This week, Zero Punctuation reviews XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Spare a thought for the lonely life of the video game military commander, the ones beside Commander Shepard that is, who missed all the important lessons about delegation because he was off sick with the alien clap. First of all, you can't even get a job if you don't sound like you do movie trailer voiceovers in your spare time and then you get to spend your whole life trying to wrangle the activities of desperate lone renegades with poor anger management who think that if they boggle their eyes hard enough and purse their lips like their daughter's fiance just left the bathroom without washing his hands, then their orders can be regarded with the same amount of respect due to someone putting their finger in their mouth and making popping sounds. And who the fuck do you think pays for all those helicopters they invariably crash in the intro sequence, 'cos they don't give that shit away at Chuck E. Cheese.
Today we learn to appreciate the difficulties of command with XCOM, not to be confused with Eggs.com which is a website for sharing your favourite omlette recipes. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake or a reboot or a reason to despair of the state of creative industries for a game from the 90's variously titled UFO: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: UFO Defense in a spirited attempt to confuse matters even further.
In a peaceful near-future in which every nation on Earth has finally sat down and agreed to construct every building at the exact same height and all speak in the same American accent, aliens suddenly invade. But despite being vastly superior, they're obliging enough to start off the assault with squads of alien domestic science students wearing nappies to give the nations on Earth enough time to club together for a specialized alien defense initiative and train up a squad of random inexperienced shlubs they picked up en masse from a nearby airport departure lounge. The player takes the role of the high commander of XCOM who in classic protagonist style has no face, voice or name so I choose to believe that they are somebody's fussy mum who feels the need to micromanage every bloody aspect of XCOM's operations from the placement of new facilities, what suspicious glowing slimy object to research and what sandwiches to put in all the ground squadrons' lunchboxes.
"Do you like XCOM, Yahtzee?" What was that? Sorry, I was playing XCOM. I was just gonna play a bit of the next mission, but then I ended up playing the whole thing and then the next two. How about we pencil in a yes?
I like it 'cause it now gives me something I can smash into Syndicate's face and say "Looook! Turns out you don't have to turn everything into a fucking shooter!" I also like that it does both base management and tactical turn-based shooting without either seeming like a gimmick bolted onto the other. I spend my time in the base thinking "Gosh, I'm looking forward to using these plasma rifles I built to shoot all the baddies" and my time in the field thinking "Gosh, I'm looking forward to bringing all these alloys back to base to build more plasma rifles."
I find it all very absorbing. I remember while doing Valkyria Chronicles thinking that I could probably get into turn-based tactics if it didn't have so many whinging anime school children and it turns out I was right, if there's a strong sense of investment and a nebulous and unknown foe about which we are constantly discovering new things like the relationship a teenage boy has with vaginas, and if there are any anime school children, they're in the terror missions being liquidized beneath a beserker's fist.
It's not building stuff that's absorbing per se, it's the way the game teases you with it, the little harlot. It's not enough to pay it money, you have to wait several in-game days for it to be built and camp out in its front garden looking into its bathroom window with binocu- Oh wait, that's something else. When it takes twenty days to build a satellite, you might have forgotten what you wanted it for but you'll throw a party for it when it does arrives; you'll give it its own little bowtie. But if there's anything I'm iffy about, it's the randomness of the UFO assaults which are the only way to get resources. So if you've blown them all on new armor sets and satellite accesories, then there's nothing you can do but sit flicking playing cards into a hat hoping against hope that a flying saucer will invade, preferably in one of the countries with a high panic rating that's threatening to withdraw support because urban sectiods are rummaging through their bins and you seem to be spending all your time flicking playing cards into your hat and dressing up your satellites.
Randomness in core game mechanics almost always gets frustrating. I wish there was something proactive we could do, like instruct all the men to put on dresses and wigs and sit around in UFO landing hotspots loudly repeating "I hope nothing interrupts this lovely picnic!" And while the aliens kick off by recruiting their infantry units from the space daycare, sooner or later they'll want to try out their fancy new giant spider-droids and they're not gonna wait around for your pudgy arse. So the difficulty ramps up regardless of how advanced you've gotten.
Now I don't really like save scumming in the tactical missions 'cos getting through a game that way reflects about as well on your ability as blowing a bubble with your spit, but there's really no other option. One fuck-up can destroy this house of cards and most of them won't land in your hat. You can survive getting one of your top guys raygunned into sandwich spread, two at a pinch, but you might as well reload if your entire super squad gets wiped up 'cos the aliens aren't gonna hold back to let you train up a new selection of rookies who aim like fucking Octodad and go into panic mode if a wasp starts buzzing too close to their jam sandwiches. But at least the randomness makes the game very replayable so take comfort in that as you contemplate restarting from scratch because you didn't research laserguns fast enough and all your best men had to be evacuated from the field with a fucking spatula!
XCOM traditionalists might moan a bit 'cos the original XCOM's tactical interface was about as intuitive as the control panel for a nuclear submarine, but fuck those people! XCOM 2012 has some iffy design and it's glitchy at times. Soldiers on overwatch sometimes have an inexplicable ability to see enemies through walls and these were the guys who came back negative from the psychic testing, shows how much that proves! But it basically hits the right notes. Like a first class bowel movement, it's solid, it's long lasting and above all it's organic.
One time, I had a bunch of guys trapped in a crashed UFO's central rape room with the alien equivalent of Hulk Hogan, and I only had actions left for one heavy and one sniper who were too far from the action to help, so what did I do? I got the heavy to blow a massive hole in the side of the UFO with a rocket launcher, thus granting the sniper a clear line of sight to double-tap the problem right in the tash and win the mission. A master stroke of unconventional strategizing of which I was so embarrassingly proud that I boasted furiously about it for the entire last thirty seconds of an Internet video.
His stepmother was an alien: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
What is the point of having like 20 different soldier voice packs and giving them all the same bloody American accent
Can plasma rifles be used in blood transfusions
Extra: Jam and Mogworld Audiobook
My second novel, Jam, is now out! You can order it now from your prefered literature distribution facility and while you're waiting, why not download the audiobook version of Mogworld from iTunes or audible. Now you can listen to me talk for thirteen hours without the expense of getting me coked up!