Monday, February 22, 2016

X-Com Returns

You might have guessed that I'm a big fan of X-Com from my inaugural posts here, and my stalled attempt at fan fiction here. The sequel has rekindled my deep love of this series, which started way back in 1994 when the original was released. The X-Com and Jagged Alliance series are formative and influential titles in my gaming life, and it comes as no surprise that the release of X-Com sequel was eagerly anticipated by yours truly.

Bradford is back. X-Com 2 opens with a daring rescue of the "Commander" from the clutches of the aliens. Here he is accompanied by Richard Tygan, the new head of research for the resistance movement.
The last weekend was spent in a kind of X-Com torpor, and it concluded on Sunday evening with me finally completing the game on Veteran difficulty. I'd intended to complete it without reloading, but that went out the window when my entire squad was decimated and I realised that I would have to reallocate an extra day to rebuild my squad. These days more than others I have been trying to balance the efficient use of my time with the obsessive compulsive part of myself which insists on "pure" play throughs on Ironman. The older, more pragmatic side of myself won over the younger, stupider side, and I continued my play through all the way to the end of the game.

Now that the fire of obsession has burnt itself out I can start a new campaign and play at my leisure. I don't need to know the story any more - playing on the weekend was akin to reading a novel, in which I turn pages over quickly to try to see what would happen at the end of the story. In the case of X-Com I would hurry through mission after mission just to see how my tech choices played out, what new technologies were offered, what new alien types my squad would face, and how the narrative would unfold. The sacrifice for this speed run was the role playing part of X-Com, which for me is the hook that keeps me coming back to the game. If your soldiers can't die then they are no longer mortal beings who risk all mission after mission - they're just tools to allow you to complete the game. The result of this was that I was being reckless and stupid in most missions, because hey, my grunts are immortal and I can always reload. Contrast this with my current Long War campaign which is being played on Ironman - every mission is fraught with danger and anticipation, and I am extremely careful when moving my guys. And when someone dies, it really, really stings.
The new head of engineering, An-Yi Shen, takes over the mantle of her father's work.
X-Com 2 is more of the same X-Com, just set 20 years in the future and incorporating more bells and whistles and polish. There have been three modern iterations of the X-Com template. The first is X-Com reboot and its expansion, The Enemy Within, along with the assorted DLCs that came with that title. The second iteration is the fan-made mod called The Long War, which took the original games plus expansions, and made it into a fully fledged war simulator. I still haven't completed The Long War, but that is because I am also concurrently making a fan fiction piece about it and my ability to write about it drastically lags behind my ability to go into gaming trances that consume my life. The latest iteration of X-Com is the sequel released this month. It sticks to the tried and true elements of the series - a strategic overlay over a squad-level turn based game complemented by a tech tree and a linear storyline. The four soldier archetypes have been given an overhaul and there are more customisation options than ever, including the ability to select the soldier's attitude, gender and nationality. Maps are now partially procedurally generated and the missions are more varied than ever. There are a new host of aliens armed with abilities both old and new - it was a nasty shock to be mind controlled in an early mission by the sequel's version of the humble sectoid. Base building is simpler and more straightforward than the original, which required a modicum of planning in order to maximize the adjacency bonuses of the various structures. The only building which has an adjacency bonus in the new game is the workshop, which should be placed smack bang in the middle of your base for obvious reasons.
Gameplay wise X-Com 2 has expanded on the Concealed mechanic introduced in The Enemy Within DLC, extending this ability to the whole squad in specific missions. This allows the player to set up creative ambushes, and really sells the "resistance" theme of the game. Time limits on missions add an element of pressure not commonly seen in the original. Where the game excels at are the little touches that make your soldiers come alive. As I stated earlier, the game has always been about my intrepid band of soldiers, which is also why I really liked the Jagged Alliance series and its quirky cast of mercenaries. The ability to carry your wounded squadmates and mobile extraction zones are great additions to the story-telling possibilities in-game. Soldiers left behind can be rescued in subsequent missions. Gravely wounded soldiers stagger and collapse once back at base, having given their all - they put their head in their hands when they fail, and smile with satisfaction on the flight home when they succeed. In cases where they succeed but lose a soldier they hold themselves erect with grim pride, proud to have succeeded while simultaneously mourning their fallen comrade. You can see them socializing in the bar, working out in the training centre, or recovering in the infirmary, and you can pick out the soldiers you have customized. In fact the main menu screen shows one of your elite soldiers standing in the shadows, preparing to make a move against ADVENT forces. While X-Com 2 eschews the fatigue system which makes training up multiple squads necessary in the Long War, it still has a Shaken mechanic akin to that of virtual PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Soldiers who are shaken have their Will reduced to 0, making them extremely brittle and prone to panicking. Their voices change from brash and gung-ho to nervous and worried. They can, however, fight their way back by performing well in subsequent missions. Think of Corporal Hudson from Aliens, who went on a mission cock-sure and arrogant, had his nerve broken by the turn of events ("Game over, man, game over!"), but found his courage again and went out swinging in the end.
X-Com depicts one of your soldiers in the main loading screen, adding to the sense of "ownership" one has of the game. Here Sergeant "Bhagpuss" Taylor lurks in the shadows, hiding from ADVENT patrols.
I love these little touches. If it were up to me, I'd turn this game into a kind of military Sims, where soldiers can interact with other base staff, build friendships, fall in love, grow to despise someone, and so on. Humanity against an existential threat strikes a powerful chord with me, and I've always liked games, movies and TV shows based around these themes. Call me idealist, but when the chips are down I'd like to think that people can put their differences aside and work together in the face of annihilation. Or maybe they can't, and we're all fucked. X-Com lets me play out this scenario with a customizable cast of characters who are all too mortal. Permadeath has never been as effective or meaningful as a narrative tool in gaming as it has been used in X-Com. The plaques of the fallen on the wall, along with the customized epithets, allows for a role-playing experience beyond what is normally offered in fantasy games which take healing and resurrection as par for the course. These fallen are true heroes, as far as they can be in a virtual space, and they gave their lives for the cause.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tales from the Blizzard, Part II - Skill and Randomness in Hearthstone and StarCraft

Blizzcon is my favourite e-sports event, primarily because it is the annual apex of the e-sports I most avidly follow, notably StarCraft 2 and WoW Arena. Hearthstone can now also be added to that list, although after seeing that titanic battle between former champions SoS (Blizzcon 2013) and Life (Blizzcon 2014) in the Starcraft 2 grand final the gameplay in HS seems a little shallow by comparison. It was amazing watching Life play in first person mode, and to see how fast he was issuing commands, moving his cursor, swapping from screen to screen and multi-tasking - it was like watching a computer rather than a human at play. At the highest level watching a SC2 professional at play is akin to watching a piano grandmaster performing a symphony. The skill required to manage both micro and macro levels of play is simply amazing to watch. This is the reason why I consider StarCraft 2 to be the apex of e-sports, and why I consider the professionals who play it to be the best of their field.

The final chapter of the SC2 trilogy - Legacy of the Void.

For me, the StarCraft and Hearthstone tournaments starkly illustrated the dichotomy between a purely skill-based game (StarCraft 2) and a game which incorporates randomness as an intrinsic part of its gameplay (Hearthstone). Nothing that happens in StarCraft 2 is random. Units won't go anywhere unless ordered to by human agency. When I play StarCraft 2 I lose because I either screwed up (failure of skill on my part) or my opponent outplayed me (they outskilled me) through better micro (fine unit control, number of actions per minute, twitch, etc.), macro (build order, base layout, tech choices, etc.) or strategy (scouting, initial strategy, counter-strategy, adaptation, improvisation, etc.). There is no RNG here. The factors which determine winning or losing are completely deterministic, either by my actions or by opponents.

Hearthstone by comparison, has randomness in its heart. I can play a hand of Hearthstone optimally and still lose from a freakish RNG result. You can play SC optimally and still lose, too, but the key difference is that the reason why you lost is that your opponent out-skilled you, not because they pulled a Mal'Ganis card out of their ass (1 in 15 chance) after playing a Bane of Doom card and making themselves immune to your killing blow. HS is not completely random - player agency is present in deck creation and play order, and this is where the skill in HS lies. Initial hand, draw order, and random effects from cards all lie in the domain of RNG, however, and something about losing thanks to RNG, especially when you know you have been playing well, just drives me up the wall. HS's random elements doesn't mean it lacks skill - the best players of Hearthstone apply probability and statistics to be successful in the game. This is also why they have to play a large number of games, in order to even out the randomness which can dramatically tilt the result of single matches.

Currently sitting at rank 8. My win rate is over 55% using a combination of Fatigue Druid, Aggro Druid and Dragon Priest, but I would still need to play around 450 games to get to Legendary in one month. That's 15 games a day, winning 8-9 of them. 15 games times 15 minutes (average time for a game for me) equals 3 hours and 45 minutes daily.

HS is just not deterministic the way StarCraft 2 is, and its inherent randomness probably means that no HS world champion will ever claim multiple titles in the same way SoS did in this year's Blizzcon championship. Skill based games are more predictable than random games. Both Life and SoS are previous StarCraft 2 Blizzcon champions, but last year's Hearthstone champion Firebat failed to even qualify for the regionals in 2015. This would not be from lack of skill on his part - it's because the random elements of the game make repeated outcomes (winning a tournament) dependent on variables beyond a player's control. The fact that the same group of HS players regularly appear at the top of the ladder shows that there is a discrete skill set which governs success in HS. The fact that the very top guys keep changing, however, seems to suggest that the RNG dominates the game - to put it another way, skill only takes you so far, and the rest is dependent on luck. The top 8 Hearthstone finalists of Blizzcon in 2015 are completely different to the top 8 finalists of Blizzcon in 2014. By contrast, four StarCraft 2 quarterfinalists in 2014 (Life, Classic, herO and Innovation) returned in 2015 and the eventual champion in 2015 (SoS) was the Blizzcon champion in 2013.
Otsuka is the 2015 HS champion and he deserves props for that achievement. In addition to being able to play the odds you also have to be a determined grinder, and if you're rocking a 55% win rate it is estimated that you would need to play around 400-500 games to attain Legendary rank. After that Otsuka would have had to win the tournaments to qualify for Blizzcon, then win the actual Blizzcon championships itself. There's a famous saying in boxing that you aren't really the champion until you defend your title, however, and I think it applies equally well to HS. If we see repeat players appearing in the top 8 of Blizzcon next year it will go a long way in legitimizing HS as a skill-based e-sport rather than a crap shoot at the highest level. There's a reason why Korean and Chinese players interviewed at Blizzcon look down their noses at HS as a game - they don't rate it as a game of skill, especially in comparison to MOBAs and SC2. This is also probably the reason why Blizzard is trying to "balance" the game by splitting it into two different formats. If Otsuka or Firebat, or any of the top 8 of 2014 and 2015 come back however, for Blizzcon 2016 - well, there might be something to the game after all. Poker and Magic The Gathering have both had repeat world champions, and the success of these repeat champions is incontestable proof that there is more to these games than just drawing cards. Time will tell if someone can do the same for Hearthstone.