We’ve been getting stuck into a preview version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown this week, and that turn-based tactical taste is fresh in our minds. Jim and Adam sat down to have a bit of a chat about it, following on from Mr Smith’s excited hands-on preview. What on earth would they make of it all?
Jim: I think I had no real expectations from XCOM, because I felt sure – unfairly – that the time of me being gripped by turn-based tactics was gone. The last time I can really remember it was with Laser Squad Nemesis, which was by the Gollops themselves. But this has really knocked me over. I can’t stop playing it.
Adam: I’d already played a little before this preview code came along, but had really only seen the tutorial. I was worried the whole game might be quite directed, no real freedom of choice. And the way that the cutscenes and dialogue build up a narrative does suggest that, but it’s not the case at all. As my words yesterday probably gave away, I’m in the same state as you. I really can’t stop playing. I’m one of those people who installs X-COM on a computer before just about anything else, so I instinctively want to tell everyone who liked the original – ‘hey, be happy, it’s OK, this is a very good thing.’ Of course, it won’t please everyone but I really can’t think of a better turn-based tactical game of recent times. And the strategic side is no slouch either.
Jim: People will definitely react to things like the little animations in combat. I enjoy them, but I can definitely see the “what’s this cutscene stuff!” response being widespread, which is a shame because it will unfairly pollinate negative opinions. I think what surprised me most, though, was the weightiness of the tactical combat. It’s really been well made. It’s really tense.
Adam: It demands intelligence and made me realise how rare that is.
Jim: I was thinking about this as I played it: I think i value tense videogames more than others. It must be something to do with the level of risk you take in them, how much you can lose. I’ve been playing on classic difficulty and it’s excruciating. I haven’t cleared a level without a casualty, and lost the entire squad more than once.
Adam: Absolutely. It’s the reason I think survival sims, where every item can be the difference between life and death, appeal so much to me. I’m on classic too – I’ve actually just had a run of three missions without losing a soldier. It’s made me more tense. They’re getting good at this. I’m getting more attached to them.
Jim: Usually I find that in PvP, but here it didn’t seem to matter that I was playing vs AI.
Adam: The AI is impressive. It reacts to every movement, possibly a symptom of the limited number of options that are usually available on any given turn for any particular unit, but it works.
It certainly gives the impression that it is countering, reacting and, frighteningly often, out-thinking.
Jim: I am finding classic too hard, to be honest, but “normal” is far too easy, which is frustrating.
Adam: I thought the same at first – there seems too much of a gap, but I’m much better at the game than I was four days ago. Classic isn’t just punishing, there are ways to succeed…at least most of the time. Longish story here – I had a mission recently where I hadn’t seen any aliens for about ten turns, which was making me clench my brain in a sort of nervous anxiety. Then I heard noises inside a grocery store. I sent a sniper up a drainpipe and onto the roof opposite, an assault guy with a grenade to the back door and two support troops went through the front door. There were six sectoids inside and they were all dead before they could take a shot. Three down when we entered, then they ran for cover and we finished them off. That is a hell of a good feeling. I love my sniper. And I am done talking about how good I am.
Jim: I am not very good.
Adam: Tell a story about not being very good. They are always good stories.
Jim: I don’t think any of them are very interesting, they all involve me doing completely idiotic things like sending my sniper to take cover behind an burning (and about to explode) car. I’ve done a lot of that sort of thing. I should mention, actually, how much I have enjoyed the general destructibility of everything. Knocking a wall down to make your way inside a structure has a certain robust satisfaction to it.
Adam: The sound design is strong in that aspect as well – when a building is burning it will creak and make shuddering sounds. Have you met mutons?
Jim: Yes, I just encountered them.
Adam: They quite regularly level entire buildings just to get at one half dead XCOM member who is limping back to the Skyranger.
Jim: They certainly killed me up. You know, combat aside, actually, the thing that made me coo most sincerely was the base screen. I am a sucker for cut-aways and cross sections of things, ever since I was a small child, so that base screen… Well, it did psychic things to me, ensuring my adoration for all time.
Adam: I used to draw shit like that in my maths books at school, anything with graph paper in that I could get a sense of scale with.
Jim: I got my love of architect from a children’s book in which a mouse created modernist homes for other animals, all illustrated in a cross-section cut-away style.
Adam: This sounds like the greatest book.
Jim: It’s a lost classic. But yeah: in XCOM that base screen is just a marvel.
Adam: I can’t wait to fill it up.
Jim: I spent a bit of time just zooming between areas of the base, and I LOVE how it tantalises you with the areas that remain unbuilt in. You can see them, but nothing is yet filled with whirring technology.
Adam For me, well, it was my first UFO crash site was the thing that gave me the shivers. The darkness and just this thing burning in the woods, all the trees around it aflame. Scars on the ground. It looks like nothing should be walking away from that.
Jim: Yeah, they’ve managed to get the atmosphere just right. It’s oddly cartoony, faithful to the original AND deeply sinister all at the same time. I do snigger at “floater” though, I’m afraid.
Adam: It is only natural to snigger at ‘floater’. I think there are ‘heavy floaters’ later on, which innuendoes verging on paradox. There’s a whole debate cutting through the narrative about the purpose of technology, the limits of it, augmentation, all this awesome sci-fi stuff. I want to see how far that goes.
Jim: Yes, i found myself speculating about reasons they could be on Earth, doing what they are doing. Which is almost absurd – it’s just pulp sci-fi, but that’s the sort of thing that captures your imagination nonetheless… Do you think they needed to include the interceptor bit? I always found that a bit superfluous in the past, and it still feels a bit of a side-show? (I realise I could be shot down by swooping squads of XCOM fans, here.)
Adam: I like that it’s there. I’m not convinced by the little boosts that can be manufactured – helping aim, dodge, stuff like that. They seem a bit unnecessary. But I like shooting UFOs down and even though those scenes are short, having to pull an Interceptor out feels like quite a weighty decision. Did you know UFOs can shoot down your satellites?
Jim: I didn’t! But that sounds horrendous. I worked so hard on the satellite network.
Adam: It makes me wonder how much else it’s going to surprise me with. I’d launched satellites all across Europe and a large UFO was drifting about. I intercepted, got my fuselage kicked and retreated. The UFO just made a beeline for one of my satellites and BOOM, static, coverage gone. Scary.
Jim: Yikes. Does the research woman occasionally have an English accent? I couldn’t be quite sure.
Adam: I think of her as having done a couple of years of postgrad in England.
Jim: Heh. That would explain it. Anyway, I think there’s a wider thing going on with XCOM, which is big studio faith in turn-based combat. That should, and has to, sell a bucketload. A 2K boss was saying how turn-based combat was over, just a couple of years ago, and this has to prove him completely wrong.
Adam: I can’t see it not being huge, on PC at least. I have no idea if it’s even on people’s radar in console land. I worried that it might be a moderate success that didn’t deserve to be taking the position it was, not just as XCOM but as the big turn-based game of OUR TIME
Jim: Communications from consoleland have become increasingly vague over the past couple of years.
Adam: Almost as if… the satellites were down.
Jim: I think I will chase people with a rotary lawn mower if sales are poor. Perhaps even my hedge-trimmer. Because it really would be unacceptable.
Adam: The worst kind of horrible. I don’t think it will happen. I have faith in the people.
Jim: That said, I hope people can look past the Unreal-powered wonder of XCOM and look at Xenonauts, too. Goldhawk are a tiny operation and have made a superb xcom-like. Although after the spectacular Kickstarter I suspect that project is just fine.
Adam: Indeed. Anyone who finds the chunky marines of XCOM distracting and clamours for squads of sixteen lithe isometric gentlethings will surely find what they want in Xenonauts. But this is how bad my XCOM craving is: I don’t just want the full game, I want confirmation that there is a sequel in development. That’s why we might need the hedge-trimmer, to scare up some real demand.
Jim: Yes! I was having the same thought. I want this to be the start of a trend, a thing, a new turn-based horizon. The real question, though, is whether XCOM will reach beyond old men like us, who have already been hard-wired by turn-based combat games, and actually forge that new and larger audience. God, I hope so, because I can’t imagine that anyone (apart from John) wouldn’t enjoy this on quite a fundamental level
Adam: I think I could happily sit somebody who has never played a turn-based game in their life down in front of it and within a few minutes they’d be engaged.
Jim: Yeah, I believe that, too.
Adam: Partly because I’d be standing over them and grinning like a lunatic, so they’d be forced to at least feign interest, but it is an appealing game.
Jim: But it’s funny that just the idea of that form will dissuade people from trying it. I pray for a demo, so that the masses can be dragged in. They need to see this.
Adam: I already know people will take this next point as me saying that the loss of time units is an intentional move to make the game appeal to a wider audience rather than tactical types, but it is a fundamental shift that makes giving commands more sensible and understandable.
Jim: Yes, I think that was a necessary thing. It’s perhaps more like a boardgame because of it. Does that make sense?
Adam: Oh yeah, definitely. It makes a huge difference, gives tighter control and really forces the player to think of the soldiers as a squad, all their movements and actions more interlinked
Jim: Yes, making the work as a squad – a fireteam – is so critical. All the missions where I’ve fucked up have been ones where I sent some dude to his death because he wasn’t part of the group strategy.
Adam: I think that’s central to why ‘classic’ doesn’t remain ‘too hard’. The main learning process involves reacting to deaths and filling the gaps left by a lost soldier and his/her skills.
Jim: Agreed, but the loss of an experienced soldier… oof. What a loss.
Adam: It’s awful. Partly because you’re thinking about the poor schmuck who’s stepping into the Skyranger next time out as much as mourning the one who is dead. They have real value. I love the nicknames too. I think I mentioned that in the preview.
Jim: One of the ones I had was called Dara O’Brien. Although I think it was a lady.
Adam: The UK gave me a highly trained heavy weapons soldier as a reward for helping them out. I called him Rob Florence. Chrysalids ate him.
Jim: And in the game. And on that note: back to the game, I think.
Adam: It seems the sensible thing to do with a Friday.
Jim: (And that’s the sound of half the internet tutting in disgust.)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out October 9th in North American and October 12th in rest of creation.