Tuesday, November 27, 2012

5 Things XCom Could Have Done Better

I know I don't post much about gaming here because really this is supposed to be about my writing, my stories, my process and my work.  But once in a while I just get wrapped up in something and I need to talk about it.

XCom has totally decimated my free time for the last few weeks.  It's a tactical strategy game where, mostly, you manage squad based combat against an alien threat.  It's pretty dang slick.  I completed my second campaign this week, this time on Classic Difficulty.

The game starts out with a basic squad of soldiers armed with conventional weapons and grenades.  As the game progresses, these troops are added to with new recruits.  Each mission earns them experience and new abilities.  You also research better weapons, and armor as you go along, allowing you to take out the easier minions quicker and opening up harder enemies.

But what really kept me going was the overall engagement.  Your soldiers earn nicknames (seemingly randomly assigned, but you can edit them), they level up, and they do get killed.  There is an optional Ironman mode which removes the save game features; you can't save and then reload.  If you save then you're done.  If your guy dies on a mission, then he's gone for good.  Needless to say it's nerve wracking to be in a mission that's going well only to have your favorite medic dropped and killed with a lucky shot.

I guess you could call this a review but it's mostly about the things the game falls short on.  I'm going to have some light spoilers in here but I'll try to keep them limited.

1.  Multinational Voices

In the game, you draw troops from all over the world for the XCom project.  You fill out your barracks with people from China, Australia, England, Nigeria and other exotic locales.

And every last one sounds like they come from the Midwest of the US.  You get a choice of 5 voices to assign to your soldier and they are all basically the same except for a few small hitches in the inflection.  I'm sorry but I want to feel like I've got a world united with me here.  When my Sniper brags about how he should be keeping score I should hear that Aussie twang in his voice.  When my medic tells a wounded trooper to "Rub some dirt in it and walk it off", it'd be that much better to hear it as though she was from the West End of London.

2.  Variation on Speech

While I get that this is a military operation, when the soldiers break regulations and provide some kind of chatter, it's all the same.  There is no personality in the speech packs.  If we're going to be locked into just US voices, then at least give us the basic archtypes in those.  So when the "Bubbly" soldier gets wounded, she says something different then the "Hardened" one.  How about if the "Jock" says things like "Score XCom 1, X-rays Nothing" while the "Snarkster" says "That shot was legend-wait for it- dary".

I imagine that they'd get a little stale over time, but out of the box they'd provide that extra level of customization to better let us build into these soldiers that we are both meant to see as dispossable assets and as valuable members of a team.

3.  Final Mission Staging

I've played the final mission twice now.  In both cases it was a matter of having my sniper in a good overwatch position.  Final event triggers and BOOM headshot.  Mission is over.


4.  More depth of story

I get that Firax's Games is not a huge studio.  But they surely could have sprung for better writing.

As you go along there are three main personalities in your base.  You have your right hand man, who is also the provider of all the main mission descriptions.  Your science wing is headed by very confident scientist who wants to experiment and push the envelope.  She is balanced by a seasoned engineer over in the engineering department   Every time she pushes for another upgrade or another new technology, the engineer is there to caution about going too far too fast.

And that's all you get out of it.  There's no real consequence of their conflict.  They just give you two sides of a coin, back and forth, between missions.  I would have loved to have seen the scientist's need to experiment turn against her and put you in the position to have to decide if you want to save her or not from her own arrogance.  Or maybe the engineer hesitates too much and you're forced to decide if you want to risk lives by not using the latest greatest tech in the field.  It's all there for some real drama and conflict or at least some depth but it's all just left on the table.

5.  The Memorial Wall

Okay this is going sound really really minor.. but.

When you lose a solider their name appears on a list of guys killed in combat.  You can go to part of the base and see the pictures of those soldiers in the background.  There is a list of how many missions, how many kills,and the actual mission they were lost on.  But you can't look past the text to see the actual wall of images.

Now that seems like a silly thing to want to have, but for me, the ability to go look at who I lost, see that face, would really bring back that conflict of "they're just grunts" and "we need every last one of them."

Of course, as a writer, I'm also struggling a little because each time I start a game or recruit a new soldier I start writing their back story.

Is there a market for XCom Fanfiction?

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