Some of you may have noticed that Firaxis released a game called X-COM: Enemy Unknown recently (others of you may have been hiding under rocks in a cave somewhere and missed it). This is kind of a big deal for the genre and for us, and I've been playing the game extensively. I thought it'd be a good idea to share my thoughts on the game and what I think we can learn from it.
1) Appeal & Financial Success: They've done a great job at producing a game that caters to both new fans and old ones. What I mean is that the game looks good enough and has been streamlined enough that it can appeal to people who would not normally play turn-based strategy games at all. I've seen numerous comments from people saying "I don't usually play turn-based strategy games, but I really enjoyed X-Com". That's really nice to see.
They've also catered to the hardcore fans, like me. I've exclusively been playing Classic Iron Man and it's a difficult game that I'm yet to beat. Admittedly some of that is because of the flaws in the game, but I'll cover those later. The important thing is that the game can be challenging if you want it to, and you can turn off all the cinematic crap if you want to as well.
The wide appeal of the game is something that I admire and envy a little. Xenonauts is never going to have that broad appeal. We'll appeal to the hardcore fans but not so much the people who wouldn't normally play strategy games. It's not a problem, but it's good to see a turn-based strategy game prove that you can appeal to a large number of people and therefore recoup the investment spent on an expensive AAA title even if you are a turn-based strategy.
2) Successful Simplification: A lot of the streamlining works really well. Missions are much faster, the cover system is easy to understand and use, I think their reloading system is a good one too. The health system is clear and easy to understand, and is better than the numerical value that we're using in Xenonauts. They've made a fast, slick game from a game that was anything but, without compromising the tactical element too much.
3) UI: Somewhat tied into the above, the UI is great. Really slick and easy to use, presenting the information you need and looking great at the same time. This impressed me a lot, I never found myself fighting the interface. The camera perhaps, but that's a bit different. It might be this is something you notice more when you've been developing games for a bit, but it really stood out for me.
4) Level Design: Having spent quite a lot of time trying to work out how to put together convincing maps that are full of objects that can only ever be either full-tile height or half-tile height, I know how difficult it can be do to it. Firaxis make it look easy. You can look at one of their maps and it looks incredibly natural, but at the same time you can instantly see what is cover and what blocks LOS etc. Trust me, they've done a great job with that. The number of times I've looked at a prop and thought "that's a perfect piece of waist high cover" is untrue. It's actually even harder for them than it us for us, as their maps are very tight and constricted (unlike ours).
5) Destructability: Fighting in these maps is a pleasure. Your soldiers smashing windows and shooting through them, or just leaping through them, is great. Seeing walls and props destroyed by weapon fire is great, and explosives feel weighty and flatten the terrain just as you'd expect. Explosive tiles like the gas pumps or the exploding cars add a lot to the battlefield too. I think they've done a great job with the destructibility (even if the lack of free fire means you can't use it in the way you might want); you get a great feeling of power when you flatten half a building with a rocket. That's old school X-COM all over.
THE LESS GOOD (THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM):
1) Restrictive Strategy Layer: the strategy layer is a shadow of its former self. It has some elements present and correct, but plenty of things that make perfect sense within the context of the new game but seem arbitrarily restrictive compared to the previous games. Why can't I just hire scientists or engineers? Why can't I buy a second Skyranger and attack more than one abduction site each turn? Why can't the aliens attack my base? Why does ignoring an abduction site in a country raise panic in the entire continent, but completing one only reduces panic in that particular country? Why can't I sell manufactured goods at all (or captured plasma weapons)?
The game obviously funnels you down some pre-set paths, and one of the wonderful things about X-COM was your freedom to approach the game any way you liked. The genuinely emergent gameplay. This game feels more like a series of pre-set single-player missions, using the research / resource management to lock you out of the later missions unless you stay on top of it. Sure, it's a better strategic layer than the vast majority of games will manage - but it's not quite X-Com, and if you put that name on the game you'll always be compared to the original.
2) Alien "Discovery" & Free Movement: This really annoys me. If you've played the game, you'll know what I mean - when aliens are sighted (even if during your turn), the aliens will get a free move. This is understandable to an extent, as the game is extremely cover-based and if aliens did not do it they'd be annihilated in the turn they're discovered because they'd be out of cover.
That said, they shouldn't be able to use the free move to move towards your troops, PARTICULARLY IF THEY ARE CHRYSSALIDS. If they are revealed towards the end of the turn (this can happen through no fault of the player, like a stray shot knocking down a wall) I've had them close most of the distance towards my unit with the free move and then immediately take their turn and murder a couple of my squad. You're basically toast at that point...not much fun on Classic Iron Man.
The way that aliens will lurk in one spot is also annoying, because the game is obviously balanced that you are only fighting one group of tough aliens at a time on the harder game settings. I guess it's like in MMOs where it's important to pull single-mobs in dungeons rather than getting large groups of them. The only difference being that it is often semi-random as to what you encounter, so there's no skill in it.
Worse, it actually encourages bad play. The game mechanics encourage you to flank the enemy and kill them, but doing that in-game often results in you activating a second or third group of aliens and turning a manageable situation into a bloodbath. This leads to a more boring playstyle where it is more optimal to snipe the aliens from further away. Not good.
The amount of cover at the start of missions also causes issues sometimes, because you can find yourself pinned in the start zone by a couple of groups of powerful aliens, unable to really move forwards and flank and outgunned by the superior numbers of the enemy. It's just annoying when you get powerful aliens clustered near the spawn zones.
There's also a lot of artificial behavior allowed by the system. Once you've killed all visible aliens, you're almost certainly able to keep all your troops stationary for a few turns to reload and heal up - more enemies won't "activate" until you move further forwards in most cases. It just doesn't seem very organic.
Xenonauts is going to be balanced around the entire alien force in a mission working together to attack and flank you. This means there's never any "safe" moments and there's also no cheating done by the AI if you reveal a lot of the map early on. It's a fair fight. Of course, the disadvantage is we can't have as many aliens in each map (as you might well be fighting them all at once) and the system is less cinematic. I think we can live with that though.
3) 4-6 Soldiers: The most soldiers you can have at once is 6. By the time you reach the max cap, you're starting to feel like you've got a decent team going, but I think having at least 8 would be better. I think that the massive teams of 20 soldiers or whatever you could end up with in the original were far too big, but there are a lot of benefits to a squad in the 8-12 size rather than 4-6.
The most obvious example is the zerg effect, where you send a massive group of men to kill a few aliens. Why does this matter? It matters because in that situation, the aliens are more powerful than the humans are. In every mission I've played in the new X-COM, there have been more aliens than there have been humans. Instead of the aliens who have turned up in this massive invasion fleet being individually fearsome, they're reduced to trying to zerg us. What? The role reversal seems to go against everything in the setting.
In practical terms, too you can have larger maps and larger battles. The X-COM maps are smaller and more confined, and sometimes feel claustrophobic. The ones that ARE bigger just feel too big because you have so few troops to explore them with.
It also means that casualties can be more common. In a new X-COM battle, losing two troops is a disaster even if you have a full squad of 6. If you're playing Classic Iron Man and you do it a couple of missions in a row, your game is pretty much over. One of the defining things about the original X-Com is the fact that your soldiers will often miss an easy shot or a pantless sectoid with a crappy gun will drop your best soldier with a single shot from across the map. To their credit, Firaxis kept this in the game, even though it's annoying - it's X-COM as it should be. But you can't absorb that bad luck as easily with a smaller squad, so it stops being annoying and can end your game.
I had two Thin Men score two critical hits on my best soldiers from miles away on the same turn in a mission earlier, killing my two best soldiers (wearing their new carapace armour) instantly despite them being on full health and behind cover. It's very classic X-COM, but the mission was pretty much over at that point, mostly because the remainder of my team decided it was a good idea to run away screaming or shoot each other. There's always going to be spikes of random luck in the game but larger teams make them less severe.
I'm not actually saying that the new X-COM should have had bigger teams in their game, mostly because the interface wouldn't scale up so well and the game clearly wasn't balanced around large-scale engagements. But I am glad that Xenonauts will have much larger teams.
4) Not Enough Maps: Much as I love the level design work, they really didn't produce enough maps for the game given how many you have to play in each campaign and they don't seem to be randomised. Plus the escort missions are horrible. I find it pretty surprising their first DLC is three new Council Missions, as if they weren't literally the worst type of mission you get given. If the DLC was a $5 pack to double the number of maps in the game, I'd buy it, even if they weren't new tilesets.
5) BUGS! - I'm not claiming that Xenonauts will be bug free on release, because I'm not that naive. Nevertheless, there's too many bugs in new X-COM to be acceptable for a AAA release. These are magnified massively because a lot of veterans will be playing on Iron Man difficulty, so if their game is ruined by a bug then they're going to be absolutely furious about it (I certainly was).
The most annoying ones at the moment are the way the camera can't see through the roof when you're inside the Abductor ship, the dubious clipping for shot LOS (and occasionally with aliens strolling through walls), cars with no obvious flames emerging from them exploding for no valid reason, and the annoying bugs that don't let you select soldiers for missions. Also, if my soldiers only get to make one move per turn, why do they path through the poison cloud left by Thin Men?
All I can take away from this one is a newfound appreciation about how annoying bugs are if you're playing in Iron Man mode. We'll do our best to get Xenonauts as bug-free as possible because I was genuinely livid when I lost a Classic Iron Man game to a bug.
Overall, though, I have to say I've really enjoyed the new X-COM. Perhaps it's not quite the second coming that it was made out to be when it was first announced, but it's a damn good game and I'm glad to see it do well because I think it's good for the genre. They've indirectly raised the interest in our project too, which is also nice.
Is their game perfect? No. Can we learn lessons from what it does well and what it does right? Definitely, yes. But do I think they've done a good job remaking the original XCOM and would I recommend it to a friend? Yes, I would.
I'm still really glad that they didn't do a straight remake though
EDIT - having now completed the game on Clasic Iron Man (this is the only way I played the game), my only additional comment is that the difficulty curve appears to be inverted.