Home > Uncategorized > Learning from XCOM, 4: look how far we’ve come

Learning from XCOM, 4: look how far we’ve come

February 15, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

The XCOM games have a power/challenge curve: they get easier toward the end. This is partly just flattering the player (who has already sunk dozens of hours into the game and deserves a bit of a power trip) and partly the payoff for investing in all the balance-shifting tools you can develop throughout the game – like plasma rifles, armor that comes with a built-in rocket launcher, and mimic beacons, which attract aliens’ attacks and give you one more round to retaliate. In the first missions, when your guys are 0-level grunts, with an AK-47 under their arm and no armor, the game balance is right on Jeff Rients’s sweet spot: one hit can kill an enemy, one hit can kill your character. By the last missions, when you’re decked out with all the toys, it’s more like high-level Pokemon – you can afford to wade into combat with an unknown enemy and spend a round or two figuring out what they’re capable of.

The challenge mostly becomes can you finish this mission without any injuries? rather than can you bring even one soldier home?

And that’s OK – when you do face a potential TPK it’s that much more alarming, because you don’t expect it any more and because you know that this really is the best you can bring to this fight.

XCOM adds something diabolical on top, though: it lets you play the aliens, which shows you just how terrifying your own troops have become.

A mind-controlling Sectoid, poison-flinging Andromedon, and everything-destroying Sectopod.

Because when you play the aliens you suddenly realize that that monster you were so scared of never had better than a 65% chance to hit you. The Sectopod, which gets a whole 3 actions per round instead of 2, still needs a round to charge up its Wrath Cannon, so anyone with half a brain can get out of the way. And this is another vital lesson, I think, from XCOM – during the missions, it does a great job of selling the monsters as more than just a bag of stats. Each one gets an introduction, a moment to shine, and a bit of mystique. And a lot of them are tactically interesting – they present novel challenges that cast a shadow bigger than themselves. And they become scarier in combinations – by careful design or simply because they offer a variety of different challenges at the same time, and therefore disrupt the player’s defensive formations.

An alien Priest, simultaneously mind-controlling a venomous Chryssalid and mind-armoring a crappy basic Trooper, while the much higher-level Gatekeeper (basketball) patiently hovers off to the side, waiting for its turn.

so I’m going to finish (for now) with an appreciation of some of the more creative monsters and their special modes of havoc.

The basic troops are boring… until you meet an Officer (in red), who can mark your soldiers (just like your Grenadiers), making them easier to hit. And a Shieldbearer, who can throw up extra armor around half a dozen of its colleagues, and a Lancer, who can run faster than you and melee like your Swordsman. The combo is horrible – you’re scared of the Lancer, who’s in your face, but you need to go find the Shieldbearer, who’s protecting him from behind a building.

The Chryssalid is a game-changer. Its melee strikes are venomous: they keep doing damage until you treat them with a medikit… so if you forgot to bring one, you now have a very short time limit on the current mission. But the smarter/scarier thing is, if a PC or a bystander dies from its poison then they become a coccoon (or zombie), which spits out a new Chryssalid the next turn. And another the turn after that. So suddenly you have to defend all those randos wandering around the map, whom you had previously thought you were helping just by killing the aliens.

The Viper can pull your soldiers across the map with their long, shooty tongue, then bind them – preventing them from acting but not doing much initial damage, so that you have a round to shoot the viper and get your soldier back again. It’s a good job they’re otherwise quite weak – like the Sectoid’s mind control, their special attack is an ingenious way to change your priorities – you may be more worried overall about some giant death-dealing robot, but first you have to get your character back from this mook.

the Spectre pulls a similar trick, except its melee attack knocks your soldier unconscious and then clones them, making a new Shadow enemy. And then it goes and hides out of sight, so you have to hunt it down while this dangerous Shadow is in the middle of your formation. The fact that is has a boat-load of HP and therefore ties up most of your squad in killing it before the Shadow can attack is really just the icing on the cake.

Several aliens have a “you think you’ve killed me but actually you’ve just activated my second form” type power. The Codex is unique in duplicating itself every time you hit it, the remaining HP being shared between the original and duplicate. A pod of 4 Codices is a great way to dissuade the player from using a grenade, which will just make 8 Codices. Also they can teleport. Also they can shoot or throw a magic grenade at you that empties the ammo clips of everyone in the blast radius, and which goes off like a grenade the next round, forcing each affected soldier to use one action to move and one to reload. Which is annoying, when you face 8 Codices.

The Seeker turns invisible and waits for your soldiers to be engaged in some other fight. Then it decloaks right on top of one of your guys and binds them, just like a Viper. They’re not difficult to kill, but they are deeply inconvenient, and until you’ve dealt with them, they change your behaviour – because they could strike anyone and the struck soldier is helpless, suddenly you have to keep your troops in pairs and make sure they use overwatch, to shoot the Seeker before it can do any damage.

And finally the Sectopod. 3 moves (all of which can be attacks) per round, a very high-damage gun, the ability to destroy cover just by walking through it, and a revenge death-explosion, which dissuades the Swordsman from killing it.

XCOM1 and XCOM2 versions

I haven’t fought one in XCOM1 yet, but the way XCOM2 sells these as boss monsters is just a delight. You know they’re waiting, right from the start of any mission they inhabit, because they make a mechanical snorting, wheezing noise that you can hear during the aliens’ turn. When they walk, the interface elements around the corners of the screen glitch and flinch. They start out crouched down, so they’re dauntingly big but still… kind of like a minibus in your way. But then they can stand up tall and get notably closer to the player’s god’s eye view than anything else in the game. If you manage to hack one, you can use it to wreak devastation on the enemies – but it’s also more or less 50% likely to break out of your control every round, so you’re best advised to keep shooting at it anyway. It’s an exemplary wrestling heel – when I finally get around to running my Wellsian War of the Worlds resistance game, the Sectopod will inform my Tripods.

parts 1, 2, and 3.

  1. February 16, 2023 at 2:18 am

    Great series, very interesting. Really think you would benefit from playing 4e woth an eye to how to does (or doesn’t) achieve the same goals as XCOM.

    • February 16, 2023 at 3:31 pm

      I really must! So far I haven’t had a play group that wanted to play it, though, and I hear it’s complex, so I’ve been reading simpler things…

      • kelvingreen
        February 16, 2023 at 3:57 pm

        In fairness, D&D4 is mechanically quite simple, although with every class getting 20 or so abilities/powers (although only a handful at any one time) there can be a lot to process, or at least a lot of which to be aware.

  2. kelvingreen
    February 16, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    You said in Part 1 that you might come back to do an “edition war” comparison of the various UFOXCOMs, so maybe you’ll answer this there, but which is your preferred entry?

    • February 16, 2023 at 5:27 pm

      That’s a surprisingly difficult question. I’ve been playing through them backwards (having played original UFO like 30 years ago), so my legacy nostalgia also works backwards…

      I will say that I feel like I understand why they made the changes that they made, from 1 to 2. 2 is a more streamlined, better explained experience, and it delivers a specific level of player panic more reliably. But that’s the thing, right? Smoother isn’t necessarily better. I like the slight sense I get from 1 that, like a Terry Gilliam movie, it’s about to all fall apart at any moment. Both the gameplay and the story elements knit together to produce this “your sense of control is illusory” feeling. The XCOM agency has a rickety home-made go cart feel – Central says “we taught the aliens a lesson! I call this a victory!” and you can say “oh Bradford, you fool. We will pay for our hubris.”

      I have not yet talked about the strategic game layer, which I think is a big gnarly set of design problems that would work much better as a TTRPG

      • February 17, 2023 at 12:01 am

        …I think I’ve said what I was going to say in the “edition war” post, during post #2 in this series – xcom 2 is smoother and more carefully balanced but for the same reason less nerve-wracking than xcom 1, rather like late editions of D&D have this adherence to balance that has been so thoroughly derided in the OSR by fans of a “no guardrails” experience. Everyone has a different sweet spot for stress, therefore different feelings about how much smoothness is desirable.
        I can see the advantages of both rough and smooth approaches. In XCOM2 you generally get a whole turn of grace before any aliens show up, so that there’s no risk of being ambushed and de-concealed before you’ve even taken a move, which is not the case AT ALL in UFO… and I think most players appreciate that grace period. OTOH less balance means more allowance for crazy things to happen, which leads to more dramatic war stories: I have seen people rave about outwitting XCOM1 far more than 2.

        • kelvingreen
          February 19, 2023 at 2:23 pm

          All very interesting, thanks!

          I haven’t played since the original UFO on the Amiga, and I’d like to play the new ones one day.

  1. March 20, 2023 at 6:04 pm

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