Or to give it it’s full name, “Neanderthals, bandits and farmers: How agriculture really began”, is an extremely short 53 page book from the Darwinism Today series, of which I think there are about five in total.
…and why it’s a perfect example of an experience only possible through gaming. What do you mean “It came out two years ago, have you been living in a cave?”
The point and click adventure genre was always more character and dialogue focused than action-oriented games, and in retrospect it’s unsurprising that as gaming continues to mature this genre has seen a fair bit of a resurgence. Not to poo-poo the sheer action-blasty-kill-splat-death joy of a ‘mindless’ shooter but you get the point. There’s probably a whole thing to be written about games writing in general, even in the action-shooty genres gamers are expecting to see fully-voiced dialogue (even when this costs a huge amount to implement in sprawling RPGs and MMOs), mainstream audiences get annoyed about things like facial animations and romance options. Technical ability and good writing are bringing more options to developers, whether you’re going for stylistic ultra-violence (say, Bulletstorm) or seemingly humdrum existence (say, The Stanley Parable)
This is one I’ve wanted to do for a while, inspired by Gausswerks ‘design reboot’ series, in which he does an imaginary redesign, of a game (or, both a redesign and a reboot?); which not only points out new ideas but also highlights the strengths of the original. This seems to work well with both interesting yet flawed/half-remembered(such as Oni, or Jericho) and the pretty good but let’s reimagine it anyway (such as Half-life) titles. Gausswerks (or Jack Monahan to be precise) has the advantage of being an actual game artist and designer, whereas I will have to do with just words. But I hope you stick with me on this one.
I think in one way or another I’ve probably wanted to do this since before the new, redesigned XCOM came out. (That’s 1994 for the original and 2012 for the reboot) This kind of thing is an evergreen thought-experiment for me, whenever I’m bored or trying to get to sleep, I can always ask ‘How would I remake XCOM?’ and find so many possibilities. It’s about time I wrote them down and moved onto something else. (Next in this series; Railroad Tycoon… IN SPACE – seriously)
XCOM is one of those properties that has actually resisted a decent redesign until now, and has suffered probably more rubbish spin offs and redesigns than good ones. Even the likeable Terror from the Deep was acknowledged as being rushed out to meet demand, more of an expansion pack than a true sequel. Apocalypse was quite interesting, centering action on a city rather than a whole planet. There were two poorly received outsiders, Enforcer – a third person shooter and Interceptor – a flight-sim with a bit of resource management. Two cancelled titles, Genesis- which may have been a ‘proper’ XCOM game, and Alliance- a first person shooter. Then there are all the mods, fan-developed standalone games (XCOM2000, Xenonauts and no doubt others) and the ALTAR interactive ‘trilogy’ (Aftermath/shock/light) and another ‘not a proper XCOM game’ The Bureau.
For their faults, what does this continual reinvention tell us, and why did it take nearly 20 years to create another ‘proper’ XCOM game?
Alien invasion is a solid theme or opening premise for a game. God, even Space Invaders knew this.
Immediate peril, clear sides to be taken, a wide variety of locations, even wider variety of antagonists, the potential for both hot n steamy action combined with long term, tense and unpredictable strategizing. All of which can play out time and time again in an endlessly interesting mix of events and weighty decisions to be made. The only thing that would suck the tension out of this premise would be if/when we ACTUALLY make contact with aliens. We’d have some ‘splaining to do about all the crazy ideas we had about them.
It could be a decent setting for something more character driven, but while this isn’t impossible to achieve in a strategy game, it is typically a gap left for the player to fill in themselves. The ‘plot’ of XCOM games at it’s core is bare bones, just achieve certain objectives while staying alive. Another reason the alien invasion setting works so well in this context. Your crackshot sniper died along the way, my lucky assault guys’ luck ran out. You hate France for pulling out, I hate Japan. You have a vendetta against damn Mutons, I have a vendetta against accursed Cyberdiscs. So, I’m loath to say XCOM games aren’t character driven at all, but on the spectrum they are certainly over on the ‘do it yourself’ side of things.
The complexity / simplicity balance is one particular thing that the new XCOM broadly seems to have gotten right, though there are always wrinkles. The original, much as we love it, had it’s faults whether through general technical limitations of the time, or game design choices. Is it fun to chase down that last alien hiding in the corner of a map for half an hour? Manufacturing laser weapons just to sell on the side? Renaming your troops so you don’t have to click the button to look up their stats? How does that feel, John 84/38/22? Using rookies to carry around grenades and missiles for your heavy weapons guys? Shipping scientists between facilities at the end of the month so you don’t have to pay their salaries? Of course there will always be people who ‘break’ the game in some way, and who’s to say whether this is the ‘right way’ to play it, even it is an explicit glitch rather than something the game allows. Perhaps doing crazy things is the only way to stop an alien invasion, especially on Superhuman difficulty, but for most people it jars with the overall themes and just feels a bit silly. In fact, I imagine this is part of the appeal of ‘breaking’ a game in some way. Given the depth available, maybe it is surprising the original doesn’t feel MORE unbalanced.
We can both celebrate and lament the new XCOM for this, as some depth has been lost but arguably for the benefit of the central theme. The presence of mods such as the Long War (amongst many others), and of course the official Enemy Within expansion itself, goes a fair way to proving how much more complexity some people want. Problem is, you can’t just throw it at people though, and even then, complexity will only ever be more likely than not to unbalance things without extensive testing and balancing. This is particularly tough with the theme of XCOM, as you should discover new items, aliens and locations; you want plenty of the unknown in there for thrills, but too much just feels unfair and unfun.
With those opening remarks out of the way, would like to introduce my redesign concept in a nutshell:
XCOM + DWARF FORTRESS
You see why we had to have that little simplicity/complexity chat earlier now? Dwarf Fortress is probably the definition of a super-complex game; everything that can be simulated basically is, from geological formation, to cultures and legends, to individual carvings on the floor. The challenge most people find with it is it’s sheer impenetrability, and that’s only the people who are bold enough to try and give it a go in the first place. But the stories it produces (much like EVE online) are ones we can all enjoy and we are glad for others having done the hard work for us. We love complexity when we can deal with it at the speed we can cope with. We need a version of Dwarf Fortress that comes with training wheels.
Please note of course, this redesign is pretty much blue-sky, I am assigning four billion imaginary pounds to the budget and a development schedule of a century. It will be beautifully produced and entirely bug free.
So rather than try to give an complete overview of the gameplay ‘top down’, I’ll take you through what I would call the 5 major phases of gameplay. These aren’t obvious chapters, or 5 completely different games stuck together; some transitions are more obvious than others and all are varying lengths.
Phase 1: Before the invasion
This is an area no XCOM has really done yet, arguably with good reason, as we seem to have taken away the sense of immediate peril or ticking clock to grab your attention. I think it is an unexploited trope that fits with the alien invasion theme, and something XCOM hints at; cover-ups, subterfuge… all that good X Files stuff, ‘how long have we known?’, why haven’t the government done anything, are they in league with the aliens? Perhaps XCOM The Bureau does this to a degree, but we all know that generally falls under the banner of ‘XCOM games that aren’t XCOM games’. Let’s explore what happens before you see a single alien.
So, first of all, you, the player are still a faceless, voiceless entity, but you have advisers as in the new XCOM, something I would imagine they pinched from CIV. You are the commander of XCOM still, but XCOM is the shadowy, non-governmental organisation that virtually no-one knows about. Not preposterously well funded or anything, if you’ve seen World War Z, for example, that government agent who says something along the lines of ‘Any time 9 people agree about something, it’s the 10th persons responsibility to investigate an alternative’; XCOM at this stage is kind of like that guy, tolerated, but mostly ignored.
Your first choices in the game are choosing your advisers and other starting conditions. For most of the game, advisers are just there for the kind of tutorial-style advice they provide, but why not provide some extra characterisation with a range of nationalities, genders and personalities to choose from, with minor gameplay bonuses to match? You choose a gruff Scottish brigadier general as your military advisor, later on your troops get a small Willpower bonus, but you feel even worse whenever one dies because you know the general doesn’t tolerate that kind of bullshit and sure lets you know it. Maybe you could even lose your advisers for bad performance or certain decisions the same way you lose countries.
So you have selected your team of advisers; for now we’ll say at it’s three person core – a military, science and engineering person, though there could be extra slots or adviser types beyond this. Your main objective in this phase is to investigate and prepare for the invasion. I see this playing out a bit like the Pandemic board game, moving your advisers around the world to deal with incidents, until you have met certain conditions to move onto the game proper. Elements of this stage could be revisited later in the game so it wouldn’t feel completely divorced; sending individuals off out of the main base to work on specific tasks.
You do not choose a location for your central base to begin with. You are trying to prepare and stockpile useful equipment and personnel for the coming invasion, while avoiding the suspicions of the (still intact) world government, performing counter-espionage on alien infiltrators and human traitors. Different advisers can take on different missions, your military adviser is staging a hijack of weapons, your engineer is evaluating appropriate base locations, your scientist is examining a mysterious substance recently used to poison a world leader. You might be faced with the toss up between covering up information to give yourself more time to prepare, but if you failed this obviously some people would be pretty annoyed with you. The actual gameplay in this part is fairly simple, again, like a board game where you may have the odd boost or special power to give to a random encounter.
The exact date of ‘first contact’ is randomised slightly, changing with difficulty of course, and regardless of this, there is only so much preparation that can be done. The exact conditions of first contact could also vary, depending on how much preparation you’ve been able to do. At best maybe you are able to spot the developments and provide evidence to the world government just in time; maybe you only find out when the White House goes all independence day on you. This could affect the base level of world panic you start off with, as well as your starting resources and bonuses.
The clear transition to the main game starts here, when the UN formally announce to the world what they know (whatever information you have managed to provide) and confidentially tell XCOM to get on with it. You have your ‘first contact’ tactical mission lined up, and a base being hastily assembled at your chosen location.
Phase 2: Exodus
So, your engineer presented you with reports on some suitable base locations to choose from. In terms of world maps, we of course have classic ‘vanilla’ Earth to choose from; potentially others randomly generated ala Dwarf Fortress. Alternatives could include those similar to the ALTAR XCOM games (ie: we’ve already lost the war), or maps with the effects of advanced climate change (perhaps encouraged by the aliens)
You can eventually have multiple outposts and staging points but your first central base generally remains the most important throughout the game. Choosing a location isn’t easy, the main toss up is over being hidden away and cost/access. (We’ll get onto how you might add more general ‘colour’ and gameplay variety to the Geoscape in a later section) Urban areas are key targets for the aliens, a runaway terror attack may leave you with floods of refugees and/or looters at your front door. Bombings and Godzilla-style monster attacks could take out parts of your base. However, the infrastructure is good, expansion is easy and new recruits plentiful. There are fairly well equipped military bases to take over (hermit crab style) depending how good your relationship is with the relevant country, though we all know after a point conventional weaponry doesn’t cut it any more. You can set off into the wilderness too for maximum stealth benefits but you’ll have to bring it all with you and you might be too far from the action to respond in time. Maybe even a fully mobile base like an aircraft carrier is possible.
The tension in this phase comes from the rush to grab as many resources as possible and get your base up and running while the aliens go from ‘just visiting’ to ‘full on invasion’. On one hand you’re looking at your bank account, trying to dig just one more room out for another plane hangar, while your scientists are sat around in the snow twiddling their thumbs because the lab hasn’t got any power yet. You’re bringing back artifacts, corpses and live aliens but you don’t have the right facilities to store them. You are trying to source good recruits and staff from around the world while global panic breaks out. Certain air routes stop being available, you’ve only got one Skyranger available, so you have to send people by surface. Do you send out your Skyranger to save some key scientists over here, or some key engineers over here? Your weapons cargo gets looted in transit by a breakaway general of a small nation. Countries close their borders. Some of your agents are caught and executed as suspected alien spies.
The stealth of your main base should be a central concern throughout the whole game. I’m not familiar with the actual physics of any of this, but you will need to dig down, shield and reduce your radio and heat signatures as much as possible. One obvious trade off is that power generators will create heat and noise, so the more you build the harder it will be to remain invisible. Initially you will just dig into the bare earth and make do with whatever you find, but eventually you can install additional shielding, get more efficient equipment. Some locations might have access to geothermal power, or be situated in a particular kind of rock thats tough to build in but good for deflecting radar. Your smaller sub-bases like listening posts will be away from your main base, maybe even ready to self-destruct to prevent tracing.
The actual detail available in base building will be more akin to Dwarf Fortress than XCOM (new or original) but I don’t want to get bogged down to the level of placing individual items of furniture. Certainly some rooms will need to be bigger than others, and there will be benefits to having an efficiently designed base. One decent example I can think of is Prison Architect; where large water pipes are more effective but also carry a greater risk of escape by tunnelling. There’s a design choice but also one that carries some real gameplay weight. Maybe you won’t dig down too far, perhaps if you focus your efforts quickly enough you can put up some radar jammers instead. Maybe you won’t expand at all for the first few months, those new recruits and refugees will just have to be turned away until you have the basics ready. As boring as sorting out the right storage sounds, imagine the bringing back a live Bezerker for research, but knowing you can only afford to stick it in one of the old maintenance sheds. Do you risk it for the research? At least assign a guard patrol – oh, but now these guys aren’t available for missions. We have standard Alien Containment at the moment, but what about deadly artefacts or energy sources from the UFOs? Might you also need a hazardous Materials lab? Make sure you’ve got a back up generator at the ready in case the safeguards fail, that stuff is explosive if you take it out of the… *BOOM*
Your base layout will affect things if/when you get attacked directly by the aliens, but to avoid too much complexity we’ll split it into surface and subsurface levels. The layout on the surface (or just under) will be designed as an actual tactical level map, whereas the subsurface will be more general. The access lift joins the two. Your airstrips, landing pads, barracks and radar equipment can be on the surface. The problem with extremely detailed base design is that while in Dwarf Fortress you can plausibly build moats or traps and laugh ‘har har stupid goblins’, it doesn’t really transfer to a modern or futuristic setting so well, so while we are borrowing some ideas from it in terms of variety and granularity, there still has be a line drawn to stick with our central theme. Though I would love to drop an invading Chrysalid down a pit. To a degree some of these gameplay elements could still be achieved, luring them into a power plant about to explode, or your storerooms getting raided by aliens/human looters if they aren’t secure enough (Do you execute the thief?), perhaps even building some decoy bases in order to attract and capture live aliens. In particular, the risk of infiltration by a rogue agent should be a concern, perhaps a squaddie brought back a terrible parasite from a mission? (You need to upgrade your environmental protection on combat armour) All equipment and personnel could be decontaminated, x-rayed and quarantined on entry to the base, but who knows what might burrow in from below when you aren’t looking?
Phase 3: Response
This is about the time we get to ‘classic’ XCOM gameplay, so I don’t need to do to much explaining. You’ve got a base, now you’re ready to fight back. The main objectives remain pretty much the same, combat panic, retrieve and capture aliens/artifacts, research, manufacture, rinse and repeat with bigger and badder aliens until you reach the biggest and baddest of them all. At this stage I’m even thinking, like CIV, you could have multiple win conditions. Classic military ‘take out the enemy HQ’ victory, but why not a science ‘invent an alien disease’ victory or an engineering ‘create a quantum doomsday bomb’ victory? It’s possible, but remembering the central theme of the game, we want something that emphasises tense tactical combat, not CIV style world building. Perhaps these victories would still need a tactical mission associated with them, or maybe they would only be available at higher difficulties.
Whatever stage of the game we are at, all the base building and development stuff should, more often than not, relate back to the tactical level stuff and vice versa; and the overall feel of the game should be an uphill struggle – particularly in this stage, as the rest of the world only declines and you have yet to really turn the tide. In terms of moment to moment game play, phases 4 and 5 are much the same – you have air and pre-combat, base management and tactical on-the-ground combat. So phase 4 and 5 are more about thematic changes whereas this one is more about the mechanical changes, which I will get into now:
Air and pre-combat elements:
All XCOM missions start with you dropped in at the deep end, essentially walking in blind. While this is a pretty good match given the general theme of the game, you can’t help but think occasionally these guys really ought to prepare a little more thoroughly from time to time. Or that a terror attack on a major city that only left 15 people dead was actually pretty successful. Or where the hell any local emergency services/military are. Nevertheless, you go straight from strategic to tactical ‘mode’ pretty much in an instant, aside from choosing which country is in most dire need or which bonus you fancy the most. (We’ll get to actual air combat in a second)
First of all, the element of time. Could you find out the aliens plans in advance? In the original you’d have a great moment of fear when you noticed a blip (identified as Very Large class) moving towards a city or even your own base. Take it out in the air or try it on land? For countries still on your side, you could issue a preliminary warning that would raise panic but potentially reduce your losses if you then go on to fail or to ignore the mission completely. What if you issue a false alarm? If you’ve been selling off high tech weapons to the local authorities, maybe they’ll even stick it out on their own, but you probably won’t see much thanks for it. Another one to pinch from the original was sometimes when in-flight returning from one mission, another would pop up, potentially forcing you to take an already battle-weary and low on ammo team straight into another mission. Or even little things like dispatching a Skyranger before the UFO has been taken down so you can land straight away. The only additional colour I can think of in the new XCOM is partly being forced to choose between 3 terror attacks (though some mods have removed this) and the occasional notifications that pop up asking you to send equipment to a particular country. The problem with the latter is that there is basically no reason not to meet these demands if you can, the cash rewards are basically always worth it.
Getting back to ‘pre combat’ anyway, say an alien craft lands (or is shot down) in a city. You’ve tracked it on radar for a while and pre-warned the locals, but some traitor recently sabotaged your Skyrangers fuel lines so engineers are giving it an extra pre flight check. Authorities are on site, evacuating civilians and keeping their distance from the craft. You dispatch your team later than you’d like. Your crack sniper says they’re fine to go but the Doc says they need more recovery time. You aren’t going to get there in daylight, and as the craft takes off you hope the engineers removed any further sabotage. Halfway to the site, authorities at the scene say they are starting to see some movement from the downed craft, patchy information gets sent to you; probably some Mutons in there, hope your second-tier sniper is up to scratch. You tell the authorities evacuate themselves now, you don’t need any more rookie blood on your hands, no matter how confident the local SWAT team say they are. As you close in to land, a rough map of the tactical area is shown – looks like they crashed into a school – in retrospect, good job it was later in the day or there’d be the chance of civilian casualties or even hostages. You choose an area to land and deploy (maybe you paradrop in a specialist elsewhere to a good vantage point). Maybe if you’d upgraded your mapping and scanners you’d have a better idea of the layout and exactly how many you were up against. Even just cosmetic ‘different types of entry’ options would be cool with minor gameplay effects. Rappelling out of helicopters, driving up in your M577 Armoured Personnel Carrier (Aliens), that shot of marines coming out of the water at night that seems to be in all kinds of films. Space-Marine-esque drop pods?
There is plenty to be explored here in the pre-combat phase. Maybe you just order a bomber to soften them up in advance or take out the site entirely? In the original, you could choose to take down UFOs over water if you couldn’t / didn’t want to do a follow up mission – of course the ultimate would be to then do a Terror from the Deep style underwater mission as well… perhaps. (Muton emerges from the sea to scare crowds at Blackpool) Maybe if you don’t respond soon enough the aliens get entrenched, or dig in and wait for reinforcements, or hit the underground and try to escape? The aliens bomb their own troops or set off a self-destruct rather than be captured? Maybe you’re on the losing side, fleeing and an alien with a spare RPG takes out your Skyranger as it takes off?
Maybe (and get ready for this M Night Shymalyan level twist) – the aliens try to capture some of YOUR guys alive? Complete with obligatory rescue mission; a mission that may end in tragedy if you find them too late and they’ve been brainwashed: ‘God damn it, it’s too late for him, the man we knew is gone, just take the shot!’
The interceptor air-combat stage is pretty much the only pre-(tactical)-combat bit currently, and there’s not much to it. The Xenonauts ‘homage’ to XCOM did jazz up air combat a little bit; not that I’ve played it, but it looks a bit dry and technical. For one thing, it would be nice to see pilots characterised and gaining levels as ground troops do. Apocalypse actually had a bit more detail, you could equip your vehicles (flyers and ground vehicles) in different set-ups (though they didn’t need pilots); as well as introducing the Godzilla style city attacks – which could come via ‘normal’ large UFOs just bombing the area, or from the walking Overspawn.
Now, this is whole area is tricky, having already said that the two main elements (tactical and strategic) should feed into each other, we are inserting something here that interferes with that formula a bit. Being introduced to new gameplay elements can be frustrating, especially when so many decisions could have been made differently in advance and you had no idea what they were for. Taking out a UFO that is bombing a city, independence day style would be much the same as traditional air combat, whereas taking out a ground-based Godzilla style beast could be a bit different.
Overall, the design decision is whether air-combat (or vehicle combat) should just be a mini-game precursor to the ‘real’ tactical combat, or whether it can be a similarly interesting game mode in itself. We don’t want to take too much focus off our regular infantry; if you could send tanks and helicopters in to take out Godzilla, then where the hell are they on this other mission where I really need them? Also, in Apocalypse, not that I ever got that far, it seems to be once you have got an excellent air force, you’ve essentially won the game. Which is realistic, I suppose, but not necessarily as fun or ‘personal’ as tactical combat with individual soldiers. The overall fit within the theme is too appealing to ignore. These events should be rare and pretty high stakes, though simultaneously it’s the kind of thing you’d need to have prepared for to really enjoy, otherwise the peril of losing your crack pilot in a daring manoeuvre wouldn’t really hit home enough. (Imagine ordering one to retreat only to have them tell you to “go to hell, sir” and do a Randy Quaid at the end of Independence Day) More frequently defending your base, or just the local area from flybys that might uncover your base, might be a good excuse for more vehicular combat. We’ll get onto stuff about base assaults in the next section.
Overall, there is a lot of room to expand outside of the existing two part strategic/tactical game model. I would want the player to feel a more consistent, slowly increasing dread, rather than the current nothing-nothing-nothing-nothing-AAARGH A MISSION pace. I can imagine all kinds of minor and major alerts going off, many of which you couldn’t respond to even if you wanted – a sense that things are happening in the world without you to a degree – though you don’t want to feel utterly insignificant of course. You could even be quite a bit tougher than the aliens to begin with (indeed, on Easy difficulties in the new version, this is sort of the case) but you are pretty much guaranteed to lose out to the sheer number of attacks they are able to carry out. The player is the commander of an elite, secretive organisation, you aren’t trying to rebuild society or save the world, you have to do what needs to be done or there won’t be a world left to save.
Base management and strategic elements:
To go to world building for a second, it would be great to increase the level of detail available. You look at the original Geoscape, you look at something we have like Google Earth… I think, just make it happen! Put the two together. It could be interesting, though if you weren’t careful you’d just end up dropping most UFOs in the sea or in a boring wasteland of one description or the other. Realistic scenery is not necessarily tactically interesting scenery and we aren’t going for pure realism here. Having said that, why not the odd desert or snow map? Aside from variety in the tactical map, the overworld(s)/Geoscapes of XCOM have always been quite limited when you think about it, nations are just empty panic meters with the odd bonus or level of cash given monthly associated. Cities of course have names (less detail in new vs old seemingly) and are spaced out around the map as you’d expect, but really there’s nothing else to define them from each other. Okay, you get a ‘full continent’ bonus now and then.
So, at a simple level, what about actual population numbers? Anyone who’s played DEFCON will know the strange joy of successfully dropping a nuke on New York, to see a dispassionate little statistic pop up “X million killed”. Hooray! I guess? Would it make things too complex, amidst all the chaos to have a world economy collapsing, floods of migrants abandoning their countries? Probably, or at least it would be hard to ‘get right’ without dominating things or making the player feel totally insignificant. The gameplay effects would be limited, it’s mainly just adding detail to a system that already exists.
One area I would add detail to, with actual gameplay effects, would be special buildings, locations or infrastructure in specific areas – a little like the wonders system in CIV. Power plants or dams, military facilities like docks, airbases, key government buildings, large satellite arrays or scientific buildings. You wouldn’t model the whole industry and infrastructure of a country, just key strategic buildings. These could tie into the type of ending you are able to end up with. You have a little of this tension, with the continent bonuses, the toss up to save country A or B because of a specific bonus or whether one pays more than the other; but some extra detail might help you feel you were protecting a real world, not just a glowey map in a basement. On the flip side, sometimes it can be more effective to leave the player with bare details, letting them fill in with their own imagination.
Interesting things have been said by the designers about the move from more random tactical map generation in the original, to more fixed maps in the new XCOM; while it’s nice to have infinite variety, it’s impossible to balance and can make combat in tactical maps less fun, if not frustrating. More skeptically, we could argue that given the increased production value in the new version, it might just be too expensive to create infinite good-looking maps. Even more skeptically, you could call it a casualty of increased Console-ification. I still think it might be possible to expand in the direction of randomness; which does help make the game world feel not only more real but intimidatingly expansive and unpredictable, while keeping balance in tactical maps.
Base building has been introduced in the previous phase, but you will of course keep expanding and improving as time goes on, which has always been a key measure of progress through the game. Your first base will more than likely remain your main focus, but it will be useful to establish a number of smaller listening/staging posts. With a landing pad, fuel supply and radar, these will help extend the reach of your other aircraft as well as your radar range. The modern UFO got around this by using satellites over countries instead of the original approach which meant your geographical location actually mattered, as did the size and capability of your radar facilities. Regarding vehicles, I’m not an expert on the realities of modern aircraft but (after a quick googling) it seems a modern bomber could fly about half way round the world before running out of fuel – not to mention the advantages of being able to respond to threats faster by being based nearby. What if you’re downing many UFO’s around the world but simply can’t reach them to respond on the ground? Maybe there’s also an interesting addition of aircraft carriers or even nuclear subs (anyone remember the sub-aircraft carrier from Supreme Commander?). These bases will be comparatively cheap, so if identified or attacked, you won’t feel so bad about abandoning them. Perhaps you will have to be shrewd about when you can carry out supply drops and transfers without being detected. Running out of general supplies like food, fuel or water in bases shouldn’t be a massive concern, but there should be occasional tension, especially if someone gets cut off or you have to abandon a stockpile of useful material.
There’s a bit more to say about detection, now we’ve introduced vehicles and Godzilla style attacks. At certain points, particularly early in the game when defences are low, you could set your base to silent running in order to avoid a clear threat. Most base operations would just have to shut down. Imagine a far superior UFO hovering over, scanning away while you’re trapped underground with the air and water slowly running out. Perhaps some scouts landed nearby and are coming over, can you take them out before they can raise an alarm? Of course, you might not avoid detection for ever, then we can get into full scale siege battles (in a later phase)
While we lump all this stuff under ‘base’ management, a lot of it comes down to the people you have in your base – troops, scientists and engineers. The complexity of troops changed significantly from original to new XCOM, less stats, more immediately useful ‘classes’, no inventories as such and less variety in general. Overall, I would say it is a fair trade off for more exciting combat and less micro-management, but with our infinite budget and time, let’s say we had time to reintroduce more variety while keeping the learning curve fair and balanced. From what I’ve seen so far, Enemy Within and even more expansive mods have done this quite well.
What I’d like to do with the whole people-side of the base, is introduce some of the Dwarf Fortress elements that make it feel more like a living place, not just for surface detail but with some gameplay impact as well. How much impact does it have when your first soldier reaches Sergeant level and gets a cool nickname/callsign? No-one bothers changing default rookies, do they? I mean, they’re only going to die, why get attached? Personally, I only give them a specific colour once they’ve got a class, and will only make other changes once they’ve got a callsign. We know how little things like this can get you more immersed in a game.
All people in the base would have a psychological profile and would develop relationships with others. This wouldn’t be immediately available to you, but perhaps an adviser with a high enough ‘psychology’ score would give you the odd report. This would most likely affect troops (which I’ll get to in a sec) but scientists or engineers could also go odd and come up with new inventions or breakthroughs (much like going into a strange mood does in Dwarf Fortress) Perhaps those spores they’ve been investigating are toxic in someway? Maybe that alien isn’t quite dead and he’s mind controlling a scientist? (sidenote: XCOM Apocalypse had a general ability rating for scientists)
For soldiers, of course we have panicking in the field at the moment, but there is more that could be done. Maybe they also start keeping notches on their helmet for kills? If they’ve faced a certain type of alien many times, they are more familiar with it and more resilient, whereas newer aliens are more feared. Of course, we don’t want the game to become a PTSD simulator – for reasons of poor taste as well as poor gameplay – but imagine if a soldier just wanted to quit one day? Would you let them? Maybe they’d just escape without you noticing? Or even commit suicide? Court martials and imprisonment?
Having relationships with other people in the base would be great, even if most of it would have limited gameplay impact. The rookies want to hang around the hardened veterans in the mess (and pick up a little XP from it), but they’re too busy in the labs shouting at damned useless egghead scientists for getting my best darn corporal killed in the field (interfering with the research at the time). One of the engineers isn’t looking too good, you just bombed their home town, but maybe a colleague could cheer them up (if you haven’t banned inter-staff relationships that is).
This remains one of the most interesting things about Dwarf Fortress for me, the growing culture of your community. When a giant weasel attacks, you know the masons are going to be carving the story of how young Oghrin lost his right arm to a fearsome beast. For instance, one tiny tweak in the Enemy Within was to the remembrance wall, which now not only tells you what mission a soldier died on – but also what alien got him and with what weapon. It’s all great world building and makes you feel what’s at stake, within the realms of reason and without making you feel cheated if one lunatic happens to set off a chain of events that brings down your entire base.
Finally, on the issue of troops, quite a popular option in mods is being able to mix and match weapons across different classes as in original XCOM. This could be quite unbalancing given the new approach to combat and classes without care – for example a sniper or heavy who can sprint across the map and still take a shot. I think some more detail wouldn’t be impossible to get away with, broadly under the banner of training and troop development. What are the troops doing in their downtime? Not practising by the looks of it! They’re either in the Psi-Lab (for a nice 3 day holiday, slackers) or lying up wounded in the Hospital. Troops could get more familiar with certain weapons, encouraging specialisation but also providing a legitimate way to re-class them if you’ve got 10 snipers and 1 heavy. Different weapons and combat situations could affect experience, rather than the current ‘killing aliens is all that counts’ approach. Taking them out at close range, or with reaction fire could have specific enhancements, conversely sniping could improve general aim. I’m loath to suggest that getting wounded would make troops tougher, but tying into the psychological aspects, perhaps it makes them more “grizzled” (or perhaps more fearful). It would be a sad day having to fire your once-veteran-but-now-wounded troops. Maybe you move them into training, send them to civilian service, or a reserve list. Maybe you have a row with the staff doctor about whether troops are still capable or not.
In terms of other resources to manage, we don’t want to go full Dwarf Fortress and have people growing their own food, mining ore and so on, but a little more detail could still be enjoyable – the most valuable stuff comes from the aliens anyway. Certainly in early stages, being able to salvage, loot or otherwise acquire conventional equipment might make for some good missions – as well as potentially screwing up relationships with countries. It depends what you’re up to of course, and we’ve said before, you aren’t trying to rebuild the world or set up a permanent colony, but just do what’s necessary to stop the invasion. Resource gathering would be more a case of sending out scouts who’d find a specific material or stockpile for you to then acquire, liberate or just straight up loot – combat with other human forces would not likely happen very often – you can just saunter in, flash a badge and get on with it, but it does annoy the hell out of people.
Speaking of nations, again, you have a very simple relationship with them in both new and original XCOM and for the most part this is fine – you are above the law for the most part, but they can still decide to withdraw their funding. Keeping a ‘good’ relationship with nations could be given more detail, there is only one variable to look at and it’s based on completing tactical missions or downing UFOs. So, you could have relationships with not only the governments, but their armed forces/emergency services, and the general public too. Perhaps the government hate you, but the general public revolt and won’t let them reduce the funding? Or vice versa? Better relationships with the armed forces would give you better intel on upcoming tactical missions on the ground, and they’d have a better chance at standing their own ground if you can’t make a mission. Say you know a colossal alien battleship is going to take out Tokyo and there’s nothing you can do (or want to do) about it. Do you give them a heads up to increase their security and give them a slim chance for success – or do you abuse your friendly relationship with them to withdraw a load of military hardware, leaving them defenceless? To a degree the EXALT faction from Enemy Within points in this general direction, a slightly deeper political simulation and a more varied relationship with nations.
It is surprising how much has been streamlined from original to new XCOM in regards of base management, but there’s a lot I think could be added back and even expanded on (given our infinite budget of course). The level of detail going between geoscape to tactical level is at the heart of a lot of it, and even Dwarf Fortress doesn’t quite manage this as far as I know; there is a fixed boundary to your local area. Would it ever be possible to have the two seamlessly together, to zoom all the way from a global view right down to a single solider in the field? Probably not any time soon, and even if you could, would it make for a good game?
Tactical on-the-ground combat:
There is far less I would add here that can’t be generally extrapolated from previous comments compared to the other two game elements. Both the original and new XCOM have enjoyable tactical combat nailed in one form or the other. There’s always space for variety, new weapons, aliens and so on, as demonstrated by the official expansions and unofficial mods. Anyway, here’s a quick run down of a few ideas I’d be tempted to throw in:
Individual limbs modelling: This would up the gore factor quite significantly, if you ended up getting the odd limb sliced off. Headshotting Sectoids can’t be that hard, right? Critical hits convey this general idea but let’s get grittier. What about different types of wounds, flame, plasma or acid burns? Permanent scars on your soldiers? Having to fit robot prosthetics? (Sort of happening in Enemy Within) This would give your field medics a more challenging experience, rather than just spraying a magic fix-all aerosol at people. Some new or existing types of aliens could make deliberate use of this, that big robot crab thing isn’t going to stop just because you’ve blown one of it’s six legs off. I could see Mutons fighting on with only one arm, at least until they bled out. Sectoids on the other hand might be pre-programmed to go on a suicide charge if they get wounded, whereas intelligent Ethereals might be more likely to flee or try to take a hostage.
Preparation: In keeping with the pre-combat stages and information you may have gathered, there may be more random civilians or military guys running around; generally getting in the way or occasionally showing you up. What if they’ve been infected with a parasite? Order a solider to ‘eliminate’ a potential civilian threat and watch their psychological profile explode (Unless you’ve got a squad of soulless robots) and watch your approval rating plummet (Unless you’ve replaced the local government with soulless robots). Potential for hostage rescue style missions. Other pre-combat influences could be whether there’s any local artillery or air support to call on, perhaps extremely inaccurate, hard to time and liable to get your own guys blown up but a last ditch resort.
Locations: We’ve mentioned bringing back desert and snow scenarios, even if it would be tricky to keep some of these maps realistic and fun. What about even wackier options? As much as you could do the ‘drop a UFO in the water and then do a Terror from the Deep style mission’ approach, we don’t want to introduce a whole new water-breathing subspecies to things, as well as submarines to intercept them and soldiers in diving suits. However, occasionally you might get away with larger UFOs going down fairly intact (or maybe floating on the surface?) and transporting soldiers on board, rather than starting outside the craft. You’d have the pressure of areas suddenly flooding, or deliberately blowing out walls. As things escalate and you start to build more advanced orbital satellites and other platforms, you could even have the odd zero gravity mission? A mission on a moving train or some huge jumbo jet could be pretty fun.
Alien variety and psychology: As with your humans, the aliens could have a detailed social structure, varying cultures and personalities. You could find out one of your crack soldiers has a bounty on his head, or is particularly feared by the aliens. They could carry a whole range of items that could be researched, not always with immediate effect; you probably still want to look at their guns first of all but those cultural items might provide other clues. This would become particularly important when you are capturing and interrogating them, do you have to speak the language to get better quality intelligence? Maybe some species are too fearful or just plain stupid to provide information. Maybe, combined with the individual limb modelling, you just end up scooping up a few arms and legs to begin with? Even just surface level details would help add colour – different tribal markings, skin pigmentations for example. It’s generally implied in both new and original XCOM that the Ethereal species is the ‘brains’ of the operation, and they manipulate the others, genetically, cybernetically and psychically in a variety of ways; so perhaps as the game goes on, new foot soldiers will appear adapted more to your particular strategies, forcing you to keep changing things up and limiting the amount of information they can gather about you. Let me reiterate again: I think having one of your soldiers get captured alive would be rad. Order them to take a suicide pill? Shoot them yourself? Try and recapture them? Trade hostages? Even plan to get deliberately captured to infiltrate a base from the inside?
Destructible terrain: A minor one, but in original XCOM you could destroy basically everything, even with a pistol if you shot it enough times. New XCOM only really lets you blow things up with explosives, and then you’re pretty reluctant to do so, now that you can’t bring along as many dang grenades as you want. It’s a tough balance, just bombing the hell out of everything isn’t much fun, tactically, though if we’re going with limb-modelling – a relatively intact alien corpse has got to have more research value than a pile of green goo. So maybe not a complete return to the bad old days, but a dedicated door/wall breaching device carried by some troops, or perhaps only the mechs/robots could be an idea.
Melee combat: Some of this in Enemy Within, but it’s restricted to giant robot only. Rather than have frustrating 98% misses when you’re right next to an enemy, perhaps melee combat would always hit but carry some risk of damage to the attacker too, or just the risk of getting caught up and having to miss a turn while fighting. It might be a one in a million chance, but successfully defending against a Chyssalid attack with a lucky punch to the face would be great. (Unlikely, yes, but this is the granular nature of Dwarf Fortress at its best in many cases) You’d still have to take them out next turn, but you bought a little time. Better get researching alien physiology to find out if there are any alien ‘nads to get punching, and if so, where are they?
Varied ammo and firing modes: Incendiary grenades and rocket ammo for sheer ‘chaos’ value, fire is a tricky one to get right, but being able to push enemies out of cover due to heat or smoke would be interesting. Things like armour piercing rounds for mechanical enemies are in there to a limited degree at the moment, but god help you if you’re up against a Sectopod with no Heavy. Again, better intel and preparation might help you in this regard without unbalancing the game. I could see something like the shotgun being equipped with a ‘net gun’ option, for capturing live aliens, perhaps early on before you’ve figured out if tazering, gas or sleeping darts work. More exotic weapons like Laser and Plasma could have spread/focus/overload modes. Finally, while I think the change from Time Units to just two moves a turn is broadly for the best, there’s something to be said for at least differentiating between single shots/burst, and full auto, although it’s not appropriate for some weapons. Some difference between a long distance, more accurate, lower damage shot and a close up, less accurate, big damage, but use up loads of ammo option seems fair. It’s a tough call, you don’t just want to hole up and take endless pot shots at each other, I can see why it is useful to shove players into more high-stakes combat now and then.
Phase 4: Turning the tide
Having got all the mechanics out of the way, we’re back to the more thematic stuff. In XCOM terms, this phase is when you’re getting ready to take out the first alien base. It’s not quite the last mission, but by this stage you’re trying to make sure you get to the end in the best possible condition. Holding on to your best soldiers, quickly training up any new recruits and making the most of late game advances like Psi Training and improved air-power.
This kind of phase is a tricky one for games pacing in general, you hear plenty of stories in which people are fairly comfortable in their defences and are just grinding for soldier experience or resources deliberately before moving onto the next stage. It’s not specific to strategy games, for example Mass Effect has you simultaneously running minor errands for people while trying to save the universe. (Although it was cool in the second one that if you didn’t take the final mission as soon as it became available, certain crew members died)
This is where I think a few more ‘flashy’ missions would help keep the tension up. The likes of Godzilla attacks on cities would keep your vehicles busy and introduce huge stakes – its’ one thing to steadily down UFOs and fight tactical missions to keep panic down, it’s another thing if the city is simply wiped off the map. In a little nod to Terror from the deep, coastal cities could have special sea-monster attacks to repel, maybe a suspiciously large UFO goes to the middle of the ocean occasionally. (Sidenote: should you be able to build some kind of XCOM Gundam/Big Mech to fight big aliens?.. maybe not just yet!). In a similar vein, we can always have Aliens start out-and-out bombing cities, you can’t keep fighting all of them off forever.
Having your main base come under attack was something a surprisingly large group of players complained about in new XCOM and it was returned, of a sort in Enemy Within. Some of the irritants from the original return – of course it’s instant fail if you lose this battle, but because it is kind of a surprise, you don’t have the opportunity to have your best troops ready or with the right equipment. I think some kind of panic button “last stand” preparation is only fair. Maybe even gear up for more of a longer running siege if neccesary, which would open up other gameplay choices.
In discussing base building earlier, I kind of danced around the idea of having a base either fully or partially ‘integrated’ with a tactical map – that is, when you are building your base, you are also directly building the tactical map you will use if your base is directly attacked. I suggested the surface or upper levels could work this way, but that any of your core facilities – labs, storage, power etc would not be strictly playable as maps. This way you could keep a relatively simple base building approach for the boring but neccesary stuff, but still have opportunity to build more elaborate fortifications for defence (ala Dwarf Fortress) I like the idea in Enemy Within that in addition to your main soldiers, you get some more anonymous internal security grunts to boss around and generally sacrifice for the greater good. The base invasion mission could be more elaborate in this regard, giving you more troops to throw around than usual, multiple lines to fall back to, maybe blow up some fuel depots and an interceptor or two as a last resort. (At a later stage, you could improve your access lifts to have interceptors launching from underground as in the new XCOM; then they’re safer away from attacks or detection. On that point, how the hell do they come in to land though? Head first?)
There’s the option of natural disasters, whether directed towards your base or the general population. They could be brought on by deliberate alien interference, sudden climate change or perhaps some of your own engineering projects – particularly any super-projects that are taking you towards the end game. Dropping asteroids on you? Rising sea levels? Interfering with tectonic plates? It’s time to speed up that ticking clock.
This phase is largely about allowing the player a little well-earned satisfaction for mastering earlier gameplay elements, without just letting them get complacent and keeping going for the easy wins and extra loot. Power creep, that’s the word. XCOM, both old and new, do a better job than most at keeping the pressure on throughout the game. Sure you still get to enjoy splatting a few weedy enemies when you get power armor and plasma weapons, but you need every new trick and new toy you can lay hands on to gain the advantage on tougher missions. It’s still easy to get whooped by a Sectoid if you’re cocky.
In fact, this might be a fault against new XCOM vs old XCOM and I think it stems from the strictly 2-step approach to time units and simplified combat in general. With variable time units, it was possible to pull off more complex manoeuvres from time to time – come around cover, fire once and retreat, throw extra ammo or even a fully loaded weapon to a another solider with no rounds, physically pick up a wounded soldier and run off with them. Add to this things like proximity mines, being able to set timers on grenades; maybe you didn’t use them that often but it at least pointed you in the direction of different ‘types’ of tactical combat. I’m not going to say whether old or new is any better in this regard, just that there are lessons from both. I don’t want to have to tell a guy he should kneel in cover, he should just do it.
An increased focus on gathering intelligence (not just scientific research per se) and espionage could be a good thematic fit for XCOM. (See the recently announced Invisible Inc. for what looks like turn based espionage joy). The whole EXALT faction plays into this a bit in the new XCOM, but the associated missions don’t play out much differently to out and out combat with aliens. Yes the enemies are different but it’s still a straight up fight, there’s not much sneaking around; and sneaking around might be only one variant on the usual tactical format. What about pretty much straight up exploration or detective themed missions, letting some of the research activity play out there and then on the battlefield? Missions with very little actual combat in them?
Looking at Polygon’s write up of XCOM: The Bureaus development, it seemed for quite a while that the player; back when it was potentially going to be first person with more of a horror vibe, would be doing an awful lot of sneaking around and photography, at least to begin with. Could have been interesting, a real change of pace but very much in keeping with the general themes – especially given the much earlier 1960s setting. What would you do if giant monoliths started floating around zapping things? It would be the most you could do, at first, just studying them. So, later in the game, as your Mutons start gearing up with better armour and shielding, why not make them effectively invulnerable in tactical missions until you’ve snuck a guy in to steal the neccesary tech and figure out how to ‘deconfubulate the energy-mo-tron…or whatever’.
Sticking with the recon and intelligence theme, this would allow for the pacing to alter a final time as the player would get to a stage of comfort and expertise, only for you to suddenly discover that what you’ve been dealing with so far is nothing by comparison, there’s an even bigger threat out there – kind of resetting the doomsday clock that provided such a useful motivation right at the start.
Are you just throwing the players progress out of the window by doing this, though? Do people sometimes feel all their earlier struggles were worthless when the final boss rolls around? Maybe some do, hopefully they are invested enough into the game by that point to get swept up in the moment. It’s hard to combat that hoarding instinct, that drives you collect everything and explore everywhere, even if you’d really want to progress, just in case there’s one extra health pack lying around. And then you do the final mission and end the game with 400 health packs for no reason. No easy solutions to this one, sometimes you play for the sense of mastery, sometimes you want to be presented with seemingly impossible challenges.
Phase 5: The end game
Research and Engineering are good avenues to get into different types of end game, or at least different final missions. They could identify a number of options, which are pretty much ‘all or nothing’ that would require the player to commit to a particular course of action. The current standard ending fits a military archetype well, go in and take out the big boss; and other endings should generally stick to this theme, it’s not so much fun to just research a doomsday device, press a button and win the game.
I don’t want to just drop a black/white morality system in, but by this stage it would be clear what kind of operation the player has been running. What kind of decisions have they been making? How much public support do you have left? Have you committed various atrocities? Have you been shrewd enough to cover up aforementioned atrocities? Is XCOM saving the world, or is it going to take it over? Will the world that remains be nothing but ash, ruled over by a faceless military cabal? Will your soldiers ever be allowed to return home, or have they seen too much? In the case of psychics, mechs and alien hybrids, are they too dangerous to be released?
One particular trope to throw in at this stage is Weyland-Yutani – aka the most incompetence evil corporation that ever existed in fiction (alright, maybe Umbrella corp). But more to the point, a lot of the research and engineering going on at XCOM is likely to be extremely questionable, new XCOM throws a little of these tensions in, but it doesn’t really have any ramifications. Say one of your troops gets infected by a Chrysallid, but you manage to stun them before they ‘turn’, and you bring them back alive. Maybe you go the full Weyland and try to turn the alien into a special unit for you to control? Maybe you deliberately infect a load of fresh rookies to try and give them super powers – problem is, it only works on 1 in 10 of them and the rest have to be – ahem – disposed of? Some of this could be explored in the post game.
For one thing, it would be nice to see ramifications regarding the countries that left the project, and presumably the world government behind it. While it fits with the type of terrible decisions you have to make, it sucks to go into a game thinking ‘man, screw South America, I’m just not going to bother at all, their bonus is rubbish and the countries don’t pay that well’ If you can’t get some decent morality system out of that, I don’t know what can! I emphasise, not some black/white, good guy, bad guy thing… CIV games (and Alpha Centauri!) I think have been quite good at this, there’s no obvious right or wrong but plenty of different philosophies, religions and social policies to follow. I don’t know, maybe alien invasion is about as black and white as it gets; it’s never going to be much fun, the only score anyone cares about is just about how many people aren’t dead at the end of the day.
Not every game needs to have multiple endings, indeed, in many cases it is something far too easy to oversell and under deliver on. The better ones are those that don’t just show you a different ending cutscene but actuawlly deliver a different slice of ending gameplay to match. On the basic level, this could just be more of the same gameplay in different settings, but it is equally easy to just ramp everything up to ridiculous levels and still end with a bit of an anti-climax. Bizarrely enough, Dead Rising pops into my head as just one game that managed a few meaningfully different endings. You could get beaten up and captured by the military (and from here, possibly even escape to try again) or if you evaded them, you’d go on to achieve the ‘better’ ending that gives more plot detail and another boss fight. CIV does a good job of this too, you generally want to decide your end-goal as soon as possible to develop in the right directions, but with something like XCOM we can stand to make our minds up a bit later than this; or to keep our options open to see what pans out. Conversely, something like any of the Deus Ex games, of which I am generally a fan of, have endings that are thematically/narratively wildly different, but in terms of gameplay, not so much. ‘Poor endings’ is something games in general often struggle with, due to the investment required on the part of designer and player to make it this far. Multiple endings might help here to a degree, in that both casual and dedicated players could get their respective rewards. (Sidenote: special mention to Max Payne 2, in which if you finish on the hardest difficulty level a certain character doesn’t die. I’d say SPOILER but its 11 years old by now)
The new XCOM final mission is just alright; satisfactory. You get a greatest hits re-run of all your favourite aliens, then the big boss. I can’t remember being thrilled with the final mission of original XCOM either, perhaps outside of the first time just the sheer novelty of making it that far. It’s tough, you’ve built a game in which you want every mission to feel special, to feel like a critical mission, perhaps even your last – then you have to deliver something over and above this. The final boss should be, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw – a final exam, a test of everything you’ve learned to this point.
Okay, we want some variety, I say three possible final missions – military, science and engineering. The military ending is pretty close to the existing ending, but given we’ve introduced Godzilla-style aliens, it would only seem right to pit your soldiers against one, on top of a skyscraper perhaps – Ghostbusters-style! For some reason your interceptors and vehicles that would usually deal with it have are disabled or only effective up to a point, and you still have to send in a team to finish the job. There can still be the ‘king’ Ethereal hanging around somewhere, if you need to take out the brains of the operation too, not just this big beastie. Or perhaps ‘king’ Ethereal has merged with it in some way, which is why it’s extra powerful. The colossal beast would be more of an environmental hazard from a tactical gameplay point of view, occasionally destroying your cover, dropping other buildings on you, maybe even chomping the odd soldier who got too cocky. Being forced to split up your squad has been quite effective in the new XCOM, especially since you’ve got fewer of them than before, so facing off a big enemy would be a good time to do this. It’s hard to entirely avoid the ‘shoot the glowing weak spot’ trope for giant aliens, someone would need to take the crucial shot at the end of the day. Or you plant the obligatory tracker Macguffin thing which allows your bombers to lock on to it. While this is going on , the general feel of the mission is more ‘hold out against endless waves while you achieve the main objective painfully slowly’ than it is ‘just take your time and get to the end of the level and kill the guy’.
The science ending could be more on the infiltrate-y, stealth-y, explore-y scale of things, still with a final showdown. A player going towards this ending would likely have more maxed out psi skills, gene mods and weird technology rather than pure firepower. Perhaps it is only available to you if you have researched enough seemingly “pointless” artifacts and learned a lot more about the underlying alien culture. You can send a smaller than usual group of soldiers to stowaway on a particular type of craft to get to the alien HQ. You get a bit more sneaking around and psychically causing mischief on the alien base, then you still get to have a bit of a final showdown (albeit not with Godzilla) and guns blazing style last minute escape as you flee the base. This ending could in theory be open to any type of player, but they will really struggle without increased stealth to get aboard, and then struggle without increased knowledge about the base they are being taken too. Don’t want people to be entirely frustrated so a certain level has to be reached.
Engineering is a tricky one, given that for most of the game, it is basically the middle man between ‘look here’s a new type of gun’ and ‘pew pew pew look at my new gun’ and doesn’t have quite as much in the way of critical progression through the game. If you’ve focused on engineering you will likely have the best vehicles, the best base and fully kitted out soldiers. So I’d say with this ending, you go and assault the alien HQ (in Cydonia or Dimension X or wherever) but you do it head on, rather than by stealth. You need to stockpile bombs and build a well shielded mini fleet of interceptors and Skyrangers (sorry, Avengers by this stage!) to even think about getting close enough to drop your troops in. Perhaps you bring in loads of additional troops alongside your usual elite squad; not for direct control, but they affect other variables. If you don’t have enough of your own troops, you can recruit those remaining in the rest of the worlds military. The better you do in this precombat stage would affect how the final tactical section plays out. Whereas the military ending focuses on taking down one big critical dude, this ending is more of a slow, nasty grind – with the tables turned and you as the brutal, take-no-prisoners style invaders. Like the siege of Leningrad, the aliens backs are against the walls and (despite your possibly superior technology by this point by this point) they will throw everyone at you to try to survive. But probably not taking 3 years long if it can be avoided.
So with all three endings I think we can add variety but still tie up the need to have a win-condition that thematically and mechanically fits with the ‘kill the boss alien’ archetype. As we’ve mentioned before, the problem with realism (as seen with XCOM Apocalypse’s wining through superior air power) doesn’t make for a fun and climactic conclusion. You need a big boss, you need a final pitched battle.
Well, I hope that was an enjoyable read. Overall it is a testament to both original and new XCOM games that they’ve already covered so much of this between them, not to mention the sterling efforts of the mod community. In the course of writing this, I’ve come across many people more talented than I am who are actively at work making their own visions of what XCOM could be. XCOM is one of those games that is almost a genre unto itself. Often copied, but never quite beaten.
Anyway it certainly feels like I’ve exorcised something. (Nearly 12,000 words later, I should bloody hope so) Time to start thinking about other games. Let me know what you think!
(Picture: geddit, music, rubbish, endings… ? Hur hur)
More painful than an awful song in it’s own right? Not quite, but thoroughly disappointing to be rocking along to a great song, to spend several more minutes either: A: Waiting for it to finish because you’re a REAL FAN OF REAL ART or B: Trying to skip the hell out of it (which may not be possible for assorted reasons)
The only real criteria for me here are: it must start off as a good track, it can’t just be rubbish from the get go. (Definitions may vary). The heartbreak is so much greater when you’ve been enjoying it to start with. Oh, secret tracks don’t count.
For the all choices below, you can click on the links to jump to the relevant times (via Youtube)
The Widow – The Mars Volta
(I apologise in advance for the weird slideshow that goes with this, it’s the only upload I could find)
A really welcome change of pace given that by this point in their career they had begun the descent into ultra-prog. This is about the only “conventional” song on the album (Frances the mute) and certainly they only one weighing in at less that 10 minutes. (Although the track listing and the CD pressing give two different times, or should I say, interpretations… hooray for prog)
An overwrought, bombastic ballad showcasing the unashamadly dramatic: incorporating preposterously twiddly guitar solos and trademark vocal stylings. Then we get:
Nearly another 3 minutes of painful, swirly, screechy feedback, rumbling noises and general guff. My initial suspicions of this track were confirmed when I started searching around Youtube for a suitable clip: virtually all the versions uploaded stopped at about 3.15. Indeed, it was easier to find plinky-plonky, aggravatingly hip and I-can’t-help-but-feel-they-missed-the-point acoustic covers by young ladies (here, here and this one in a CAVE with a fucking UKELELE here). This came on my mp3 player at work once (playing to everyone) and I naturally spent those final 3 minutes trying to speed up time using only my brain.
Where do I begin – Chemical Brothers
Pleasant, late 90’s, ‘get mashed in a field and wave around happily in the sunshine’ kind of track. Perhaps you find the vocal loop/lyrical content a bit simplistic and irritating. Anyway, it’s a classic slow builder, doing exactly what it’s supposed to, you’ve get three minutes of anticipation before it kicks in. Maybe after four minutes or so you’re thinking, okay, where can this possibly go now? You realise that for all the simplicity of building and varying, you’ve basically been listening to the same thing over and over. Oh, well, it does what it says on the tin, all they have to do now is come up with a strong finish:
Suddenly we change to a beat that sounds like a petrol lawnmover being sped up, played forwards and backwards, while someone bangs around on a plastic bin? I can’t believe this is not deliberately meant to be irritating. Perhaps intentional for artistic purposes? Is it telling us something about the hedonistic cycle? I don’t know, but it does my nut in. Needless to say, the radio edit of the same track just fades out at about 3.30.
Sleep, eat food, have visions – Four Tet
Okay, some twitchy electronic burbling, a nice melody in the background… classic Four Tet, this is why you like them, remember? Another ‘builder’, as with the Chemical Brothers track previously, plods along, hides away a bit, comes back a bit, changes a bit… where are they going with this, I wonder? Given that there is 5 minutes left to fill…okay, it’s going to kick in…any minute now…
Any minute now…just wait for it….
What? Did I miss something? When did this turn into someone rattling around in a cupboard while someone else softly bangs a chime out of boredom? Oh great, now some kind of ultrasonic dog whistle noise has joined in? A conversation? Some generic white noise hiss? Bloody hell. What a cop out.
Honorary mention: Rapper’s delight – Sugarhill Gang
We all know when this track really ends, and it is at 4.55, not at 14.37 long after they’ve blatantly started running out of ideas.
You may argue it is a travesty to cut off such an iconic track, but here are some of the key points that will sadly be lost to the ages:
Hank, who it is alleged, has more rhymes than a serious bank, calls Superman a fairy and offers Lois Lane his ‘super sperm’
Wonder Mike, who it is alleged, is guaranteed to throw down, has a difficult run in with a friends mother who serves soggy macaroni, mushy peas and chicken that tastes like wood.
Master G, who it is alleged, rocks so viciously, informs the listener that age two ‘he was doing the do’, at age three ‘it was you and me, at age four ‘he was on the floor’, at age five ‘he didn’t take no jive’, at age six ‘he was picking up sticks, at age seven ‘he was rocking in heaven’, at age eight ‘he was really great’ and at age nine, ‘he was right on time’.
And feel sorry for the bass player, Chip Shearin, who got paid $70 dollars to play the bass line for 15 minutes.
I might have to do a ‘best endings’ one of these someday… hmmm…
“You mean a Masters?”
“But not an MA?”
“Yes. I mean, No, not an MA!”
What is an MRes?
Actually only about 30 and then 3 of my own TRUE MASTERPIECES. Lots of angry rambling. Enjoy!
“Are you sure this domain exists?”
Pffft, well, let’s get the coffee on and discuss this bad boy.
Of course I’m not bloody sure! I like technology but it could all be pipes and magic at times. “Let me see, I was trying to reach a domain in East Kroftonova, maybe I’ll ring up the embassy and ask if they are having any trouble with their internet pipes.”
Refresh. Refresh. Refresh…..Reboot. Refresh. Give up, go to bed. Problem solved.