New Year Old Ways
What a year 2016 has been. It’s really hard to condense that time period down to just a few sentences. But perhaps upheaval is the closest word we can get. Well, it’s 2017 now and it’s time to start off the year – and the blog – on a fresh page.
Or is it? I mean, we’re already posting late but this was also a holiday season that had left all three of us profoundly busy. So we have a bit of a “two steps forward, one step back” situation. As such, today’s post isn’t truly going to be about a fresh start or any of that. Instead, we’ll do what most people are doing at the beginning of a new calendar year.
And that’s looking back at what we’ve covered.
Before the holiday break, I’d posted my Game of the Year. If you hadn’t seen it already… well… spoilers but I gave it to Stardew Valley. It was and continues to be my game of the year even if I spent most of my time sounding off a little harshly over its shortcomings. However, it was also the game that truly opened up my sister to the wonders of the medium and that alone I think is noteworthy.
But there were other notable releases and I want to spend the next couple of weeks discussing them. Partly because I have nothing of other substance to post. But largely 2016 had more than a few releases worthy of discussion and I’d rather they didn’t fade from the spotlight as we sweep out the dust of our recent past.
So let’s talk about Xcom 2.
Xcom 2 is a sequel to Firaxis’ Xcom: Enemy Unknown released in 2012. It’s not to be confused with X-Com: UFO Defence developed by Mythos Games and MicroProse and released in 1994. You see, one has a dash in it and that makes it all the better.
I’ve never actually played the original X-Com series. I heard it was well loved. I understood that it was a cult classic. And I recall the vitriol generated when the rights were bought by 2k Games and the company announced they were rebooting the franchise as a first person shooter.
Well, thank all the earth’s deities that there was righteous Internet indignation since this brought to 2K Games’ attention that people actually like turned based strategy titles. For, they did release their rebooted Xcom shooter game to many a middling review and poor sales. But as an attempt to appease the riotous online community, they threw a few of their Civilization developers on making a cute little throwback to these crying adults’ childhood and released the critically and commercial acclaimed Enemy Unknown. Then, suddenly euphoric over praise and success, Firaxis and 2k Games followed up with the even more engrossing Enemy Within expansion pack in a world that was obsessed with nickle and dime DLC releases.
And though there continued to be diehard naysayers still clutching to their sprite 2D graphic pearls and bemoaning the decay of proper civilization, most people truly enjoyed this re-envisioning and revitalization of the series. I was amongst these new fans and put in far more hours than I dare admit. Even more impressive, a bunch of hobbyists got together and cobbled a masterstroke in amateur modding to release the Long War overhaul that added an even greater strategic and complexity layer to the game that people are still playing it even now.
Xcom: Enemy Unknown was essentially everything that’s great and wonderful about PC gaming coming together in a pitch perfect melody. The only sour note to the whole experience was a fairly clunky and unresponsive UI hampered by the fact the game was initially designed for a cross-platform release. And while this shouldn’t mean that design decisions are scaled more to console performance and navigation – it always means that the PC version is hampered by the weaker platform’s limitations. For one of the greatest victims in Firaxis’ revitalization and cross-platform development was procedural generated levels.
You see, Xcom is a game all about chance.
It’s part of the beauty and the frustration of the game. Anytime one of your soldiers takes aim at an enemy xeno-soldier, the game informs you of the percentage chance of your shot connecting. It’s easy to read into the numbers as a short hand for “hit” or “miss” but the game does a very good job of brutally reminding players how chance actually works. You will miss three 95% shots in a row. The enemy will achieve critical strikes on 30% shots. Your best laid plans will fail. Your soldiers will die. You learn that the strategy is all about minimizing loss and maximizing the chances in your favour. Then, above all, you learn how to deal with the inevitable setbacks.
To drive home this large element of the “unknown,” much of the game revolved around randomized elements. Your mission location and objective were random. The enemies and where they would spawn are random. Even the location of Meld canisters – essentially timed treasure chests – were random. The only thing that wasn’t was the map itself. So after one playthrough of the game, I personally found Xcom to get a little bit repetitive. You start to learn where aliens are likely to spawn. You know, despite the random starting position, the location you should move your squad and the important ground to capture in the early part of the mission. While this sort of repetition leads to mastery, it also detracted from that razor edge the game balanced upon in all of its other aspects.
Thus, when Xcom 2 was announced as a PC only release, I was ecstatic. When they stated that it was going to have procedural generated levels, I knew I was going to buy it on its first day of release. That the developers made the game even more fine-tuned and interesting beyond having newly created maps for each mission is just an incredible bonus.
Really, I couldn’t possibly gush about Xcom 2 more. It just hit every possible right note. Firaxis honed in on what made the first so entertaining and gripping and they simply pumped more of that out. There’s a staggering amount of customization available for your soldiers. Being able to fine tune their appearance really does improve the connection you have for the fumbling digital representation of your friends, family and favourite celebrities. Their failures are made even more pronounced when it’s your best friend that ends up vaporized by a towering Sectopod’s ion cannon. The survival of your aunt through every difficult mission truly earns her a special place in your heart. And, the ability to save your creations into a character pool so you don’t have to recreate your entire entourage with every disastrous mission that ends your campaign is a life saver.
Then, of course, there is the rebalancing of classes from the original game. While Firaxis has been tweaking the numbers since release, the number of customization options for levelling your soldiers was significantly improved. In Enemy Unknown, if I had a soldier of a specific class, I almost always took the same perks each time they levelled. But in Xcom 2, I found I’d often specialize me troops depending on different builds. I wanted both a medic specialist and a hacker specialist, often substituting them out in missions based on whether I expected to run into terminals or enemies that required hacking or not.
And, of course, there were the gameplay tweaks themselves that really changed the tone of the game. Meld was dropped for timed enemy loot. New missions were introduced to put your soldiers under the timer to force you into even harder choices and compromising positions instead of rely on the slow “crawl and overwatch” strategy that dominated the first. The new stealth mechanic was also interesting in that it gave some measure of control back to the player, allowing them to negotiate where and when the initial conflicts would occur.
Finally, as the candied cherry on top, Firaxis actually implemented a very accommodating mod system. While I mentioned the expansive Long War mod earlier for Xcom: Enemy Unknown, the truly impressive feature of that collaboration was in the designers creating such a large overhaul of the game without any real access to its tools. I don’t know how they worked their digital magic but I can only assume it was time consuming. Xcom 2 wholeheartedly embraced its enthusiastic audience and opened up the design tools so almost anyone could create and publish their own modifications all supported by Steam Workshop.
And I’m so glad they did. Not only did I eagerly snatch up the Long War Studio’s releases (and am really curious to see how they manage to apply their experience with the original mod in their new game) but there was a long list of tweaks, additions and changes that I gleefully installed for multiple playthroughs. New enemy soldiers, new tile blocks and maps and even new mission types are yours for the experiencing. Not to mention additional weapons and customization options if you wanted to really get a diverse group of soldiers battling together to save the world for tyranny. There’s so much up on offer that the only downside is I have no clue what Firaxis will pull out for an expansion – if they even feel the need to release one.
Even the writing is pretty good. Which is surprising because a) it’s a video game and b) there’s such a large reliance on procedural content. Firaxis, however, manages to use Xcom 2’s narrative to both justify gameplay elements as well as communicate theme. They really wanted a sort of guerrilla war feel where humanity was against the ropes and fighting back against an oppressive regime using any means necessary. Granted, it slides into cliched sci-fi tropes but they are able to make decent use of the writing to frame the greater elements of the game into a decent enough support to see the player to the final mission. I’m not certain why, and maybe this was due to playing the Xcom Boardgame prior to Xcom 2’s release, but I felt the game elements were just barely submerged beneath the surface this time. I remember hearing in interviews that Firaxis designs their game elements in a prototype boardgame before pushing them into the digital work and I could see where a lot of that was generated. The progression through the technology tree and balancing the avatar progress doomclock were quite reminiscent of other games I have played. If I had one major criticism of the writing (and I almost always have more than one) it’s that I felt the company really missed on extracting even more thematic elements from their gameplay to really drive home the tone. I’d have liked to see just how far Xcom would go to see the alien threat expelled as well as a greater balancing of the alien’s influence on earth. I mean, the technological and social development of the world would be (and was) massively thrown out of alignment due to an alien invasion but little was actually spent addressing these ramifications other than loosely lampshading the prior game’s narrative (which was humorously but effectively explained as a simulation) and given generic motivation for the player to kill the enemy.
However, drawing some moral element to the struggle would have made it a lot better. The aliens did introduce a number of positive changes to society. Advanced medical procedures and world peace are hardly things to be blindly dismissed and I thought Dr. Tygan could have presented a more nuanced perspective given his background as a renounced Advent scientist.
Course, with the soldier customization, I can write all the little background snippets I want to add a morally grey element to the Xcom resistance.
Really, in any other year, Xcom 2 would have been my Game of the Year. It’s such a strong game and really a perfect example of a sequel done right. Not only is it a refinement – gameplay wise – of its predecessor but it also explores its world, mechanics and narrative in a wholly unexpected and interesting direction. It was a bold move by Firaxis to set the sequel as a follow-up to a failed defence of the first game and helps to establish it as separate from the original series too.
All in all, Xcom 2 is a great hit and one I expect to be playing years from now even as other titles released in 2016 fade from play and memory.