All The Right Elements: XCOM – Enemy Unknown (2012)
April 2, 2013 21 Comments
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.
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.
Traffic jam at the A4 leading to Frankfurt due to alien infestation. I guess nobody noticed.
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.
- 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.
Toughest unit, highest damage, high critical, high aim, unprecedented offensive mobility – the best class period.
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.
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.