The Trouble With XCOM.


Darren asks

 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.

  1. 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.
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16 thoughts on “The Trouble With XCOM.

  1. Strudel says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed my first play through and was totally hooked up until the last mission really but since completing it I have no desire to go back unfortunately.

    This weekend will be a BioShock weekend I think.

    It is such a shame but you are totally right; the first half of the game was much more tense and then it just got easy. :(

  2. Gap Gen says:

    Yeah, I think I’d be more interested in a genuine simulation running the enemy AIr. I get that it’s easier to code and balance a completely scripted smoke ‘n’ mirrors AI (and for one thing it’s hard to genuinely lose the new XCOM if you fudge up, unless you really fudge up). Another thing about my first playthrough is that it never explicitly said “build all the satellites unless you want zero denaro.” You’re also right that the terror mission choice feels artificial; you should be giving up missions because you’re understrength and clawing your way with what you have, rather than taking a multiple choice exam to determine the least shitty shit sandwich you want to order.

  3. Another Joe says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the main point that there is no replayability in this game. I’ve tried and tried, but it’s just become predictable and boring. Even base management is a puzzle to solve that once solved, always has the same basic solution through any game.

    As you have stated, the passive AI is the real problem though. It’s the fact that instead of you reacting to the alien threat, the reality is, they are just reacting to what you do.

    Although the original Xcom was much better about this, it was a bit guilty of this too. If I recall, although the AI did its own thing, it did react directly to your research level in moving things forward.

    I think if they want to make a truly great sequal with real depth, they need to give the aliens their own agenda that they move forward with regardless of what the player does. Obviously, they’d still need to have a strategic interaction with the player, like losing a base slowing them down or changing their planning or deployment, but ultimatley they are always taking action to further their goals that the player can intercede in if detected.

    One last point.. I think a big part of what has been taken away form this game is the management of finances. Sure you get money and spend it, but there is no management of salaries or equipment or ammo or much of anything. This game is basically Xcom junior. Once you get passed the shiny fun new Xcom thrill, what do you have left?

    • Hentzau says:

      Yeah, thinking about it you are probably right that the original X-COM was less autonomous than it seemed, especially given the development resources they had to work with. I’d argue that that doesn’t *matter*, though, because it did a great job of at least appearing to be autonomous across hundreds of hours of play. And anyway, the UFOs and the threat of base attacks meant that the aliens could be far more proactive even if there wasn’t an overall structure to their actions.

      I definitely agree with you that making the aliens into a genuine opposing force rather than a collection of shambling targets for your soldiers is the number one thing the sequel has to pull off. If X-COM could do it it shouldn’t be too hard, right? I can hope.

  4. Darren says:

    Having never played the original, I didn’t even think about how the aliens’ behavior affects–or rather doesn’t affect–the game. You’re absolutely right; if it isn’t changed, there’s nothing that Firaxis can really do to address the replayability issue.

    I had thought that one problem was that engineering was so much more important (and more of a bottleneck) than science. I figured that maybe adding a genetic engineering upgrade path to directly improve your soldiers (with better upgrades carrying greater risks) would be a good way to make scientists relevant; there’s already stuff in the game about genetic slurry and manipulations, so why not?

    Maybe my idea could work if the aliens also did it? If you fail to stop a harvesting ship, Sectoids have a 5% chance of becoming Altered Sectoids during missions, with better stats and/or more abilities. Fail to stop a second one, and now you have 10% chance of Altered Sectoids and 5% chance of Altered Thin-Men, going on like that, with the chance decreasing if you stop ships, but the campaign getting to the point where the aliens eventually will field multiple harvester ships so that no matter how well you do they will field the better troops.

    The game certainly does have the aliens going about their business, if the way the terror levels rise is more than just outright lying by the code. It should be relatively easy to make those ships have larger ramifications on the experience.

    Oh, and does anyone have any thoughts on the Second Wave content? I haven’t gotten around to trying them yet (because of poor replayability!) but some of them sound like they might have meaningful impacts on the experience.

    • Hentzau says:

      Both engineering and science have the problem that your decisions are only really important at the start of the game, when you’re in an awful position and have very limited resources to start with. Still, engineering is limited by money, the most precious resource of all, while science is merely limited by research materials, so it is much harder to manufacture everything you need than it is to research everything in the game.

      A potential problem with your idea is that it’s a negative feedback loop. Failing to stop a harvesting ship crewed by regular sectoids results in them becoming super-sectoids who will slaughter your men even more handily, and you end up with a failed campaign because you simply can’t make any headway. I personally would go for introducing new aliens at given time milestones (NOT progression milestones) with a small error factor each way; that way you can alter the timing of their introduction to the game in response to the expected skill level of the player as indicated by the difficulty level they’ve picked. It would be nice to have something a little more reactive, as in your example, but the problem with a complex system like that is that they’re immensely tricky to get working correctly and consistently.

      • Darren says:

        But the game already does that. If you wait long enough, the alien base will be brimming with chryssalids, mutons, and heavy floaters. If you go early enough, you avoid them in favor of drones, maybe a cyberdisc or two, floaters, and maybe a few mutons. There are only a few aliens (sectopods, ethereals, sectoid commanders, and muton elites) that are locked out until after the base, and I understand and basically agree with that decision, since it ensures that even the best player will get something new to test him/herself against after the major plot milestone. However, this is the game’s big problem: virtually everything is unlocked in time, regardless of what you do, which makes the game a slog to play through more than once.

        Past that, how can you avoid a potential negative feedback loop if you allow the aliens meaningful actions within the game? Your argument–which I again agree with–was that the aliens don’t really do anything, but if they did something then the player would always be in a position where consistent failure to stop them would result in a negative feedback loop. If not, then they aren’t really doing anything, are they? Oh, and the game already has a potential negative feedback loop: fail to protect enough nations and your terror ratings go up which causes nations to leave so you don’t have enough funds to adequately protect the remaining ones and on and on until game over. Negative feedback loops are fine in strategy games. That’s why you have to have a strategy!

        I’m not saying that the game would have to immediately start with something drastic. As is, the game already has a progression of ship types, but currently it’s not very meaningful. They are bigger, harder to shoot down, and more dangerous/tedious to get through, but they have so little impact I don’t even know what the different varieties are called. My idea was basically to very gradually sprinkle in a single tougher version of each type of alien (not wholesale replace the existing ones; something sort of like Skyrim’s leveled enemy system, but based on the player’s failure to stop the aliens), with good players being able to delay that for most of the campaign, while simultaneously offering a science-based, risk v. reward system back at base to keep that from being so much like an assembly line. Regardless of whether its a good idea or not, I think the game desperately needs some improvements to both the campaign and the base-building side of things to keep it from being a tedious, identical march towards victory every time.

        • Hentzau says:

          Thinking about it you are right, but I’d argue that the new XCOM has two significant issues with its time-based unlocks. First, the limit is far too generous in comparison with the amount of time it’ll take a human player to research everything, which I’ve complained about above. Second, though, is that there’s not enough alien types to spread the addition of new varieties out to the point where you have a steady trickle of new enemies providing additional challenge to the player. An interesting thing about old XCOM was that there was a significant degree of variation even within a single alien species; a bog standard Sectoid at the start of the game just has a plasma pistol, but Sectoids at the end of the game can have weaponry up to and including Blaster Launchers, which means they continue to be a threat even though you yourself are toting Powered Armour and Heavy Plasma. This is the main thing, really, and it’s not solely linked to alien species: the aliens need to be seen to gradually tool up to keep things challenging for the human player.

          Actually, I think arming the aliens with bigger guns might even work for your scenario. Fail a mission and the aliens are better armed in future, but if you win later on you get to steal those high-tech weapons for yourself. Hopefully it could be balanced so that it would be slower than researching them optimally, but still provide a balancing factor that could potentially right things for the player somewhat.

          • Darren says:

            The major roadblock to improving the aliens in that way is that Firaxis so clearly wanted them to be iconic and unique that piling new equipment onto them is probably a horrifying thought to them, despite being a good idea.

            I’d also argue that the way alien types are phased out is heavy-handed. By the endgame, it feels like all you fight are mutons and sectopods. I’d like to see the weaker aliens stay in the mix, and all aliens get new abilities (perhaps unlocked after the base; “the aliens have changed their tactics!”) to make them more synergistic.

        • Darren says:

          Based on the expansion announcement, it sounds like my idea came closest to reality. Let’s see how it works out…

  5. I remember Solomon saying “On easy difficulty we really want player to win the game”. And it seems that the game is designed so that it’s very difficult to lose, but easy to fail. It was advertised as manly, cruel game. Soldier’s dead – and he’s dead forever, that’s XCOM. But this loss is mostly of psychological nature as in big picture even failed mission is just a small loss of money. You have to loose again and again for things to become dangerous – a single fail only makes things tough.

    That controllable danger is, of course, more mature than modern FPS/RPG trend of not allowing player to fail even sidequests. Curiously, Civilization, other Firaxis game, is brave enough to allow player to loose in a most horrible way: when you loose in Civilization, you realize that you’ve really lost 50 turns ago. XCOM is much longer and less replayable, it’s like a game of Civilization were you can loose tha battle but not the war.

    • Hentzau says:

      Civilization is the game I keep comparing XCOM to in my head, and you’re totally right that usually when that enormous army turns up on your border you have to go back 50 turns to do something about it; it’s not shy about doing things that are completely beyond the player’s ability to influence (mostly building that army in the first place, although it can also be a dick by founding stealth cities) and concealing that from them until it’s too late to do anything about it. The same company being responsible for both games is part of the reason why I’m so surprised that XCOM turned out so static and linear — surely they should have had a lot of practice at this sort of thing?

      • Darren says:

        One of the things that the developers have gotten pretty good at is giving each AI civ its own personality (at least since Gods and Kings).

        For example, the AI I hate most in Civ V is Egypt. Ramses actually seems to be very proactive about utilizing his advantages. He goes chariot-heavy early on and goes on a rampage, but also uses his ever-expanding empire to found a religion (typically production-focused) and build some wonders. By the mid-game he’s either been beaten by me or steamrolled over virtually everyone else in his path and shifted into a more cultural playstyle. If I don’t take care of him early on, or if he’s on another continent, he will always, ALWAYS be a superpower who eclipses everyone else in score, military might, territory (if he’s on another continent, it will almost invariably be entirely his by the time I get there), and production (which he uses to steal wonders at every turn), meaning that the only real option is to go for a science or cultural victory, and he’s very hard to beat at either of those. The difference between his pre-expansion and post-expansion game are mind-boggling.

        The XCOM team need to talk to the Civ V team about AI, because I think they’ve finally figured it out well enough to do some good here.

        • Haven’t played much of G&K yet, but I remember AI being immersive even in Civ4. It reminds me of Galactive Civilization sometimes: both AIs want you to understand why they’re doing something. They say outright something like “Declare war or stop amassing armies on the border” and they really strife for victory (in earlier game the very existence of diplomatic victory meant that some civilization voluntary declares itself looser). Also espionage demonstrates that AI has secret goals and plots.

          Crusader Kings 2 is another game that uses AI to be simple yet believable: every character has obvious reason to like or hate every other but has secret plots and desires. Not so varied and personal yet very engaging. And XCOM… It doesn’t need much of AI. Tactical AI is good as it is (and anyway all the challenge is in fighting giant armored psychic snipers who can kill you with their spit, they don’t need to be very smart), and strategic AI could be very basic.

  6. [...] For my money, I feel like my time on XCOM is done, playing through the same campaign and story for the third time in a row just doesn’t appeal to me for many of the same reasons The Scientific Gamer eloquently gave. [...]

  7. Adik86 says:

    Quote: “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.”

    Oh my, this was literally TFTD for me! It was my first ever X-Com game (I was surprised it’s based in the oceans, I didn’t know about UFO: Enemy Unknown), and I absolutely knew nothing about it, how it’s difficult even on the easiest level that I played. Mind you I also played this on an old black-and-white monitor (I live in Eastern Europe, my family was a bit poor, we had no Internet, and this was in year 2000, I was only 14), and not very bright, so you can only imagine the night missions… Especially the alien colony missions were a real pain in the ***. All this made me so much frustrated with the game during my first try, I was always constantly on the edge of defeat (and was defeated at least once) – but I somehow managed to finish it. I just HAD to keep it going, the mystery was too enticing. And I was especially satisfied when I finally discovered the origins of these aliens and their aims, plus much of their autopsies (and yeah, I fell for the tech bug I didn’t know about too). This is how original X-Com games are addicting :) During the first game the mystery just hooks you in, trying to solve it to the end.

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