Thoughts: XCOM.

This is it. This is the game I have been waiting for ever since it was announced at the start of the year, and for a good decade before that. Watching literally every single attempt to “update” XCOM for the modern generation over the last ten years has been a painful experience, and I was more than a little aghast when it seemed like the official update would be a first-person shooter with lots of conveniently-placed waist-high cover. Then Firaxis said they were making a proper tactical squad-based TBS, and everyone rejoiced. Then Firaxis mentioned the things they were going to change – no time units, only one base, unlimited reloads on the guns, to mention just a few of them – and everyone said “Er.” Or at least I did. The lead designer on XCOM, Jake Solomon, did an excellent job of explaining the reasoning behind Firaxis’s tinkering and at least left open the possibility that it might not be a total disaster, so while I wasn’t all that hopeful for the game I decided to reserve judgement until I actually played it.  

XCOM is a heady mix of tactical turn-based combat and global resource management.  The earth is being attacked by mysterious extraterrestrial invaders wielding technology so advanced that conventional military forces are useless against them. In order to combat the alien threat the XCOM initiative is activated; XCOM is a shadowy multinational organisation dedicated to stopping the invasion by gathering information about the alien agenda and reverse-engineering their technology, often after it’s been prised from the cold dead hands of the alien soldiers. They have access to the best equipment, the best scientists and the best combat troops on the planet, and they operate from an actual literal secret mountain lair. Your job is to direct XCOM’s efforts towards understanding and eventually defeating the aliens in the best way you can. You decide what gets researched, what gets manufactured, which events merit an XCOM response and which should be ignored as part of a long-term strategy. This is all done via the “ant farm” base management screen. When you dispatch troops to deal with an alien incursion a Skyranger transport craft will leave the base and travel to the mission site, at which point the game transitions to a tactical battle between the XCOM troopers and whatever alien forces are present.

Now, you may have heard something about the original XCOM’s reputation as one of the most unforgiving strategy games out there, and I’m happy to report that that’s something that has made it through to this modern update entirely intact despite the extensive changes to the game mechanics. You start the game with a bunch of rookie soldiers armed with advanced assault rifles and clad in the most high-tech body armour Earth can provide. They look so tough and beefy, like they could eat an entire cow for breakfast and then the table as well. The squad selection and equipping screen is accompanied by stirring music to get you fired up for the battle ahead. With you in command surely the brave men and women of XCOM are ready to handle anything the aliens can throw at them?

This tragically misplaced sense of confidence will be just the first casualty in a long war that will claim many, many lives.  Those rifles? They fire bullets which might kill one of the smallest, weakest alien types if you’re lucky and you concentrate your fire. That body armour? Your troops might as well be wearing cardboard for all the good it does against alien plasma weapons. And the soldiers themselves? Well, they’re all too human; once the first hapless rookie gets his face melted off by a plasma blast the rest all have a high chance of panicking, after which you’ll get to hear their terrified screams as they blast away at the nearest thing that moves. If it’s an alien it’ll likely be a fruitless attempt to delay the inevitable. If it’s a fellow XCOM trooper, well… let’s just say that body armour isn’t much good against Earth weapons either. Forget the mission objectives: just having rookies survive their initial encounters with the alien forces is a victory in and of itself. If they manage to get a few kills while living to tell the tale they’ll gradually turn into seasoned soldiers who can face down a charging Muton Berserker without wetting themselves in terror, but for now you’re stuck with these rookies, and XCOM is admirably Darwinian in the way it treats them. The strong – and the lucky – will survive to become stronger. The weak will become just another name on the memorial wall in the barracks. This is the most crucial part of XCOM without which it wouldn’t feel like an XCOM game, and Firaxis have gotten it very, very right.

Let’s get down to details. Tactical combat in the original XCOM was absurdly detailed and let you do a lot of crazy stuff once you got to grips with the system, but that system itself wasn’t exactly elegant. Or balanced. Firaxis’s take streamlines it – I almost want to say consolises it, except that’d be an insult to the amount of thought that’s gone into it – so that while much of the same functionality exists, it can only be accessed by specific troop classes with the appropriate special abilities gained by levelling up. Rookie soldiers with no abilities can only perform the most basic of actions: moving and shooting. Each soldier gets two moves per turn. After the first move the soldier can perform an action — such as shooting his weapon, throwing a grenade or going into overwatch – or move again, which basically uses up the soldier’s action for that turn. Doing any sort of action immediately ends the soldier’s turn unless they have specific abilities that allow them to continue, so if you shoot without moving you’re stuck where you are until the next turn rolls around.

This may not be a bad thing if you’re in particularly good cover. XCOM chooses to model cover in the abstract rather than as an actual, physical object that can stop bullets/lasers/plasma blasts. There are two types of cover in the game: high and low. High cover confers a -40% penalty to the chance to hit of anyone who chooses to take a potshot at somebody hunkered down behind it. Low cover does the same thing, but the penalty is only half that of high cover. While cover can be destroyed by errant weapons fire or explosives (destroying cover is one of the primary uses of explosives), a soldier hiding just around a corner cannot expect the corner to save him from enemy fire as all it will actually do is confer a -40% chance to hit. If the aliens manage to roll a hit regardless then their plasma blasts will hit, to the point where the graphical representation of the plasma on your computer screen will go right through the wall to do so.

What this abstract modelling of shooting and cover boils down to is that if you can be seen by an enemy unit, you can be shot by it. Being in good cover makes that shot less likely to connect, but that’s all it does. Still, being in cover is better than being in no cover at all, as units that are exposed in the open or which have been flanked by the enemy so that they can fire into their sides are far more likely to suffer a critical hit. This system took me a little while to get used to and I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but once I discovered that pushing F1 would give me a complete breakdown of all the factors affecting my chance to hit an enemy I finally got over its inherent counterintuitiveness. It is possibly not how I would have done it, but I cannot deny that once I knew how to use it it did work, and it worked well. It just requires players used to the old game to make the mental jump from a detailed yet complex tactical battlefield to something which bears more than a passing resemblance to Blood Bowl in terms of random chance and risk management.

All newly hired XCOM soldiers start out as Rookies (unless you buy the upgrade in the Officer Training School, but I’ll get to that later). Rookies have an incredibly high mortality rate because they’re awful shots, have no morale and are probably equipped – if you bothered equipping them at all – with the obsolete weapons and armour your veteran troopers no longer needed. On top of that rookies get all of the worst jobs in XCOM on the basis that until they have a few kills under their belt they’re completely expendable. Crashed UFO needs scouting? Send the rookie in first. Have to capture a live alien specimen? Here, rookie, take this short range stun-gun and subdue that enraged half-ton Muton soldier, we’ll be right behind you. As a result of this mentality very few soldiers make it past the rank of Squaddie, but once they do their abilities start to increase dramatically as this is where the class system comes into play.

Once a rookie has been promoted to a Squaddie they’ll be assigned one of four specialties that determines their future role on the battlefield: Assault, Heavy, Sniper or Support. Assaults and Snipers tend to be the star squad members and receive a host of abilities geared towards short- and long-range combat respectively. Assaults are armed with close-range shotguns, can shoot after moving twice, can shoot twice at the same target and get bonus health based on the type of armour they’re wearing, so they’re the ones who do most of the UFO-storming. Snipers get bonuses for occupying high ground as well as an ability that lets them shoot at any alien a squadmate can see, making them perfect for sitting in a sniper’s perch towards the rear of the battlefield providing supporting fire to the rest of the squad as they advance.

By contrast Heavies and Supports are less greedy with the kill-stealing but having at least one of each in your squad is critical, as they have support abilities that clear the way for the Assault troopers and keep them alive while they’re advancing. Heavies are valuable mainly for the sheer quantity of explosives they can vomit out during the course of a mission; while their suppression abilities are also useful a fully-upgraded Heavy with two rockets and two grenades has the job of removing inconvenient rocks, trees, walls and even whole groups of enemies from the battlefield. Finally, Supports have smoke grenades that give a defence bonus to anyone inside them and are the most efficient medics in the squad, which is good because they’re absolutely bloody awful at killing anything.

As soldiers rank up through killing things they’ll unlock more and more of these abilities inside their specialty, meaning a Colonel isn’t just a better shot but can do far more on the battlefield than a basic Squaddie can. Extra abilities are also conferred by whatever equipment a soldier has; every soldier gets armour which represented on the battlefield by extra health points, a primary weapon (ludicrously each class is restricted to just one weapon type, meaning a sniper can only use sniper rifles and not regular rifles), a pistol they can draw when they’re out of ammo and don’t have time to reload (reloading takes a full action), and one piece of auxiliary equipment. This can be anything from a grenade to extra armour inserts to a medikit, and anything that isn’t passive gives them extra options on the battlefield. And when you unlock the secrets of the human brain you can test all your soldiers for psionic abilities too.

So while you can’t do anywhere near as much as you can in the original X-COM to begin with, the tactical game gradually expands until it’s nearly as deep and complex as its forebear without any of the needlessly opaque stats and equipment management. Still, your soldiers won’t get anywhere without the tools and political support they need to do the job, and they can’t shoot down UFOs singlehandedly either, which is where the base and resource management side of things comes in. This is something from the original which did badly need improvement, as it was a relatively simple matter to set up a Heavy Plasma production line so that XCOM could move into the arms dealing business; morally objectionable, perhaps, but it did mean you never had to worry about money ever again. You didn’t even have to pay attention to the council of funding nations except in so far as losing too many of them would lose the game. Here, though, things are far, far, trickier. I might even go so far as to say I found balancing XCOM’s books and directing their R&D efforts to be the most challenging part of the game. Alien alloys can no longer be manufactured and only a very few types of item can be sold to the grey market for extra cash, making money and resources far scarcer than they were before. As a result you really have to make some hard decisions about what you should prioritise and what is going to have to wait till later, and I think it would be quite easy to lose the game if you played the base management side of it badly.

Probably the most important thing you do in base management is launching surveillance satellites to spot alien activity and providing interceptor coverage to the funding nations so that you can shoot down any UFOs that appear. The alien craft you detect will gradually get bigger and more heavily-armed as time goes on, so keeping your interceptors fully-upgraded is important if you don’t want to see them get splashed almost instantly by the UFO they’re chasing. Shot down UFOs can be assaulted by your troopers to retrieve alien tech and resources, as can UFOs that have landed on their own. You also have to respond to alien abduction attempts and terror attacks which involve going into an urban centre and duking it out with the alien forces present, often catching the terrified civilians you’re supposed to be protecting in the crossfire. The point of all this is to keep global panic levels down. Each funding member of the Council of Nations has its own individual panic level ranging from one to five. Panic is increased by unopposed alien attacks and incursions. Panic is reduced by successfully stopping those attacks and providing obvious protection to the civilian population of Earth. Each month the Council will review your progress in combating the alien threat, and if a funding member has a panic level of five when this review happens they’ll withdraw from the Council. If eight members withdraw the XCOM project is shut down, and it’s game over for you.

Keeping panic levels down isn’t always easy, though. For one thing, alien activity occurs regardless of whether you have satellite coverage in an area — and satellites take a long time to build and deploy — so it’s not like it isn’t happening just because you can’t see it. For another, abduction attempts always occur in threes (for some reason) and you can only respond to one of them, so you’re guaranteed to see an increase in panic in at least two countries whenever they come up. You will lose members from the council before you can get your satellite network set up; it’s merely a question of whether or not you can do it fast enough to stop the full-blown haemorrhage that will result in game over.

Then there’s the actual research and base building part of the base management. Research requires raw resources as well as alien artifacts so it’s not so easy to hoover up all the research in the game this time around, and then when you get to the part where you build your shiny new toys you often find they’re very, very pricey in terms of both money and alloys. Outfitting a full squad with plasma weapons and powered armour is ruinously expensive, almost to the point where it becomes tempting to try and stun aliens instead of killing them so that their weapons won’t self-destruct when they die. You’ll want to take at least one of each type of alien alive, though, as each one you interrogate provides an insight into a particular area of alien tech that manifests itself in-game as a hefty research bonus. Having more scientists and engineers speeds up research and makes manufacturing cheaper, but you can’t just buy them from the shop any more. Instead you have to get them as mission rewards and as bonuses for having satellite coverage over certain regions (each workshop you build also comes with bonus engineers, although I didn’t figure this out until after it mattered), which makes little logical sense to me but which essentially transforms them into another type of resource; research and manufacturing projects require minimum numbers of scientists and engineers to tackle, so having lots of them around is important.  As for the overall tech tree and research/plot progression it follows the path laid down by the original fairly closely (although without the fruitless casting around for an Alien Navigator to stun to get the hyperwave relay) which isn’t the worse thing they could have done, although I am a little bit disappointed there aren’t too many extras.

So yeah. I really like both the strategic resource management and the tactical combat sides of XCOM. I really like XCOM as a game; it’s a worthy update of one of the titles I regard as a timeless classic. Is there anything I didn’t like?

As it turns out, yes. Aside from the plentiful niggles mentioned above – soldiers only being able to equip one type of weapon, abduction attempts always occurring in threes, scientists being an abstract resource you can’t directly acquire – there’s a couple of additional ones I’d like to talk about. First, having your trooper’s specialities be randomly assigned when they hit Squaddie rank is really dumb. It’s not quite as offensive as the psi-screening process in the original – where you’d send in your highest-ranked soldier with fifty confirmed kills only to discover he had the mental acuities of a kitten, making him useless in the psi-dominated late game – but it is incredibly annoying to have a batch of fifteen rookies turn out to be one assault, two heavies, three supports and nine snipers. I spent most of the game desperately trying out rookie after rookie to try to find another Assault trooper, and eventually resorted to getting one as a reward for doing one of the alien abduction missions. I’ve played through the entire game now, chewing through thirty or forty soldiers (this is a very low casualty rate for XCOM) and I’ve still only seen one naturally-occurring Assault class. I don’t know why this mechanic is in the game as it discourages training up rookies when you know they’re probably going to end up being the fortieth sniper on your roster; it makes it unnecessarily difficult to assemble a well-balanced squad.

Then there are the UI and tutorial issues. Firaxis really, really needs to hire somebody who knows what they’re doing here, because the UI has been by far the weakest part of both Civ V and XCOM. The UI here requires too many clicks to do basic actions, randomly rearranges your actions and abilities on the action bar, displays a hit percentage popup over the alien icons in the bottom right that has bugger all relation to the actual hit percentage, and loves zooming the camera up above the roof of the UFO you’re infiltrating when all your troops are inside it. To make matters worse I feel the attempts to add plot and flavouring to the game have largely backfired as they mainly manifest themselves via intrusive, inescapable interludes during a mission. Use explosive weapons too much at the start of the game and the scientist lady will chide you repeatedly for destroying all that lovely alien tech. She’ll also comment whenever you find something new, as will her colleague in the engineering department, and sometimes the game will actually pause while she reads out her lines. There are occasional missions where you have to rescue an NPC, and until you reach the NPC in question the game will, at the start of every single turn, zoom in on the NPC while they shout “LOOK! LOOK! I’M HERE! COME GET ME!” and won’t give control back until they’re done. And honestly, the less said about the cutscenes in this game the better. I hated every attempt to shoehorn in actual characters to the game – my soldiers are the characters, not some poorly-written generic role-fillers — and dearly wished there was some option in the menu to turn all of this crap off, but there wasn’t.

And last but not least, there are the bugs. XCOM is not Civ V, but it does have a few teething issues in the code that I hope are patched out sooner rather than later. First and foremost is the one where the game stops accepting any kind of control input during the tactical missions, necessitating a restart (this is what’s making me leery of trying Ironman right now); there’s also more than a few graphical glitches and the alien spawning system does not react well to the use of mind-controlled aliens to scout out the terrain ahead, often spawning groups of aliens right on top of your squad prompting a desperate firefight to kill them all before they wipe you out. They’re not serious or game-breaking in any way (unless you’re playing on Ironman) but the game would be much better off if they didn’t exist at all.

Nevertheless playing XCOM has, in general, been an absolutely stunning and engrossing experience. It is a game I had exceedingly high expectations for and which nearly met them. I can see myself playing it at least as much as I have the original, and I’m actually very excited to see if Firaxis attempt to expand on the concept at all. XCOM is already a critical success; hopefully it’ll have commercial success to match and we’ll get an expansion or a sequel of some kind. This update won’t be for everyone – I think that if you have a particularly burning hatred for random number generators the tactical combat would very definitely rub you up the wrong way – but I think anyone who has been bemoaning the death of the squad-based tactical combat game owes it to themselves to buy XCOM, since it’s basically what you’ve been waiting for all these years. And hey, if XCOM really doesn’t end up doing it for you, there’s always Xenonauts.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts: XCOM.

  1. Feet says:

    I concur with you on nearly all fronts.

    Additionally a further criticism (which you did touch on) is they were are somewhat heavy handed with guiding the player forward toward completion by using the Objectives on the situation screen. I would have preferred to be nudged rather than have a neon sign blazing the direction I should go. I think they’ve over-compensated for that when looking at the original.

    • Hentzau says:

      That is a problem, along with how hand-holdy the game is generally. Almost as if they were being apologetic for how hard it is. Again, this is something that could easily have been fixed with some checkboxes in the options (you can already turn off enemy health bars if you don’t like having that information) but inexplicably these don’t seem to exist.

  2. David says:

    The Geoscape is an abomination.

    • Hentzau says:

      With the benefit of hindsight (and a couple more playthroughs) it completely kills any long-term replayability the game might have had, so I am forced to agree.

      Jake Solomon was more successful with his design choices for XCOM than Jon Shafer was for Civ V, but it really did astound me to see the interview where he said he thought most players would only go through the game once. For a bunch of self-professed XCOM fans they certainly didn’t seem to have connected with the original in quite the way everyone else did.

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