Pip has never been a fan of turn-based strategy games but Alice is knee-deep in XCOM 2 [official site]. She keeps sending Pip videos of surprisingly competent psychic attacks on aliens and, despite herself, Pip is now not sure whether to try again with the series. Alice attempts to offer a useful primer. The text contains spoilers for some enemy types:
Pip: Alice, I don’t get XCOM. Please help me to get XCOM! I feel left out.
Alice: Pip, XCOM is a game where you build a guerrilla force to take over the world and turf out its rightful rulers (they put a flag in it and everything!).But don’t worry: you’re the good guys! They’re aliens and you’re humans and this is the Earth (aliens might have a claim to the Earth in a few hundred years but 2035 is too soon).
Pip: Wait, wait, wait, back up. Is this XCOM or XCOM 2?
Alice: This is XCOM 2. XCOM is when the aliens first arrive and start muttering things like “Say, this is a nice planet you’ve got here.”
Pip: So do I need to have played XCOM to get XCOM 2?
Alice: Not really! Mostly it’s a game about making little people move around a grid and try not to get shot in the face. ‘Reclaim Earth from colonising aliens’ is a p. simple pitch, and you’ll only miss out on references to lots of “Oh boy, this reminds me of the last big meat monsters…” and “Oh gosh, you know who would’ve loved to see this meat monster? That guy from the first game.” There are aliens and they’re up to no good, so you want there to be no aliens.
Well, they’re not up to NO good – they’re up to some good. But they’re baddies and the bad outweighs all that.
Pip: I have heard through sources* that the second game assumes XCOM failed in the first one. (* sources being the game’s lead producer so it seemed pretty reliable). Isn’t that a bit off-putting if you managed to win?
Alice: No, it’s great because you get to go back and kill aliens in a whole new way. Only this time you’re doing it in gleaming alien cities with exciting holoboards and some really snazzy outfits. They’re really nice cities. The humans who live in them without being vanished look like they have a great time! They explain the inconsistency in a hand-wavy way which sure, fine, it works, whatever.
Pip: So if these cities are so nice and the outfits are so snazzy and the holoboards are so exciting, why do we want the aliens gone? Can we not be new best friends with them?
Alice: I don’t know, man. It’s one of those dystopias where, yeah okay sometimes people just vanish, but they seem fairly civil aside from that. They keep order, you know. Innumerable bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it in our own cities, at least in XCOM 2 you know what’s up. But SOME PEOPLE have big ideas about ‘liberty’ and all that so ugh, fine, let’s do wars.
Pip, have I gone from joking around to arguing for a fascist state. Because, you know, that’s not… you know. BECAUSE MURDERS ARE FUN, OKAY. THAT’S WHY.
Pip: So it’s definitely a fascist state then? Because from what I’m hearing it’s definitely a futuristic dystopia but I wasn’t sure what was so bad. Was it literally just the danger of suddenly vanishing? Because I struggle with the nature of existence on a fairly regular basis and so far it sounds like one of my average Tuesday worries.
Alice: Oh certainly. And I’m dancing around spoilers to do with where vanished people go.
Pip: OH, I SEE.
Alice: Point is, XCOM are right, the aliens are totally up to naughty things and being unkind rulers. So you get to boot them out.
Pip: Wait. What does XCOM stand for?
Alice: Oh. It’s. Xtraterrestrial… Command Of Murders?
Pip: I see.
Alice: Extra Cool Orange Masks. Xtra.
Pip: So you don’t know. That’s what I’m getting here.
Alice: Xtreme Cool Ovipositor Mashers
Pip: What the dickens is an ovipositor?
Pip: Is it an egg thing?
Pip: Is it something that deposits eggs?
Alice: The eggblaster.
Pip: THE POWER OF SECONDARY SCHOOL LATIN. So you have an egg blaster?
Alice: All Latin ever taught me was how to understand French better, which seemed fair enough
Pip: Alice, I just Googled ovipositors and found out about a fetish I really didn’t even consider existing. [Vice link, clearly NSFW]. Are you basically telling me you have a weaponised version of that?
Alice: No, XCOM don’t but one alien does. Chryssalids. Horrible skittering gits. And that’s even before the eggs. XCOM 1 has a mission where you explore a spooky deserted fishing port and they burst out of dead sharks and whales. They are AWFUL. Justification enough to kill ‘em all.
Pip: Is there just one alien race then? The way people talk about it it sounds like “aliens have taken over” but I’ve never been clear if it’s like some big alien conglomerate with loads of species or if there’s one big in-charge species or…?
Alice: There’s an in-charge species who, the end of the first game explains, have a habit of finding sentient life and trying to weaponise it. Their army is a load of different species. In XCOM 2, they’ve started adding humans to their forces.
Pip: So could we team up with the other aliens and save them from being weaponised?
Alice: I think it’s a bit late for them. They’ve been engineered and trained for years to worship the rulers. And, as we have established, their cities are quite nice.
Pip: That is sad. I would like to help them somehow. Maybe they are happy and I am just being presumptuous about them even needing saving, though.
What are the other ones like? I have heard of a “Thin Man” – is that the one with the butt that Alec made Adam look at in his diary?
Alice: [ignoring any and all references to Adam’s flirtatious behaviour] Sometimes I send Psy-Pip to ‘dominate’ aliens, which means you become friends for a whole mission. But that bond breaks when Pip hops into the evac helicopter and leaves them behind.
Pip: OH NO!
What if you left me behind? Would we be friends forever or is it not real friendship? I guess there’s that proverb about butterflies. If you let it go then it might come back but if you hold onto it you’ll mash its wings and it will die horribly.
Alice: You would get captured by other aliens. I think I would later have the option to rescue you, which does actually sounds like fun. Popping open the back of a prisoner transport van to have you roll your eyes and spit “WHAT? Shut up.”
I think the ability’s name ‘Dominate’ suggests it’s more bullying than friendship, really. I can make Psy-Pip stop using it, if you’d rather. But WE’RE FRIENDS, AREN’T WE PIP?
Pip: She can do it for saving the world purposes but she isn’t allowed to get people to come to her birthday party using it. Because that would be hollow and sad.
Alice: Okay. No birthday parties. Mostly I make you befriend Andromedans and throw goop at men. Or have them do it.
Pip: What’s an Andromedan?
Alice: It’s a skinny little alien living in a big robot suit. The robot suit gets REALLY ANGRY if you kill the alien. I think that’s the true friendship of XCOM 2.
Pip: Aww. That’s really lovely! How did they meet? Or rather, how does one acquire a loyalty suit? Asking for a friend.
Alice: He was an alien, she was a robot suit, can I make it any more obvious?
Pip, what would you and your loyalty suit do together? Bearing in mind, before you answer, that I am a big strong friend. I’m essentially a robot suit. What are you saying I’m not doing?
Pip: I think we would just be like one of those movie montages of lovely days out, you know? I would go on the swings and the robot suit would push me
it would help me reach things on high shelves and carry me home in its tummy when I got tired.
Alice: I would watch this. Firaxis, here’s your XCOM 2 expansion idea.
Pip: You don’t do any of that because you are in Scotland ALL THE TIME.
Alice: Pip, I’m in England right now. What are you saying.
Pip: I’m saying we could go find some swings. ANYWAY. What other aliens are there?
Alice: Oh! Thin men! Yes. They are from XCOM. In XCOM 2 they have stopped pretending to be remotely human, and are now snakes in bikinis. It suits them. They were very pale and sickly in XCOM, but in 2 they’re beautifully bronzed.
Pip: New game, new you. WAIT! There was another game. With men in fedoras. I went to a preview event for it. It was like that TV show Dark Skies – that was XCOM as well, yes?
Alice: Yes. Sorta. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, as it came to be known. It’s a bit sad, that one. It started out looking like a slow, creeping horror piece of period sci-fi. I mean, that was what I imagine based on the first trailer. Which is often not representative. I understand it came out as a boring third-person shooter?
Pip: You’re asking me? You know what my memory is like. I remember a petrol station and a man in a fedora.
Alice: Look at this:
I was really excited about that! Slow, creeping infiltration, oddities, and overwhelming power that’ll melt you.
Pip: Aww, that trailer is like how I felt about Dark Skies when I saw adverts for that – I was expecting the same thing and then it was just this boring slog.
Alice: Yes, Dark Skies comparisons are disappointingly apt.
Pip: So, okay, you lot all seem to be having a grand old time in XCOM 2, writing diaries and blowing things up and doing psychic Mean Girl-ing but is 2 significantly different than 1? Like, it’s just straight up not my genre – turn-based tactics makes me panic and I don’t really enjoy it – but I’m wondering if there’s something that will give me a way in, you know?
Alice: Hmm. Maybe imagine XCOM as a squad-based RPG – in terms of classes and things, anyway. You have a lot of different tools, so every turn is an interesting puzzle of risk management and prioritisation. Mistakes are felt relatively quickly, so it’s not one of those games where, ten minutes later, you realise you ballsed it all up. While XCOM 1 gave plenty of spare turns and space between fights to reload, heal, and regroup, 2 has several timers that keep pushing you onwards. You’re always doing SOMETHING suboptimally so you learn to roll with it, accept things happen and move on.
Pip: How similar would you say it is to MGSV, then?
Alice: The great thing about being turn-based is that your decisions aren’t rushed. Your progress is, but you have ages to think about if you want to shoot their face, lob a smoke grenade, retreating, distract them, and so on. It has the interesting decisions and options of MGS but you don’t need to be twitchy.
I mean, it’s a totally different game in many ways, but it’s very similar in terms of decisions: you can handle things in many ways, but here have the space to actually follow through rather than just shoot them because it’s quick and effective. (Just shooting people is effective too, obviously.)
Pip: Yeah, the stories people tell have a similar feeling – they have their squads and their plans and their tales of how it all went wrong or right.
Alice: The turns and grids also make it clearer what you can and can’t do, and how everything works. You won’t try a daring plan which just falls apart because a guard looked a different way – you can see that in advance.
Pip: I do like the idea that I would feel mistakes more immediately. One of the big things for me when it comes to turn-based is the fear that I will only become aware of a mistake a lot later and have utterly wasted a bunch of time.
Alice: That never happens! It’s great. You can see your objective is here, your evac point is there, and while you may move forward in a suboptimal way (up to and including having your entire team dying), you’re not just floundering.
The first XCOM had a lot of having to backtrack to find some aliens who’d e.g. decide to hang out in a nice dell in the woods around a fire. Or wandering aimlessly until you stumble across something. XCOM 2 is always moving onwards.
Pip: And I can name the characters after the casts of various soap operas? Dean Gaffney could be on my team.
Alice: You can even make them look like cheap lookalikes.
Pip: Paul Danan…
Alice: DGAF, they call him. I used to have a neighbour with a DGAF company car. I think they wanted it to be Don’t Give A Fuck but I always thought of old D-Gafs.
Pip: Tell you what, when I have finished The Witness and Firewatch I will try XCOM 2.
Alice: I think you might enjoy the decisions. Some of them. Some are boring and quite overwhelming at first. But I can help. I can be your robot suit, Pip.
Pip: Awesome. Now let’s go find some swings.
If you’re just scratching the surface of XCOM 2, these tips might help you to keep those precious Dean Gaffneys alive.