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The Rally Point: we need to talk about overwatch

Three shots to the wind

Ordinarily with games, something grabs me, I become dangerously obsessed with it to the exclusion of all else, and then suddenly abandon it for no reason a fortnight later.

That hasn't happened lately. I have, however, been playing Stirring Abyss, and in the interests of being fair, I must make it clear upfront that I've enjoyed it, and my choosing not to go into detail about it shouldn't be taken as a mark against the game itself. With that said, I want to thank it for prompting me to raise a longstanding grievance I have with turn-based tactical games: We have a problem, friends, and that problem is overwatch.

Cover image for YouTube videoStirring Abyss || in 2 minutes

No, not the online hero shooter that I don't know enough about to do a joke (I am about to look this up to check if it's even on PC aaand... it is! Huh). I mean the part in turn based shooters where your dudes can return fire during the enemy's turn. The concept is fine, and if not mandatory, then certainly a fundamental aspect of most designs. There would be barely any tension at all if you could simply walk your dudes up to every alien in XCOM and splat them one by one, and that tension and risk management is so critical I can think of few games where it's not present in some way.

Firaxis's XCOM is the perfect place to start, too, since it's the game that popularised the term "overwatch" at all, as well as the version of it that most turn based games since have implemented in exactly the same way. You almost certainly know how it works: on your turn, instead of using your second action point to move or attack, you can instruct a soldier to enter overwatch. On the ensuing alien turn, if an enemy moves within that soldier's line of sight, your soldier will take a potshot at it. It's a system that's been repeated endlessly since (and before, but let's be real here, XCOM established the formula almost everyone works from), as I briefly complained when reviewing Corruption 2029.

Who would trust these fools with guns?

So what's the problem? Well, the main one is that it entrusts shooting to your soldiers, who are invariably panicky idiots who'll spaff all their ammo at the first sign of an irate wasp several miles in the distance, leaving your entire team helpless when a giant faceripper strolls up seconds later. Then there's the irritation of having to enter overwatch manually, i.e. constantly tell your elite soldier dudes to shoot the enemy you muppets instead of standing there uselessly like the hollow robots they are. It's a question of ... gaminess. A wooly, terrible word, but hard to avoid in cases where you feel a game's design obstructing the fantasy it's supposed to be enabling. I don't feel like a leader issuing orders or using my crew's talents when a game uses overwatch like this; I feel like a player trying to work around their stupidity.

The problem predates XCOM of course. The original XCOM (which I'll call UFO to make the distinction clear) instead used 'opportunity fire', which you might also know as 'reaction fire'. In UFO, everyone was assumed to be on overwatch at all times, which at least removed the hassle of having to tell them. They could also shoot during the aliens' turn multiple times, provided they had enough action points and ammunition, which also hints at why this system couldn't really work within the remake. UFO was just more complicated, and porting opportunity fire to XCOM would, and I imagine did, lead immediately to headaches about how you'd square multiple shots with the "two actions per turn" system, and how to account for speed differences between weapons.

My complaint isn't "the xcom remake should have just been the same as the original", and in any case, opportunity fire had basically the same issues. You still had to tell your dude with the rocket launcher NOT to fire at the anaemic halfling who steps out of the doorway directly next to four of your gang (and even that wasn't directly possible until the sequel; you'd have to manually use up rocketman's time units instead by having him spin on the spot like a collie at Wimbledon), and your people would still fire at the earliest opportunity. Granted, that was often preferable to hesitating and getting bisected by a plasma rifle, but my point is you never had the choice. You were still basing decisions on second-guessing how dense your troopers were going to be in the moment.

Interrupts give Silent Storm more options. Should my sniper shoot the climbing man, or help her on the top left? Or take pistol shots at both and hope they retreat?

Which brings us to a better way: interrupts. The criminally overlooked Silent Storm, for one, gave each character who still had time units remaining to use them during the enemy's turn if they were quick enough to react. UFO also based its reaction fire on a unit's statistics, but Silent Storm went further, with certain circumstances granting improved odds, or even a guaranteed interrupt, as well as a class-based upgrade system offering skills that let certain characters specialise in getting the drop on enemies.

It basically reserved the remainder of your turn, gambling the chance of wasting those time units against the chance of having them when an enemy blundered into the open. Moreover, when they got an interrupt, they didn't just go Frank Reynolds. You got control instead. You could empty your SMG into the guy, or shoot the nearby oxygen tank, chuck a grenade, or take a few potshots and then duck out of sight. Multiple characters could get an interrupt too, giving you more options still. One downside was that you still often got only one chance - there was no option to wait for the enemy to take a few more steps.

Some Wildermyth enemies can ambush too. Note the crosshair icons as the Dart on the left tries covers his boss.

Jagged Alliance 2 (and the original, but come on, it wasn't half as good) did the same thing sooner, and its 1.13 mod tried to solve that last problem by giving you multiple interrupts on the same enemy if you passed up the first one but qualified for another. But brilliant as JA2 1.13 was, you can probably guess the main downside of endless interrupts: endless clicking. No, I don't want t... no, thank y... NO. No. Stop this! Let him get to the road first, argh. Both games also had interrupts of interrupts, which again is a 'better' implementation on a simulationist and tactical level, but a pain in the hole when it comes to actually managing it.

The easy conclusion to draw is that we've got a sort of sliding scale between ease of use and degree of control/simulation, represented here by XCOM's overwatch and 1.13's recursive interruptions. But I think that's doing everyone a disservice. Wildermyth, for one, already offered an improvement on the overwatch system despite using a very similar turn structure to XCOM. One ability for the hunter class, 'ambush', lets them forego an attack and instead ready an arrow to fire at the first enemy to enter a specific area. Even without combining it with multiple other skills, or upgrading it so that it interrupts movement, anyone who's used it probably has a story of what a difference it made in a fight. And the game that inspired this article, last year's deep-sea horror Stirring Abyss, gives this option to anyone who picks up a speargun, an often life-saving power in a game all about horrible things lurching out of the oppressive darkness.

Stirring Abyss is good, by the way, if a bit too punishing to fully win me over. Very atmospheric. Nice fish.

Each turn in Stirring Abyss depletes oxygen, so you can't overwatch around inch by inch.

I'd be the first to admit I lean more towards the interrupt system than the overwatch system. But my point isn't that the former is better. Within the last year there have already been two games clearly built on the latter that improved upon it without sacrificing the simplicity that made it so popular. And those are just the ones I know about. I think a significant step forward for turn based tactical games lies exactly in the space between your turn and the other side's. There's room for compromise between extreme ends of the simulation/usability dial too. Perhaps a system of standing orders so you can have some interrupts but ignore others. Or a prediction system (maybe even one that somehow crosses over with the prediction and counter-acting that makes simultaneous turn games like Phantom Brigade compelling) that gives you a higher chance of getting an interrupt, or guaranteed overwatch fire, but only if the enemy walks through a specific door or remains in cover, and puts you at a disadvantage if you get it wrong.

I'm tired of reminding my elite warriors to go into overwatch and then watching them waste it anyway. I'm also tired of setting up ambushes that perfectly anticipate an enemy's approach, only to watch my team do nothing because some random numbers were bigger than some other numbers on a character sheet. There is a better way out there, and if I live through a full decade of XCOM derivates without seeing a game cross the T on this issue, I might just have to give up hope of the genre ever moving forward.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Sin Vega


Regional 'being ill and sad and weird' finalist Sin Vega lost a bet with God and now she cares about games.