Friday, October 19, 2012

Byte: XCOM - The Next Generation

I know you could be fooled from my activity rate on the internet in general lately, but I am not dead, just busy. After moving home in the summer, I was rather too busy to even think about games (and I was also without the internet for five weeks thanks to not having a phone line, so I wasn't exactly keeping up with the new release schedule), but in the last fortnight or so, I've been inundated with good new games to play.

One, of course, is Mists of Pandaria, which I've not put too much time into yet, but based on my time in the beta, and the dabbling I've done with it so far, is a pleasing addition to the World of Warcraft. I can see myself putting quite a few hours in with my Kung Fu Pandaren.

In the same vein, I was pleased to be able to download Torchlight 2 after I got my internet back. It's essentially Torchlight, but shinier, and with multiplayer. The player class and mechanical tweaks are very welcome (especially the ability to give your pet a shopping list for identify and recall scrolls whenever you pack them off to town). I've not had opportunity for multiplayer as yet, and probably won't for the foreseeable future, but it's exactly the kind of game I'll be able to dip in and out of when I'm too tired and brain dead to play something more cerebral. It's on a par with Diablo III, and I really loved that.

And that "something more cerebral" is Firaxis's reimagining of UFO: Enemy Unknown. In short, it's fucking terrific. It's absolutely identifiable as a UFO/XCOM game, but with a slinky new interface, revamped aliens and a whole host of 21st Century finishing touches and improvements. The move to proper 3D means that the maps have shrunk somewhat, though that's not necessarily a bad thing - you're not going to spend twenty turns hunting for an alien that's panicked and is hiding in a dark corner of the map. The squad sizes have been reduced to compensate (which I'm less keen on), starting at 4 and expandable to 6, and soldiers how have classes that get unlocked after their first promotion. Speaking of soldiers, Firaxis have avoided the seemingly trivial mistake that put me off the UFO: After* series of XCOM alikes, and indeed, improved on the original. I am, of course, talking about being able to rename soldiers (not just give them nicknames). The XCOM doesn't just let you rename your soldiers, though - you can customise their voices and appearances, too. So my soldier actually has a passing resemblance to me (complete with the Merv Hughes style moustache I'm going to grow again next month for Movember). This was always a key part of my immersion in the game for the original ("No! Not Paul! Nooooooooooooo!"), so to be able to properly customise the soldier avatars so they look like my friends and co-workers is a stroke of genius.

This isn't the only new feature: there's much more of a focus on attempting to tell a story and the presentation is much more cinematic, thanks to the improvements in technology since the original game was made. Your scientists and engineers have a face and interact with your aide de camp to move on the overall narrative. The XCOM council is now a more tangible presence in the game, who give you objectives and requests to be fulfilled and it's much easier to keep track of which countries are at risk of withdrawing from the project, thanks to the excellently named "Doom Tracker" in the Situation Room. Another change is that now you only have one main base for troops, engineers and scientists (though you do have other remote bases for interceptors). It does help streamline the game in terms of your strategic management, but I'm not far enough into the game to know whether this restricts you just having one squad to respond to incidents. I suspect it does, and I'm in two minds about it. In the original, the ability to have multiple squads to respond to UFO recoveries, terrorisms and base assaults was key to being successful. Restricting you to a single squad to respond to incidents just seems to be a way of artificially ramping up the panic level on the Doom Tracker. But it's a minor gripe, as the rest of the game has been executed brilliantly.

The turn-based combat has been tweaked, moving away from the RPG-like system of the original to one based on the rank of your soldiers (the higher the rank, the higher their health, aim rating, etc). Regardless of rank, you still only get to do up to two movement actions per turn or fire once per turn (depending upon your class and perks taken), but the changes make a lot of sense in terms of keeping the game flowing and balancing the risk and reward of deploying quickly or cautiously. It's a bit of a shame that they've done away with the auto-shot option (where you had three pot-shots at the target, for a slight aiming penalty), but at least there's a much greater transparency about the amount of weapon damage and how it relates to the health of your squad and the aliens. Speaking of which, the new Mutons and Chryssalids are terrifying, and the less said about the new Cyberdisks, the better. (Suffice to say, they're horrid.) It's definitely worth your while investing in the larger squad upgrades as soon as possible, as things can get pretty tough with only four squad members if you have ten aliens to kill in a large scout. Yes, the UFOs themselves have had a revamp, too, with a particularly evil, brand new type of alien found at the heart of the UFO.

One change that I'm not terribly fond of is the revamp of base economics. Money is very tight at the beginning of the game, and in the original, you could use your engineers to keep you afloat by being an arms dealer in laser pistols and rifles. In the new game, you're much more limited in what you can sell to the "gray market", so you've got to really watch where you're spending the pennies and balance your budget in terms of expanding your base, interceptor and satellite fleet and the weapons you're building for your squad. To make things even tougher, the research requirements actually consume the things you're researching, and the number of raw materials (such as alien alloys) to build new weapons are massively increased over the original. This is particularly punishing, because you can't manufacture alien alloys (at least at the point where I am in the game). Is it a game balancing mechanic, or just a way of making the game artificially harder? I'm not sure. Still, who said that defending Earth from an overwhelming force of technologically superior aliens should be easy?

It is terribly addictive - even if it does feel like you're having your hand held a little through the narrative of being set tasks and mission objectives by the XCOM council to direct you towards the ultimate showdown at Cydonia. The original was much more a voyage into the unknown - since you never knew what was important to research and what wasn't - here you have much more explicit guidance about what you need to do, and I think I'd prefer a bit more freedom. That said, however, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game, arguably the best turn-based strategy & tactics game since it predecessor.