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Fear Of The Unknown: What We Want From XCOM 2

A game to be feared

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Here at RPS, we like XCOM: Enemy Unknown so much that we named it the 12th best strategy game of all time. When Firaxis announced the sequel, the entire RPS team smiled, simultaneously for the first time since 1992. That doesn’t mean we’ll be happy with more of the same though and when we asked strategy expert Rob Zacny to contemplate the best possible XCOM 2, he made some bold suggestions. Bring back the fear, he says, and if your game is about insurgency, learn from the best.

A few months ago, before he got his copy of the XCOM boardgame, my friend and I were bullshitting via IM about what it would be like.

“You’re gonna have a great time,” I said. “Just picture it: you and all your friends, sitting around the table. Putting every single character into Overwatch for the whole game.”

“Moving like five steps to the next piece of cover,” he said.

“Just parking there.”

“Until you finally lose your mind and say, screw it! I’m moving out. Then you get insta-capped by a Thin Man. Game over. Earth is doomed.”

When I think about what I want from XCOM 2, I have to admit that Firaxis have already addressed my top-of-the-list concerns. Procedural map generation means that the battle for humankind will no longer hinge on the exact same gas station, warehouse, and train station again and again. Improved and expanded mod support, along with an interface that doesn’t keep trying to reinterpret my mouse commands through the lens of a gamepad.

But then there is the fact that one of my most enduring impressions of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of routine. Methodical, step-by-step crawls across the map, dropping into Overwatch at every new cover position. Getting a glimpse of aliens milling around in quiet reflection, like guests at a friend’s farewell party, and knowing just how to prod them into activity so that they’d get massacred by my Overwatch-positioned troops. Using my fast-moving assault troops to move into point-blank flanking positions to clear out alien positions. Everything by the book, from the first encounter to the alien mothership.

That’s also a function of an alien menace that didn’t always feel menacing so much as pest-like. When the alien invasion’s first waves are massacred by a bunch of rookies wearing Kevlar and sporting shotguns, you know you’re not exactly re-enacting the marine-massacres of Aliens. XCOM’s invaders never really felt like they caught you unprepared, even when they rolled out heavy mechs and Mutons for the first time.

Compare that to those missions in the original X-COM when the first soldiers down the ramp died before they could take five steps away from the Skyranger. The shots coming in from God-knows-where as your under-equipped, under-trained, and under-funded soldiers waded into the darkness shrouding a low-res rural farm. You couldn’t do things by the book because the book hadn’t been written. You didn’t have the tools you needed to get the job done, except maybe warm bodies. So you spent those.

What I want from XCOM 2, above all else, is a sense of menace. And that means making a game that won’t be quite so gentle if I stick to the standard-operating procedure. I want more missions like that doomed fishing village in Enemy Within, where I go from thinking, “It’s quiet. A little too quiet,” to finding myself in a desperate fight as the map gets overrun with aliens and my supply of ordnance begins to run low. In XCOM, those moments mostly arrived via the game’s scripted levels. I want them to come via the ebb-and-flow of random encounters, so that I don’t know what I’m in for the moment the level finishes loading.

That might also require a rethink of some of the compromises that Firaxis made with the first XCOM: Enemy Unknown design. And here’s where I get ambivalent about some of my own suggestions. Enemy Unknown was very good at staying in a “sweet spot”. It was never too-slow paced or too sprawling. It was never overwhelming, and very rarely felt unfair or capricious. All of that probably explains why it was so easy to keep playing, and so difficult to put down. But in chopping away some of the valleys of the X-COM experience, Firaxis also leveled the peaks.

I thought at the time that it was the right move, but three years later, I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience with a slightly new set of clothes. I’ve still got Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, and if I want that experience I am happy to reinstall them. For XCOM 2, I’m ready for something a little less orderly and predictable.

Of course, the premise of XCOM 2 demands something less orderly and predictable. In XCOM you were the Rainbow 6 of alien extermination teams, zipping from one landing site to the next to fend off the latest incursion. XCOM 2 positions you as insurgents against a quisling government and their victorious alien overlords. This is the stuff of Red Dawn or Falling Skies. Perhaps more appropriately, it’s the stuff of Jagged Alliance 2.

Jagged Alliance 2 remains the king of Third World Late Cold War Mercenary Conflict Simulations (or TWLCWMCSMs as genre aficionados call them). One of the great things about it was that you didn’t steadily accumulate power and resources. Instead, the evil queen you were trying to overthrow would hit back hard once you started making significant gains against her territory. Early in the game, when her elite divisions showed up, you needed either one hell of a great ambush or a swift exit before their superior firepower, armor, and training steamrolled your ragtag band of paramilitaries.

But with each raid, with each successful sneak attack, you started to accumulate the gear and experience you’d need to take them in a stand-up fight. World War 2-surplus weaponry gave way to the finest in modern assault rifles, body armor, and optics. When it came time for the final assaults on the enemy, your team was loaded-out like Neo and Trinity at the end of The Matrix. But getting there required tons of scavenging, raiding, and retreating.

I want that kind of interplay between the “big picture” of the battle for the fate of the Occupied Earth and the tactical battles you fight along the way. There should be a feedback loop between them, so that I’m not just dealing with the binary outcomes of succeeding or failing at a mission, but have to be thinking about whether a battle is still worth winning. I don’t just want major missions to appear on my command screen, but to have some agency in driving the war effort.

One of the things I love about Jagged Alliance 2 is that everything is shown to you at the start. You have a map of the country and a pretty thorough intelligence report on it so you know where the crucial pressure points are, it’s just a question of knowing when the time is ripe to attack them. That’s the kind of calculation I want to be making in XCOM 2.

This would also be a good time to bring back direct alien attacks against XCOM. If I’m running an insurgency against the aliens, then there should also be a return to the base attacks of the original X-COM. Not just a pre-made scenario, but an ongoing threat that I have to guard against.

There’s one other factor I’d like to see in the new XCOM: winning hearts and minds. Even if I’m fighting to liberate humanity from the alien scourge, that’s still going to necessitate killing human forces in their service, and conducting attacks in civilian areas. How will humankind feel about this new guerilla XCOM if each battle in my war of liberation turns into the opening of The Wild Bunch?

This wishlist comes with a couple of concerns. XCOM was an accomplished game and I wonder how much you can mess around with the formula before you start running into problems with the game’s difficulty and sheer randomness. If the aliens are more aggressive once they know you’re around, and no longer wait around in piecemeal clusters, does XCOM become too hard? If you have more freedom and variety in playing the campaign, and in how missions are resolved, is it possible to enter a death-spiral and not know it until it’s too late? You always knew where you stood with XCOM, and why things were happening. The same couldn’t always be said for its predecessors.

Still, we already have XCOM. It did a great job of introducing a new generation to this particular form of alien invasion, and its brand of tactical combat and consequences. If Firaxis are going back to it, then they can’t take the conservative approach that led to Beyond Earth. This is the time to take risks and remind people that X-COM wasn’t just a fun game. It was a game to be feared.

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Rob Zacny

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