Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Long War, Part I - X-Com Revisited

The sequel to X-Com is scheduled for release in February 2016, and as a long time fan of both the original DOS titles and the reboot released a few years ago I have to admit to being very excited about this news. It's still shy of being a half a year away though, and as a preamble to release I thought I'd dust off the X-Com reboot and give it another go. For those unfamiliar to X-Com, it is a squad level tactical turn based game in which the united governments of Earth try to stave off an alien invasion. It has won a stack of awards, and is one of my favourite games of all time. My second ever blog post was on X-Com, and I have played the snot out of this game, beating it on Impossible difficulty on Ironman. Yes, I'm a masochist at heart, but hey, it's my own play time and preference, and I like the added sense of danger for my brave band of virtual soldiers.

Rather than starting a new vanilla game from scratch, I decided to mix things up and try out the Long War mod. For those already familiar with vanilla X-Com (X-Com: The Enemy Within plus the two DLCs, Operations Slingshot and Progeny) X-Com: The Long War is a community made mod which completely overhauls the X-Com experience, and turns an already great game into something truly, truly epic. I've done two dry runs, playing games until May (the game begins in March 2016) and there are significant differences. For one, my troops in my test run are still wearing default gear. In vanilla my squaddies would already be rocking carapace armour, laser rifles and accompanied by a Mech or two to boot in the equivalent time period. The Long War is exactly that - a gruelling campaign in which normal vanilla tactics of satellite spam and tech rush to beam weapons do not apply. Building satellites and workshops does not increase the number of scientists and engineers on your team - these personnel have to be earned as rewards via abduction missions, Council missions, and as rewards for doing the various Council nations favours of one kind or another. Government requests come in thick and fast in this version of X-Com, but you have to balance those requests with the needs of your research and engineering team, as well as the overall strategic picture. And the rewards can appear meagre - one or two scientists or engineers per completed request. Satellite spam is not longer a feasible strategy because it hits the bottleneck of not having enough engineers. Instead your coverage of the world appears to grow at a constant rate, and your funding is spent on research or augmenting your squad's survivability instead. Another big change is that you can win back countries which leave X-Com by detecting the location of enemy bases and taking them out. This makes the battle for Earth's survival more of a see-sawing affair in which the beleaguered defenders always have a chance, rather than an attempt to play a "perfect" game in order to minimize irretrievable errors. The game only ends when the last country left on the planet falls to the aliens.

The opening screen for the Long War. Each country has a special starting bonus - in the case of Japan I could have chosen extra thermal vents, augmented SHIVs and MECs, or one maximum level soldier. I chose the latter, and coupled with the Commander's Choice perk (which allows me to choose my soldier's specializations), opted to make him a sniper.

The Long War isn't just vanilla set on Marathon mode, however. You start with 40 soldiers in your barracks, and your initial squad size is already set at six, with the option to eventually expand to eight. Your default gear, while still poor compared to laser and plasma weapons, is composed of an impressive variety of goodies. Rifles come in two different flavours depending on your playstyle, and touting a SMG gives you less firepower but +3 to movement, making them ideal for scouts and recon units. You have AP grenades, HE grenades, and flashbang grenades, all of which are crucial to survival if you consider that your soldiers are going to have to wear this gear for three months or more. Soldiers are divided into eight different classes now. Snipers are either vanilla snipers or scouts. Heavies have been split into gunners and rocketeers. The assault class can either be traditional assault troops, or infantry whose base ability is to fire twice in one turn if they don't move. Support classes become medics or engineers. Engineers are important because damage from explosives has been randomized - grenades and rockets were so reliable in vanilla X-Com because they were accurate and dealt out constant damage. In the Long War structures may stay intact, grenades may fail to kill aliens and rockets can go embarrassingly off course more often. If you want to blow up the environment the way it was done in vanilla X-Com you're going to have to train up some engineers. Engineers specialize in demolishing structures and lobbing grenades, and their perks and talents are tooled to this to task.

The biggest change to squad composition is the introduction of fatigue. After each mission your soldiers will require 3-4 days of rest, which means there is a need for a B squad, and perhaps even a C squad when alien activity goes through the roof. No longer is your team The Avengers - they will need to take some R&R between missions. In vanilla once you had trained up your squad of six there was no real need to ever replace any of them except in cases of fatalities, making the rest of the soldiers in your base largely redundant. The Long War requires you to build a deep and wide cadre of soldiers to deal with the fires which pop up all over the world. In emergencies a fatigued soldier can be called up for duty, but the penalty is that once they return to base they will become exhausted, and have to rest twice as long to recover. During this time they will not be eligible for missions.

The air war has also been re-tuned from vanilla. Fighters now have pilots associated with them who level up with kills, making them another precious (and all too vulnerable) human resource. In my second run through it took me three months to shoot down one stinking scout-class UFO. My squads were able to handle the threats once on the ground, but in the air it was an altogether different story. The UFOs were just too bloody fast for my interceptors, who had mere seconds to land two missiles on them. Interceptors can adopt aggressive, defensive or balanced postures during interception which increases their hit percentages, but also makes them more vulnerable in return. This is not a good thing for terrestrial craft squaring off against alien technology. My very first interception was against a battleship-class UFO, and the pilot was recalled immediately upon coming face to face with that behemoth. All we could do was disengage, and watch as the UFO flew over Japan and China with impunity. Repair times are dramatically longer, and it is not enough to field a pair of interceptors any longer. Four seems to be the bare minimum per continent, and even that can be grounded for weeks after a bad interception.
 
The leader of the X-Com forces on the ground, Master Sergeant Takeda Shingen. Rank names have been overhauled to fall in line with US convention. Non-coms range from Private First Class with the highest non-commissioned rank maxing out at Master Sergeant. Non-coms can be promoted to officers (Lieutenant and beyond) with the addition of the Officer Training School.

All of this is just scratching the surface of the differences implemented in the Long War. I'm sure there will be many more surprises to come, some welcome and a few quite unwelcome. Also, in honour of a series done by Jeromai over at Why I Game, I'm going to name soldiers who attain a high enough rank after the bloggers around this particular corner of the Internet. I followed Jeromai's series quite keenly and was quite sad to see it peter out. I never did find out whether his intrepid band of bloggers did save the world in the end, or whether they all died screaming in a hail of enemy plasma fire. With this series I'm hoping to chronicle the story all the way to the bitter end, even if it does end in tears. I'll be playing on Classic difficulty on Ironman, which means no saves or reloads - just a straight up war story in which there will be blunders, misplays and permanent casualties. Without the element of risk however, I would just be going through the motions - it's the possibility of dying which makes virtual heroism possible in roleplaying games. I love rogue-likes and permadeath as a game feature for this reason, and I think the way X-Com incorporates these features without making them game-ending is the chief reason why the classic and the reboot have been so loved by gamers like myself.

Next: The Long War, Part II - The Origins of X-Com

4 comments:

  1. Alas, they died screaming in the wake of my old computer's power supply exploding... aka I'm too lazy for now to dig around the old hard disk for the relevant saves to continue the campaign. :)

    Looking forward to your series!

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    1. Wow - the universe literally ended for those guys. :D

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  2. I admire anyone who can take XCOM on Ironman, let alone Long War. I cleared vanilla XCOM twice, and while indescribably fun, I didn't think I could have taken the constant stress as well a third time. If I might make a suggestion, do it war-journal or mission control POV style. Your narrative talents would suit those nicely.

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    1. Cheers for the suggestions! I thought about the war journal style but I was afraid that my narrator would eat a plasma bolt to the face and end the series prematurely. The mission control POV is a great idea, but I'd already opted to go the historical narrative route - i.e. to write the series as if the events in question had really occurred.

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