By Alec Meer on May 16th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
“Why am I playing XCOM through for the sixth time?” is a question I’ve asked myself several times over the last week. There are so many other games I should and would like to play, yet I find myself once again knee-deep in something I by this point know every aspect of. One of the answers to that question is that the game just had a belated Android release, so I found my way to it in waiting rooms and bathroom breaks. Much as it’s a surprisingly natural fit for phone play, the combination of camera control issues, not being able to change the colours of my soldiers’ armour and no Enemy Within expansion drew me to firing up the PC version yet again instead.
Only this time, I switched things up, and have had a completely different experience. A rather more Gollopy experience, one might say.
I’ve been keeping a remote eye on the Long War mod for a while, but to be perfectly honest I’d written it off as joyless ultra-hardcore tweaks for a very particular type of strategy gonk. That it didn’t work with Enemy Within, requiring instead that XCOM was manually rolled back to an earlier patch, had only put me off more. While my eye was off the ball, a beta Enemy Within version was released (with several updates since), and hearing that it got even further into the game’s innards than before, I decided now was the time to investigate it despite my reservations.
I regret it entirely. I regret it because it is so good, which means I have been sucked into yet another full-length XCOM campaign, and the attendant consequences on both my work and personal lives.
I’d figured previously that The Long War was focused primarily on more random numbers and more unforgiving difficulty, but what it really does is both re-introduce a number of discarded-in-translation X-COM elements and expand upon XCOM’s own variety. It’s not at all accurate to say it’s X-COM remade within XCOM, but it does reinstate some of the Gollop game’s core values – more stats, more specialisms, the need for a B-team, more ways to both piss off and mollify funding nations, more brittle aircraft and the need for far more Interceptors, soldier fatigue, more enemies with earlier access to more devastating abilities, satellites focused on global coverage rather than global happiness, terror missions freed from the arbitrary choice of which nation to cheer up and which to annoy…
It’s an extremely different game – perhaps a little less in the missions themselves, although squad sizes up to eight, more variability in accuracy, damage, movement and morale, and tweaks like Sectoids having psychic powers from the off and Outsiders capable of health regeneration, definitely means a remix. But where the changes really focus is on soldier management.
Your squad evolve in less predictable ways, with sub-classes and wildly varying stats as well as a raft of new tech and more equipment slots. They also get pretty badly chewed up out there – not only the inevitable woundings (which result in far longer recovery times) and deaths, but also left fatigued by missions and thus hamstrung if they go back out immediately.
While smart players tended to have a b-team in vanilla XCOM anyway, here it’s absolutely mandatory. A C-team too, to be honest – you don’t want to be left with a handful of fragile, easily-spooked rookies because everyone else is either in hospital or sleeping it off. The downside of this is that I feel I don’t know my team as well – there’s a bit more squinting at stats and thinking “what did you do again?” when someone returns to duty. Perhaps a couple of cast-iron favourites will emerge over the full length of the campaign, as was the case with X-COM.
On top of that, everyone winds up being a little different, thanks to hybridising of the classes and more scope to equip people with a wider range of weapons than XCOM’s mostly class-locked arsenal. So giving someone a shotgun is less about their being the right class, and more about whether their stats and other equipped gear gives them enough movement bonus to reliably get up close to xenos, for instance. And then survive the experience, of course.
The name is apt, too. Not that XCOM was ever a short war, but I’ve put hours into this mod and am still making do with mostly entry-level gear and abilities, am still facing off against primarily Sectoids and Drones, have a dozen people in hospital and have lost five Interceptors. This latter is what’s most complicating things – keeping nations and their precious funding onboard the XCOM project is now more about shooting down any UFOs with approach them than it is throwing up satellites or the Terror Mission roulette wheel.
UFOs escape interception easily, and bigger, badder types arrive almost immediately, so I need multiple ships housed in each continent and plenty of spare cash to order new ones. It’s a dramatically different approach to resource management – a more stressful one, and one that places a new emphasis on the base rather than just the soldiers.
There’s much I haven’t seen yet, because if I spend any more working RPS days playing XCOM I suspect someone’s going to forcibly deactivate my Steam account, but funder-mollifying base missions, tweaks to alien types and a new endgame are apparently in there. I will get there, and it’s going to be a hell of a slog, the road littered with my squad’s corpses, to do so, but my goodness – this is a collection of profound and surprisingly careful changes. They make for a massively more involved and changeable game, even if it’s no longer quite so elegant a design. It’s like a free expansion pack, dragging XCOM in the opposite direction from Enemy Within’s gonzo superheroics.
Given how deep into XCOM’s innards the Long War has managed to worm, I think we can expect all sorts of big things yet. That early talk of XCOM modding support came to so little was very disappointing, but it seems the doors are open at last.
Long War is out now, for both Enemy Unknown vanilla and Enemy Within. It is still in beta, however, and there is a strong chance that savegames won’t work with future versions, so be wary of how much you commit to it at this stage. Whoops.