Impossible difficulty) and this post will attempt to explain why.
First you have the extremely passive nature of the campaign structure itself. In the original XCOM the aliens were running their own game in parallel with the player. Each UFO flitting around the surface had a mission, and if it managed to carry out that mission unmolested there’d be a consequence: a base would be built, a terror attack would be launched, a nation would be turned, all of which served to further the aliens’ goals if the player didn’t stop them. Crucially this activity takes place regardless of whether or not the player detects it, and the cause and effect nature of their missions means the player can actively interfere in their plans — for example, terror missions never occur if you shoot down all of the terror ships, and supply ships can be tracked to reveal the location of concealed alien bases. The game will spawn a base in response to the “plot” research, but I think that’s just about the only thing it does outside of this parallel campaign structure. Otherwise it’s you against the aliens, and if you slack off for a couple of months the aliens are going to get an advantage because they’re constantly playing their own game.
In new XCOM, however, the aliens are almost totally passive. They’re not even playing the game this time; they simply exist as targets for the player to gun down in the battlescape, with the geoscape functioning merely as a way to randomly generate new battlescape missions and manage the plot-based stuff. I’m not sure the UFOs you’re shooting down even do anything, and there’s certainly no shadowy force working against you as the terror ratings never increase independently of something the player is able to see and influence1. The plot missions themselves follow a far more rigid structure than the original game and – somewhat hilariously – the rate at which the aliens tech up is heavily tied to how quickly the player progresses down this linear plot pathway. Firaxis try to camouflage it by having the cardboard characters shout at you to go and storm the alien base or whatever, but the fact is that you have all the time in the world to happily sit back and research endgame armour and weaponry before assaulting it since new alien types will be introduced much more slowly if you don’t move the plot forward. Assaulting the alien base will let Mutons and Sectoid Commanders loose in your game; attacking the Overseer UFO will do likewise for Sectopods and Muton Elites, and while these enemies will eventually turn up if you don’t do the plot missions they’ll do so much later when you have the technology to deal with them. The power to move the campaign along lies almost solely in the hands of the player, and there is literally no incentive for the them to do anything until they’re good and ready. This completely destroys any sense of pressure or threat that was present in the geoscape campaign up until that point.
Then there’s the matter of XCOM’s inverse difficulty curve: it starts off very difficult, and then gradually gets easier as you open up more tactical options through research. The initial high difficulty is a result of only having rookies armed with Earth assault rifles and body armour to do the missions, coupled with an extremely limited ability to produce satellites – the primary mechanism through which you get money and reduce panic — at the start of the game thanks to your low engineer count. The only challenge in XCOM’s geoscape is overcoming those twin problems; once you have, the geoscape becomes almost trivial to deal with and is just a matter of going through the motions whenever a UFO rears its head. The battlescape difficulty is less out of whack, but because the gameplay’s been shifted away from a pseudo-realistic tactical simulation to a more boardgame-style system of odds manipulation and risk management it’s much easier to identify and adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy that will give you the highest chances of success. The end result is a game that gets easier with time, not harder, and when the end of the game is providing less challenge for the person playing it, then where is the incentive to continue?
On my first playthrough of XCOM I followed the game’s directions, tried to flank aliens in the battlescape and did the plot missions when it told me to. I lost eighteen soldiers. On my second playthrough I explicitly disobeyed its orders, grenaded every single alien I came across and only did plot missions when I had the very best weapons and armour available, and that time around I lost just two. That’s the thing that irritates me most about XCOM, I think; despite some deep design flaws it’s not a bad game, but it tries to cover up those flaws by lying to the player about the best way to play it, and as soon as they try to strike out on their own they find that the aliens are nothing more than a paper tiger. They present no threat on the geoscape map because they’re so passive; the only way you’ll lose the game there is through base mismanagement (which the game does an awful job of explaining). And because of the switch to a purely odds-based battlescape system it becomes far easier to game that as well, by slowly creeping forward and destroying any piece of cover the aliens might conceivably try to hide behind. Original XCOM was fun because its emergent and semi-adversarial nature meant that every game was different. Here the reverse is true; new XCOM does nothing to upset the player’s plans and can therefore be beaten the same way every single time.
As a final footnote there’s an interview somewhere (EDIT: looking back it appears to be this one, where he doesn’t explicitly link it to the campaign but does express genuine surprise that XCOM was a game that people might want to replay) where Jake Solomon says that the reason the campaign is so linear and unreactive is because they didn’t think players would play through the game more than once. Since he’s an avowed fan of the series I can only conclude that he’s desperately trying to excuse what they’ve made here by lying through his teeth, because I have never ever heard of a player who completed the original XCOM and didn’t start a second game. The first thing I’m hoping for from a sequel is that it’s a semi-remake of Terror from the Deep with less outright-unfair difficulty and goofy alien designs and more oppressive creepiness and an ever-present sense that you’re doomed. The second thing I’m hoping for is that they go back to the drawing board for the Geoscape portion of the game, because as it is it fundamentally fails to provide the emergent strategy experience that was at the heart of the first three XCOM titles. In fairness to Firaxis they might actually do one or both of these things, since their treatment of Civ V shows that they do listen to player feedback and adjust their game design accordingly, but I’m not holding my breath for either.
- This presents the incidental problem that a good player will always be able to keep terror ratings under control, which led to probably the second or third worst kludge mechanic in the update: the simultaneous terror attacks where you have to pick one out of three to deal with, meaning you have to eat an unavoidable terror rating increase in the other two countries because the random number generator says so. ↩