All The Right Elements: XCOM – Enemy Unknown (2012)

xcom-eu-wallpaper

Shit happens, all the time. [Spoilers]

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn based strategy game inspired by the 1994 UFO: Enemy Unknown (also called XCOM: Enemy Unknown and X-COM: UFO Defense).

I hesitate to call XCOM (2012) a remake or reboot as it is clearly a different game, both tonally and mechanically, from its original inspiration.

Tonal Inconsistency

XCOM presents us with two conflicting portrayals of in-game events. One portrayal is reinforced by visuals, cinematics, and certain missions the other by the overall design of the game.

In the opening cinematic we see alien pods dropping onto a city, people running away from the impact zones. Multiple maps show urban areas devastated by alien weapons fire, tanks scorched by plasma and people cocooned in green spidery web, ready for harvesting by the aliens. Large alien ships are shown to appear over major cities and terrorizing the populace, killing indiscriminately. This is sometimes punctuated by news reports from cities that are being terrorized by the aliens.

This indicates a large-scale invasion, something that can not possibly be a “secret war” and the populace must know about this situation.

But the XCOM Project and the design of the management game seems to run counter to this philosophy.

It features only one underground base with one troop-carrier, the Skyranger, able to deliver a maximum of six soldiers to a hotspot. Curiously you have the ability to station your interceptors on every continent, but not building a new base of operations or hiring more teams to deal with the alien threat that would work autonomously, nor can you even build more Skyrangers even though your barracks do hold more than six soldiers.

The XCOM Project, according to the introduction, is a joint effort funded by many nations, yet their funding entirely depends on your satellite coverage of said country. This makes little sense considering the circumstances. Your cities are being destroyed and (presumably) your military is useless, limiting the scope of the XCOM Project by tying strings to its funding is counter productive. The idea that a country can “leave” the XCOM Project is similarly asinine, you don’t just “quit” from a war, especially not from a global one.

This is essentially World War III and the USA is twiddling its thumbs? I don’t really care how much more advanced the aliens are technologically, it is clearly shown that our weapons -do- hurt them and it seems that we have the numbers advantage, not to mention this is our home turf. Depending on the statistic, the rate of privately owned guns in the US is between 30-50% of the total populace, that means roughly 100 Million armed citizens. I’d wager a guess the aliens would have real trouble terrorizing the US. A shotgun hurts Sectoids and Thin Men just fine.

Yet the gameplay is leading us to believe that everyone gets slaughtered except for our six guys that are the heroes and emerge victorious from almost every encounter.

In the end of the game a large capital ship arrives in the middle of the Atlantic and nobody even considers to nuke that thing. There isn’t any risk, its literally in the middle of nowhere, its not Independence Day where the capital ships arrived over major cities and Nukes were a last resort weapon due to probable collateral damage to civilians.

But the design here is transparent, it aims at simplifying the management minigame and manufacturing no-win scenarios like simultaneous alien attacks which you can only deal with one at a time. I understand the intent behind the design, creating tension, making your choices “hard”, however this comes at the price of narrative dissonance and forceful mechanics.

The “limited resources” idea is a very good starting point for building tension, but not in the form XCOM uses it. The restrictions are entirely arbitrary by design, there is no option to have more teams, more Skyrangers, at the expense of for example having less high-tech guns.

Ultimately the choices presented are entirely artificial and contrary to what the game tells us about the setting. The XCOM Project is built like the Stargate Program in Cheyenne Mountain, a secret military unit fighting aliens in our midst, conspiracy style, yet the invasion seems to be global, forceful and open. This juxtaposition makes no sense.

screenshot-3

Traffic jam at the A4 leading to Frankfurt due to alien infestation. I guess nobody noticed.

The Best

A game that features one global “best” strategy/tactic isn’t a strategy/tactics game at all, it’s a puzzle, the game only requires you to figure out the right solution.

The core essence of XCOM (1994) was that the battlefield is random and that all your preparation can be worthless.

Shit happens so to speak.

It was impossible to devise a “best” strategy/tactic. However the game introduced variance by the use of RNG mechanics like hit-percentages that could miss even at 130% (???) chance to hit. The probabilites were calculated by parsing a long list of variables, like what kind of weapon the soldier was using, proficiency, position, obstructions in between him and the target, distance, his innate aim, elevation, type of shot (auto, reaction) or even stance (prone/standing, etc).

XCOM 2012 decided to carry over this mechanic but now tied it to only two deciding factors: distance and cover.

True, the game also takes into account proficiency, elevation and the other hubbub, but the bonus or malus is small compared to distance (effective weapons range) and cover. Full cover can give penalties of nearly 50% and effective weapon range can move somewhere around 20% (especially for sniper rifles).

This means that 70% (nearly 3/4ths) of combat calculations are dependent on these two factors. The unquestionably most important aspect of XCOM combat in 2012 is flanking.

This leads to the problem mentioned above: there is a way to consistently win by removing the deciding factor from the game. This way is called the Assault Class.

The Assault is a class entirely centered around flanking. Its abilities are specifically designed to circumvent the largest obstacle to combat: cover and distance.

Assault abilities:

  • Run & Gun – Allows to fire or enter Overwatch after dashing. This makes the assault able to circle around enemies and shoot them in the back using close-combat weapons like Shotguns, Dispersion Lasers or Alloy Cannons. Worthy of note is also that the highest innate weapon-criticals come from close combat weapons, resulting in one-shot kills for most targets except the most hardened enemies.
  • Tactical Sense +5 Defense per enemy in sight (Max +20). This makes the assault incredibly sturdy even at mid-game with only Carpace Armor.
  • Aggression Confers +10% critical chance per enemy in sight (Max +30%). Combined with the high critical chance of close-combat weapons this gives unprecedented damage output.
  • Lightning Reflexes Force the first reaction shot against this unit each turn to miss. This ability means the Assault can move freely even when suppressed.
  • Close and Personal Confers +30% critical chance against adjacent targets. The bonus declines with distance from the target.  Another critical multiplier available very early on. If all critical abilities are taken, the critical chance can under most circumstances reach 100%.
  • Flush Fire a shot that causes enemies to run out of cover. The shot is easy to hit with, but does reduced damage. This ability either forces the enemy to move out of cover or conveys damage if the enemy is cornered.
  • Rapid Fire Take two shots against a single target in quick succession. Each shot carries a -15 penalty to Aim. Statistically, taking two shots is better than taking one shot, even with lower probability, combined with high critical rates and an innate high hit chance due to distance and close combat weapons, this ability provides the chance to deliver guaranteed killshots.
  • Close Combat Specialist Confers a reaction shot against any enemy who closes to within 4 tiles. Does not require overwatch. Hugely advantageous ability that allows the assault to fire twice with overwatch and protects against close-combat enemies like Muton Berserkers or Chrysalids.
  • Bring ‘Em On Adds 1 damage on Critical hits for each enemy the squad can see (up to 5). Another damage increase for already high criticals.
  • Extra Conditioning Confers bonus health based on what type of armor is equipped. Heavier armor increases the bonus. This ability makes the Assault the sturdiest class in the game, perfectly suited to take direct damage without risk of being one-shot.
  • Resilience Confers immunity to critical hits. Another ability hugely important for damage reduction providing critical survivability.
  • Killer Instinct: Activating Run & Gun now also grants +50% Critical damage for the rest of the turn. Another damage ability increasing damage output significantly.

As you can see all the abilities are focused on delivering damage, mobility and protection. Most of them are exclusive and can not be taken at the same time, but it doesn’t matter as you can have multiple assault soldiers on the field with a complimentary set of skills.

The important part to note and understand is that the Assault can consistently close distance with the enemy with Run&Gun, making his shots 100% certain to hit. A certain hit is what is necessary to defeat the enemy so the tactic is quite self-explanatory: Activate R&G, run up to enemy, use Rapid Fire or normal shot with critical amplifiers, one-shot alien, win game.

A squad of 4 Assaults and 2 Supports can play this game almost indefinitely due to smoke grenades and medkits. If you upgrade your assaults to PSI Soldiers in end-game, they become entirely unstoppable, being able to deploy forcefields and Mind Warp targets with 100% certainty even at distance while still possessing high survivability and the best offensive mobility in the game.

The only credible threat to Assaults could be flying enemies like Cyberdisks as flying confers a malus to hit, but you have to consider that this applies to -all- classes and the probability to hit point-blank (adjacent square) is still higher than being further away. Yes, rushing flying enemies is more viable, especially with things like the Archangel Armor that confers flight to your own units, making them Jump Infantry from WH40k.

Once you have figured out that cover is the enemy, not the aliens, you can play XCOM consistently, circumventing the RNG entirely.

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Toughest unit, highest damage, high critical, high aim, unprecedented offensive mobility – the best class period.

Linearity

XCOM is largely linear in nature, if you look at the upgrades and research projects you can see that everything seems to be a straight upgrade and variety is largely non-existent.

Yes, there is a minimal variation in the armors conferring things like flight or PSI bonus, but the weapons are largely straight upgrades: Contemporary -> Laser -> Plasma -> (Alloy)

In fact, the lack of variation in the weapon tiers is astonishing. Neither a laser, plasma or contemporary rifle can be fired in any different way. You can not use burst, full-auto or semi-auto shots that would give different aiming penalties and damage. In fact, when it comes to accuracy, the only difference between a rifle and a sniper rifle seems to be effective range.

This does not result in an interesting set of tactics as the weapons used perform similarly (bad).

If we take a look at other tactics games with similar RNG mechanics and probabilities, like Fallout Tactics, we can see a difference in combat variety. The weapons make more sense, an assault rifle might deliver a full-auto burst with high damage but lower accuracy, in semi-auto mode it will deliver two shots with low damage but high(er) accuracy. This makes combat more interesting as the player has more control over the outcome and combat has more innate consistency while still adhering to chance failure (or success).

A sniper should deliver high accuracy and high damage shots over long distance for example, mechanically this means that you commit to a high risk -> high reward scenario where missing the shot is hugely important. But an assault or support weapon should be able to deliver sustained low damage with a low risk -> low reward scenario.

The important thing here is that you shouldn’t have low risk -> high reward or vice-versa high risk -> low reward scenarios which XCOM is full of, and what makes the game a lottery instead of a tactics game if you try to play it “properly” (with a varied squad containing heavies and snipers or drones).

Snipers for example have the lowest offensive mobility and range-variance, especially since they can’t fire after movement by default. Even if you do pick the ability that makes them able to fire after moving, there is an accuracy penalty associated with it that makes their shots more of a gamble. This ability is also exclusive from the ability to fire at everything in the Line Of Sight of your squad, so you are either left with a sitting duck that can never keep up with a fast moving squad trying to flank enemies, or you have an inefficient inaccurate sniper whose shots are largely at the mercy of the RNG.

The same can be said about Heavies and their heavy weapons that have abysmal effective range, which is almost as bad as close-combat weaponry of the assault but without the mobility, sporting the second worst offensive mobility in the game. Coupled with not being able to use missiles (their only useful cover-clearing ability) after moving, they mostly become sitting ducks as well and are relegated to using their Holo Targeting to increase hit-chance for the other classes (that don’t need it because they are up-close and personal).

Do not get me wrong, the game -can- be played in a variety of ways, but it is much harder to do so because the combat-system is so focused around flanking and cover that anything else becomes irrelevant. The choice is not a choice at all, it becomes a problem to be solved like a puzzle. The answer is: run up to guy until 100% hit chance, fire, win mission. Aliens come in packs of three so a six-man squad can wipe out the aliens consistently by having two 100% shots taken at them, in one turn.

This is all compounded by the linearity of missions and maps and the lack of interesting variety in the management game. There isn’t a question if you should or should not build EMP Cannons for your interceptors, they are the best weapon, you buy them, the end. There isn’t a question if upgrading from Laser to Plasma tier is beneficial, you lose nothing, upgrade, it’s the best choice. A truly nuanced and non-linear game would let Laser weaponry have lower damage but incredible accuracy, while Plasma would do high damage but be ineffective at longer ranges, even contemporary weaponry could find a place with high fire-rate but low damage or something or other.

Regular weapons can not be aimed freely to break cover, although they do when fired at a target, another artificial hurdle just for the sake of restricting options.

The lack of imagination in XCOM is astonishing.

IKjn1

You’re fucked.

Conclusion

XCOM sports good elements for a varied and deep tactics/strategy game. The cover-system isn’t a bad idea per-se it’s just too damn important, the management game with limited resources isn’t a bad idea either, it’s just artificial and uninteresting.

XCOM fails to make the elements work because it is more interested in streamlining its content rather than introducing depth and meaning to player decisions. The game leads you with its mechanics towards a goal, a solution, it is not interested in your unique input. There is no incentive to replay this game, to try out different tactics, or try new exciting strategies, the mechanics do not allow for it, the tactic that works against Sectoids is the same that works against Mutons.

If a sequel ever is made, I hope that the creators will have a long hard look at their game and improve on it, bringing back some of the variety and openness that lies at the core of the XCOM franchise.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a step forward but four steps back, it needs to embrace its complexity to fully shine as a meaningful tactics/strategy game.

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21 Responses to All The Right Elements: XCOM – Enemy Unknown (2012)

  1. anon says:

    -You can’t rely on all of your soldiers to be assaults.
    -R&G can fuck up your day if you don’t use it properly.(you discover more aliens, you get flanked yourself, ect.) The fact that shit can happen while R&G’ing makes it risk V reward in itself.

    That’s my gripe with this article.
    I’ll agree with you that the game is too linear(hoping that EW fixes that).
    Also what difficulty did you play it on?

    • tradamtm says:

      “Also what difficulty did you play it on?”

      I’ve beat the game multiple times:

      Normal
      Normal – Second Wave with Absolutely Critical, Results Driven, New Economy and Total Loss
      Classic – Ironman, Second Wave as above without Total Loss
      Impossible – Second Wave with Absolutely Critical and New Economy

      “-You can’t rely on all of your soldiers to be assaults.”

      Never said that, I said this:

      “A squad of 4 Assaults and 2 Supports can play this game almost indefinitely due to smoke grenades and medkits. ”

      This is my preferred combo for everything above Normal difficulty, yes the game is significantly harder in the beginning on Impossible, but once you get your assaults it levels out because the stat increases of the Aliens on Impossible difficulty become less relevant over time.

      “-R&G can fuck up your day if you don’t use it properly.(you discover more aliens, you get flanked yourself, ect.) The fact that shit can happen while R&G’ing makes it risk V reward in itself.”

      This is a thing I didn’t address, yes getting ambushed by more aliens is bad, but it is only a problem because Aliens “cheat” i.e. get a free turn at the beginning of combat.

      I had cloaked recons scout ahead and detect all aliens and their movements (which are btw squads of aliens teleporting around with no animation) if you initiate combat with one of your ranged units, like a sniper firing in squad LOS, you forfeit your squads turn for the aliens to relocate where they well please.
      Dont get me wrong, im not salty that the AI cheats with stats on higher difficulties for example, but i find if the core game is a geographical test, the rules should apply for everyone equally.

      The funny thing is, playing on Second Wave with guaranteed crits is actually HIGHLY beneficial on higher difficulties for assaults. Resilience negates crits on your assaults and Bring Em On adds 1 dmg per enemy in LOS on crit, so while aliens will never crit you while flanking, you will almost always do additional damage on flanks. This also means I can take Lightning Reflexes instead of Close and Personal (because flanks always crit anyways) which will make my assaults unstoppable to reaction shots in most situations.

      Its not that there is no RNG, its that the RNG is largely trivialized, the game becomes a navigation test instead of a logistics test.

      • the same anon says:

        Considering your *favored* builds I notice how they are all endgame.
        This is where humanity finally becomes more powerful than aliens. This also happened in xcom 1994 where you could give every soldier you had no-los-check psy powers, beat mars in one turn, ect.

        But prove me wrong, when did you assemble your team of 100% American assaults?

        as a side note what are your thoughts on Enemy Within?

        • tradamtm says:

          I can’t reliably tell you now when exactly I get my team of 4 assaults, its too long ago i played this. I would guess its around the time I get laser-weapons researched that I have at least 2, given that you get 4 slots without upgrading i run 2-2 until i unlock the slots by which time i should have 4 assaults or more in the roster.

          My favored composition isn’t really about being endgame, and I can’t really talk about favored builds as there isn’t much choice in building or equipping my dudes, since everything is so damn linear.

          I have no opinion on Enemy Within as I don’t own it. (yet)

      • the same anon says:

        by “rely on soldiers being assaults” I meant your rookies being promoted to assault. In my classic ironman play through I only got 4 soldiers ever got promoted to Assault. When there would be a terror mission I’d usually have an assault that was wounded or to under-promoted.

        My cold is getting on me sorry.

        • the same anon says:

          * or be too under-promoted

        • tradamtm says:

          Yeah i guess its a gamble there, but I never had less than 6 assaults by mid-game in any run I did. Even with only 4 assaults, as long as you play it “right” you should be largely fine and your soldiers shouldn’t die in the first place.

          I didn’t feel the amount of RNG i felt in the 1994 version, in fact i thought the reboot is too predictable once you solve the geographical puzzle of a mission.
          Yeah sure, bugs/bullshit still exists, like a shot going through 3 walls and insta-critting a support for no reason, but thats not really here or there considering the systems.

          • thta anon says:

            How do you “play it right” anyway? Your biggest gripe seems to be mostly how the assault class is broken. Its the only class that considers every combat to be a puzzle. But if you R&G you have to consider that you don’t know what your assault would discover. So I wouldn’t compare it to a geographical puzzle, but more of an uncanny chess game with invisible pieces. My point is (in the uncanny chess game) your assaults *can* die no what.

            It’s a bit of a surprising seeing someone complain that EU is too little RNG, especially when everyone complains about being too RNG. Is it just that you are too good at risk v reward?

            • that anon says:

              *No matter what.

            • tradamtm says:

              “But if you R&G you have to consider that you don’t know what your assault would discover.”

              Thats an issue no matter what, unless you spam battle scanners everywhere and even then, again aliens get a free turn on combat being initiated so you can never ambush them anyways. Knowing whats coming isn’t that beneficial because once you initiate combat, the situation can change at a moments notice since the Aliens are able to reposition to an advantageous position no matter what you do or your squad comp.

              With RnG i can at least place my soldiers on overwatch the second something unexpected pops-up or shoot the bastards right away. I mean i dont run them into the open but from cover to cover anyways.

              ” So I wouldn’t compare it to a geographical puzzle, but more of an uncanny chess game with invisible pieces.”

              Chess is a geographical test. (http://www.whatgamesare.com/2011/06/all-good-games-are-tests-but-not-vice-versa.html)
              A game like Starcraft is a logistics test more than it is a geographical test because position is relevant but only to minimal extent while composition and build-order constitutes the bigger chunk of the core gameplay. Navigating the battlefield is largely irrelevant in SC, you want to know what pieces the other player has to counter them with your pieces since the balance is simply RPS with a bit of damage-range flavor. Its more about baiting and predicting troop composition but not about flanking and overcoming hit percentages.

              In X-Com the composition of the squad, RNG with balancing around damage, range, crit, etc is just the tip of the iceberg, the main test is to create attack-lines and move your pieces around on a randomly generated board so you minimize the risk for your squad.

              Playing the game “right” is essentially never to take a shot unless its 100%, a lot of people gamble, but its not necessary to gable if you can get certainty. In 1994 a 120% shot could miss because of projectile physics and hitboxes, not because of the hit percentage, the simulation was far more complex and could be played differently. Thats why 1994 gave you a larger squad and more skyrangers to fiddle with, because the singular battle wasn’t as important but the overall performance during the whole game was. i.e. losing the battle didn’t make you lose the war, soldiers were expendable to a large extent, like in a real war. In 2012 the game moved away from that and puts more emphasis on the singular combat situation instead of managing logistics. Its why I call it babbys first X-com, its a simple game with simple rules and there isn’t any big emergent complexity in it that would require you to understand probability and logistics.

              Yeah, a lot of people I know play Xcom 2012 very incompetently by taking shots at 70% for example, because 70% sounds kind of good right? 70% is shit, its a ~1 in 3 chance that you will miss, thats horribly uncertain. I mean thats not even high grade maths here.
              Not to mention that people take 10 shots at 90% and expect essentially a guaranteed hit because, well its 90% right? But probability isn’t cumulative and you can conceivably miss 10 times at 90% certainty because you roll every time for the hit anew and you have a 10% chance to miss, which is also VERY HIGH.
              With the low damage granularity (3-15 damage) missing a shot can be absolutely HUGE and going for any shot that isn’t 100% is a gamble that should make everyones red alert go bonkers.
              I mean its not like certain hits aren’t possible, when Xcom 2012 says 100%, its 100%, it actually guarantees a hit and it also guarantees damage because damage is non-random and there is no DR or armor (armor adds to the HP pool), the probability can be circumvented. I can’t understand why people play this game with hit-gambles and then cry bullshit when they miss, they have all the tools to guarantee success. Even if they didn’t figure out to play assaults because its beneficial, they sit behind their partial cover taking potshots at 80% at the aliens wondering why it didn’t work 1 out of 5 times.

              • anon says:

                that was enlightening

                In EU its seems like geography is going against logistics.
                But imo the 1994 went was logistics other geography.(I have more fun with suppression than I have with burst mode)

                Also thanks for linking me that.

                • anon says:

                  One last point before I un-bookmark this article.

                  EU *does* make the focus of the game flanking, but the question is whether you need to (ie. 2 supports and 4 assaults VS than an all shiv squad). I don’t think the problem is lack of complexity, I think it’s more of a problem of balance. I’d be glad to do a rise of the machines run even it made the game harder than if I played it normally, which it does.

                  • tradamtm says:

                    “I don’t think the problem is lack of complexity, I think it’s more of a problem of balance.”

                    If balance is lopsided then it reduces complexity. Imagine something like SSF4 where the core of the game would suddenly be projectiles due to balancing, this would reduce options for characters without projectile attacks and therefore reduce gameplay complexity.
                    The “if you don’t like it, don’t use it” argument isn’t very good because it exposes a design flaw. Similarly, for example, Dishonored CAN be played without using Blink, but it will make the game hard as the game was designed around the Blink ability. Its like giving yourself a handicap, its not a very good argument since I can always give myself handicaps for any game. I could play Metal Gear Solid 2 without ever using items for example, or limit myself to only the Machine Gun in Quake.

                    • anon says:

                      To me its about the amount freedom you have, not how effective you are. Its same reason I loved I loved deus ex. Yeah sure the dragon tooth sword is op, that won’t stop me from doing a non-lethal playthrough, or a playthrough with only a candybar in my inventory. And remember, xcom 1994 had an optimal route, and no buildings were left standing.

                    • tradamtm says:

                      The difference is between the freedom to do something and the freedom to not do something. Those are not two equal concepts.

                      The amount of freedom you have, the amount positive options, is what makes a game complex and interesting.

                      The amount of freedom to not do something is always infinite. Like I said, I can handicap myself to never jumping in SSF4, which means i can never cross-up, avoid grabs, etc.that doesn’t actually expand my options, it removes them. Or then i can limit myself to never use supers or specials.

                      1994 isn’t under scrutiny here. I expect for things to get better over time, that is literally my expectation for products and franchises. I expect things to improve and build on their previous successes and eliminate failings.
                      I wouldn’t buy a new phone if it did less than the previous generation for the same price, so why should I be content with a game that does the same?

                    • daydelose the ai says:

                      Except we were talking about one problem, not an infinite amount of problems.
                      By freedom I mean freedom to choose not to be affected by this singular problem.
                      Its a single flaw that’s that not exactly over the line I drew, again that’s why the dragon’s tooth sword never bothered me.

                      Even then it’s questionable if its overpowered, Its possible that’s its a set of geographical tests that you mastered, but what about the other classes? Have you passed their tests?
                      To summarize: Its a game with multiple ways to beat it, and you found one and kept solving it that way, The overall reduced depth only made it take it 3 steps back and one forward, 2 at least.

                      Ill prove myself wrong, I want to see the other classes being horrible(that will require another restricted play-through by me), then I’ll be off (And this conversation is taking too much space).

                    • anon says:

                      Except there is only one problem.
                      One problem is somewhat ignorable if depending on where you draw you the line, this brings me back to the dragon’s tooth sword.

                      even then its questionable if the assault class is OP, It’s quite possible that you passed all the geographical tests the assault requires, but that asks if you have passed the other classes’ tests.
                      After all its a game with multiple solutions.

                      But I’ll prove myself wrong and test whether or not the classes are that bad(And that will require yet another restricted play-through of the game, also this conversation is taking up too much space and it needs to end somewhere).

  2. Pingback: Predictably Unpredictable – Probability and Chance in Games | liveware.problem

  3. anon says:

    For some reason I have a duplicate post. please remove one.

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