XCOM

XCOM: Enemy Within

In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though. The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don’t know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating. But I shouldn’t have waited, because XCOMwith all of Enemy Within‘s additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago. As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like ‘Seekers’ – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates. The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head. The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM‘s cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard’s worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it’s more than enough to cement each character’s personality. The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers. Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM’s battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can’t be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They’re basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces. There’s a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens’ ‘Mechtoid’ unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2‘s classic Heavy/Medic romance. None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own. It probably wouldn’t be a revelation to anyone who hadn’t avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles. Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry. The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character’s class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies’ weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she’s up there. Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they’re still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they’re more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it’s going to sting. Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis. It’s a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men’s-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the ‘enemy within’ of the title. Unfortunately, EXALT don’t slot into the game’s mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.There’s no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM‘s base management game. When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it’s thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After. Enemy Within might have been gathering […]

What I’m Playing: XCOM

So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we’ve shuffled tiles with Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There. Throughout, I’ve been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?Or does none of that actually matter? Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven’t experienced since my mid-teens. Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn’t really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game. It’s probably my favourite of the past however-long-it’s-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It’s a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don’t do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Dayand Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus. If you pull at XCOM‘s edges, and tease it carefully apart, you’ll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game. The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible. It’s taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they’re not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness. Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another. Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks… Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it’s also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready. It’s here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there’s no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you’ll be accelerating your own demise. Every few days, there’s a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it’s game over. Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlichcall from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You’re going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn. Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that’s Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he’s been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff’s appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname ‘Rogue’. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety. Each mission is […]