Monday, October 22, 2012

X-Com: The old and the new

I loved the old X-Com back in the day. I remember when I first played it. It was the Playstation port, so it would have been in 1995 or so. I was up in New Hampshire and my friend Tim and I rented a copy from VideoHQ, not knowing what to expect.

I guess the best way to describe it is a kind of Sim-Earth Defense. You're the administrator of a UNIT-type task force (The X-Com of the title) tasked with defending the earth against alien invasion. You build your bases and recruit the troops, decide what to research and reverse engineer from captured technology, and when you encounter aliens, you organize the squad and deploy them. I always loved the quartermaster parts more than the combat, but the combat had its own appeal and that's where a lot of the memorable stories came from too.

There was nothing quite like it at the time and even though there's a sequel 17 years later, there's still nothing quite like it.

The new game is great. They didn't include everything I liked about the original, but everything they did include was great. The combat is turn-based, which was a gutsy move in 2012, but it wouldn't feel like X-Com without it, and almost everything is a vast improvement over the original. The biggest change is that rather than each soldier having a pool of time units governing all actions, he or she has a move action and a combat action. I liked the time units, because you could take multiple actions in lieu of moving, but I have to admit, the new system certainly streamlines the tactical experience. It felt like some of the longer battles took hours in the original game.

Things I miss from the original

Multiple interceptors: In the original game, you could build more than one base and engage a ship with several interceptors at one time. The game was very simulationist, and there was no story except what happened through the confluence of happenstance and your actions. But I've never felt so immersed in a game as when I had to bring down an alien battleship and the only thing I had was two basic interceptors, my good ships all in various states of repair after earlier battles. They were armed with powerful warheads, but were very fragile. I knew I had to get lucky, so I had one ship hanging just short of engagement, waiting on the other. When I got there, I launched both at the mothership and they darted in right on top of it, unloading nuke after nuke, hoping to bring it down before it landed a hit with its plasma bolts.

Multiple bases: In the new game, you're limited to a single base, but with the old one, I think you could have up to six. It added another element, because sometimes the aliens would hit a target while the team from your main base was already engaged or refueling or otherwise unable to respond, so you'd have to put down a contingent of Reapers and Chryssalids with Lt. Gorman and his gang that couldn't shoot straight.

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty eight... simulated.
Vasquez: How many *combat* drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Also, additional bases meant that losing one wouldn't end the game, so sometimes the aliens would find one of your bases and invade it. Base defense was my very favorite part of the game. I built my bases with a bunch of bottlenecks simply so they would be easier to defend. They didn't include it in the new one, I'm told, because, as you do have just one base, losing it would end the game. I think there are ways around that, but another aspect is that base defense, even moreso than the other battles in the game, tended to be one-sided slaughter, and this may have been a factor in deciding not to feature it. I think it could have been made to work, but I understand the decision.

And while we're on the topic of multiple bases, everyone who has ever played X-Com seems to have discovered this part independently. The laser stuff sold for a lot more than it cost to manufacture, so you could earn a ton of money by building it and selling it. As soon as I had enough money to do it, I would set up a base (Sweatshop-1) and staff it with engineers, workshops and a skeleton crew to protect them and set them to churning out gear to sell. I always used to joke that X-Com was earning its funding by arming third world dictators, and I'm not sure to what extent it was intended, but in the new game, it's made explicit, that if you sell your technology to nations, they will sometimes use them to oppress their people. Also, you sell them on the "Gray Market", which I thought was an amusing pun.

More options in combat: If I suspected that there was an alien was in a farmhouse, I would mine the entrances, then set it on fire with incendiary rounds. I would also arm my solders with a grenade with a 0 turn timer, meaning that it went off immediately. If an alien dropped a soldier, at least the soldier would get a retributive strike, because they dropped their inventory when killed, and the grenade would go off and hopefully kill the attacker. (This sometimes backfired, because sometimes attacks would stun, rather than kill a target, and a stunned soldier would drop a grenade, taking him from stunned to killed)

My favorite tactic had to be near the mid-to-late game, when we had flying power armer and handheld mini-nukes. I'd send the squad up to the top of the alien ship, blow a hole in the roof (the sides would withstand a blaster bomb, but not the roof) and we'd drop down like a cyborg ninja SWAT team. My friend Frederick, also an aficionado of the original game, got so good that he could steer the blaster bomb through the bowels of the ship on memory alone.

As I said, there was no story except what happened in the course of play. I remember the first time we encountered a Chryssalid. Chryssalids are like Giger aliens. They lack the acid blood, but they do transform their victims into more copies of themselves, and they move very fast and hit super hard.

So, we thought we were pretty hot stuff at this point. We were three months in, we had some laser weapons, some body armor and we'd brought a tank and I thought we would just roll over this mission. We're picking off the dinky little aliens and then a Chryssalid shows up. It looked scary, so my squad, which was still tightly clustered around the landing zone, starts unloading on it. It takes everything that we've got, sprints right in our midst, demolishes the tank and then kills a soldier. We finally drop it on the next turn, whereupon a new Chryssalid popped out of our dead guy. Tim said it best, "Team to Headquarters. We're fucked. Over."

Everybody has stories like that from the original, which is why I think it's endured as long as it has. The new game has a slightly more structured framework. Soldiers have classes now (Heavy, Support, Assault and Sniper) and you pick various feats as you level up. I like that. They start out very similar in capabilities, but as they advance through the ranks, they play very differently.  My standard compliment is two support, two assault, one sniper, one heavy.

Squads are a lot smaller, maxing out at six, compared to the platoons you could field in the original. Maps are smaller too, and these combine with faster movements of the characters on screen to really speed up the battles. (Nothing like spending 45 minutes hunting that last sectoid who's hunkered down in an attic somewhere.) Soldiers recover a lot faster too. Being badly wounded could sideline a soldier for weeks in the original and I think the worst I've seen so far is nine days.Cyberdiscs and floaters are tough now, though. Back in the day, they were like training dummies.

Overall, XCOM 2012, is a superb game and a worthy successor to the name.The maps are wonderful. You haven't lived until you've chased a Chryssalid through a Barnes & Noble armed with nothing but a shotgun and sand in your belly.

(Though I'm not entirely pleased that whenever there's one with a gas station, the guy who flies our skyranger always drops my squad right next to the pumps.)

1 comment:

  1. I agree with every word except 'worthy'.