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Drakon

Typical Xenonaut Mission

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I've been trying to wrap my head around how a typical mission in Xenonauts 2 would actually go. The following would not apply to base defense missions.

There is a couple of assumptions i am making:
1.) The Xenonauts are a clandestine armed paramilitary organisation that is not working directly with the government.
2.) In the missions that i am considering there are government-affiliated armed personel (might be legal armed private security forces rather than army, for instance) on the map who are hostile towards the Xenonauts and will use their weapons against the Xenonauts if given the opportunity.
3.) Given that Xenonauts 2 is supposed to be set in 2015, long after anti-terror units have been established in most countries, whatever country they are operating in probably has one.
4.) The Xenonauts have access to a magical transport plane, which does not need a runway to start or land, can reach any point on the globe and fly back on a single without refueling, and cannot be detected by radar, thermal sights or normal visual confirmation.

A mission should have several phases, some of which might be so short that they are possibly not even noticeable.

Phase 1: Decision Phase: Initially, the Xenonauts figure out that there even IS a mission. Some notification pops up for the player. The player chooses to either do anything about it, or decides to ignore it from the get go.
Phase 2: Intelligence Gathering Phase: here is where the Xenonauts attempt to obtain as much information on their mission as possible. This phase might be forced to be very short, for instance if an UFO crashed and if the Xenonauts want to do anything, they need to do it almost immediately before the national troops get there. If this is something like an assassination mission, this intelligence gathering phase might encompass several days, during which potentially some operatives assigned to gathering intelligence might not be available for other tasks. Some intelligence gathering skills might influence how quickly the operative gathers the information, and the more time he gets the more data he can provide. This might include: biome for the mission, map size and type (cluttered, open, ...), number of enemy troops on the map, type of alien controlling the troops, some information on the equipment of local troops, response time of local forces (and maybe a way to delay them), and possibly even a full map reveal if enough time is spent on gathering intelligence. It is conceivable that the operative might be injured or even killed during his attempts to gather intelligence ... or potentially be captured prompting a rescue mission (though thinking about it even though i like the idea that would probably be suicide). (Personally i wouldn't like an operative to be killed during an event i have little control over as a player ... some people might like random deaths at higher difficulty settings, though.)
Phase 3: Silent Approach: Since the Xenonauts are typically the attackers, they would want to get in the best position possible undetected before opening fire. In a number of scenarios - assassinations for instance - optimally the first loud shots fired should also be the ones right before retreat is called, but realistically that often will not be possible (real life suppressors do not work at all like Hollywood ones). There might be cases where the Xenonauts are detected on approach, and this phase is basically skipped.
Phase 4: Going Loud: The Xenonauts have been detected, shots may have been fired, the hostile troops are now aware that an enemy is present, their behaviour probably changes from patrols to grouping up and taking defensive positions or moving out to engage the Xenonauts. Maybe a radio jam is in place to delay reinforcements, but normally radio jamming is detected pretty quickly - especially today in the era of mobile phones it will only take seconds, because the mobile phone company will get alerts about thousands of packages suddenly being dropped in the vicinity of a signal tower - so this might slow down reaction slightly, but not by much. If the radios are not jammed, the first thing to happen will be the enemies of the Xenonauts calling for government backup. It would probably be adviseable to give some type of alert to the player that enemy reinforcements are now on the way, and if he plans to finish the mission he might prefer to do it quickly. The first to arrive should be special forces probably of a counter-terrorist unit. These are probably on par skill wise with the Xenonauts, and given that the governments have alien cooperators, likely are technologically at the same level as well or even better. I'd suggest a team size of 4-10, roughly equivalent to the number of Xenonauts on the map, arriving a certain number of turns after the alarm has sounded, immediately aggressively spreading out hunting for the Xenonauts. These are tough enemies, and fighting them has little benefit in the long run if it could instead be avoided, but their numbers are small so there is the option of engaging and eliminating them to continue on with the mission without further interruption.
Still several turns later the actual reinforcements arrive - likely normal military or police forces, less trained and with worse equipment than the Xenonauts, but in numbers that are downright impossible to fight; 50+ would seem like a reasonable start, if the AI can handle those without hanging up (if not, spawn 20 and just spawn a new one for every one that dies?). These are normal soldiers, so their progression through the map will probably be A LOT slower than that of the Xenonauts or the special forces immediate response team. They'll very gradually and carefully move from cover to cover, and might have access to light offscreen artillery, basically slowly pushing the Xenonauts out if they haven't left on their own already. Gameplay wise they function as a soft timer that ends the mission, similar to how some games spawn an invincible enemy that will hunt you off the map after a certain time. Eventually having either completed their mission or facing resistance that they cannot overcome, the Xenonauts retreat to their pickup zone and end the mission (or all of them are dead...).


Now, one thing that is giving me a bit of a headache are helicopters and the Xenonauts plane. Normal anti terror units are usually supported by helicopters, which, if nothing else, give aerial information, but usually also carry a sniper at least. If the player is attacking a military installation in the (in this scenario still existing) USSR, i would not be surprised if the Speznaz arrive by Mi-24 (NATO designation Hind), and decide that since the thing is already in the area, why not use it's rocket pods and electric gatling cannon? Some reason would need to be found why this is not happening ... maybe the magical Xenonauts support plane is shooting them all down?
But then there's the magical Xenonauts plane itself. Since it can land and start without needing a runway, it can obviously go very slow, probably even is a VTOL. Now, let's assume that we cannot put a minigun turret on the thing for sci-fi tech reasons as it would somehow wreck the stealth properties ... but why should rocket pods not be doable? My initial assumption was that the Xenonauts had only one of the magical planes ... if i can have multiple, can i have one transport Xenonauts and another with the transport cavity packed full with guided missiles? If there is only one, what is the explanation for the gradual increase in squad size throughout the game? If i can modify the plane, why can i not add weaponry instead of transport capacity?
If there is only one Xenonauts plane, there'd be the option to embrace the rocket pods: one could simply give the player the special ability to throw a flare once or twice per mission, and in the next enemy turn the invincible transport plane zooms over the map and unleashes hell on a three square radius around the place the flare landed. Of course since a large number of missions will be assassination missions, one would have to consider whether this is wanted as an option to just blow away the main alien endboss. One option to prevent this would be to give the alien boss a type of energy shield that will make him invulnerable for one turn (but maybe also make it so that he cannot do anything himself that turn), that he can only use once per mission, though. If the rocket pods have not been used yet he will automatically keep it in reserve to counter those if they come - if the rocket pods had already been used, he would have heard that, and he knows about that there might be rocket pods if the player has ever used them before. If the player already used the rocket pods elsewhere on the map, this basically means that the alien endboss will be immune to damage the first turn he is engaged.

Given that the aliens know the Xenonauts exist, and that they don't have a base every couple of square kilometers, they can easily infer that they need to have arrived by plane, so it would be reasonable to assume that the alien-influenced military scrambles fighter jets to look for the Xenonauts plane. Even if the plane is invisible and undetectable, the Xenonauts are not, so if the fighter jets got information about where the Xenonauts are disappearing into thin air they could just carpet bomb the area to get the transport plane. Why is this not happening?

The "light offscreen artillery" mentioned previously for the second wave of mundane reinforcements i would implement the same as the Xenonauts' rocket pods: have a soldier throw a flare, shout into his radio and then have projectiles descend from off screen blowing up a number of random squares around where the flare landed. Whether the troops have access to offscreen artillery at all might be dependent on how the players threat rating currently is, and every trooper killed (including special forces) might raise his threat rating by a very small amount.

 

By the way, i am referring to the Xenonauts transport as the "magical plane" because i do not consider a discussion on how it technically achieves these things necessarily fruitful. Basically it is a plot-McGuffin that is necessary for the story to work at all, so in my opinion it makes more sense to initially figure out what exactly it can do, and then go back and find an explanation for how it is doing it afterwards ... in case of doubt, magical alien sci-fi tech mumbo jumbo.

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It's really hard to have a believable implementation of close air support in a balanced squad tactics game, because close air support properly delivered trumps basically all the squad level tactical considerations. A plane two miles up and five miles away simply doesn't fit in the ontology that can care about how much time someone spends aiming a shotgun.

 

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With this style of thinking, the whole point is to set up a scenario that permits ground combat, with around 10 soldiers and no ordnance back-up. Sadly Ripley, we're just not allowed to nuke them from orbit, surety isn't always fun. There are games that combine vehicles of all sizes with infantry fighting but they are usually multiplayer first person shooters or something. It would be good to see some of that in a tactical turn-based game - maybe have another layer between the geoscape and ground combat where your soldier squad is just the tip of the spear, but that would be a different game than what we have here. The translocator idea that was doing the rounds some time ago seems to be one of the best patch-explanations I've heard: that all the sensible, taking-the-fun-out-of-it, aerial bombardments or surveillance just wouldn't be applicable.

Fundamentally, you have to accept some amount of disbelief in order to generate the gameplay that is traditional in this genre. I mean, the original xcom game was made in 1994, seemingly before games or gamers cared about making that much sense. XCOM2 made a lot of changes to rework the essentials of traditional-xcom gameplay into a story/set of mechanics that felt remotely believable. I think that ultimately, linking the global and very local scales is too much.

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I like the idea in X-COM: Apocalypse of agents taking conventional vehicles like cars to a site, it gave a real "men in black" feel.  Hey, if you're running on a budget, why not send a team with concealable weapons on public transport - taxi, train, bus, or tram?  This would make extraction a lot more difficult if things turn hot, especially if you're in a hostile nation.  I guess the skyranger would be on stand by in case a loud extraction was necessary.  A mini game of shots being exchanged between cars (flying or land-based) with agents leaning out the windows to use their weapons would be so much fun!

Edited by RustyNayle

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On 6/9/2018 at 3:18 PM, Ninothree said:

Fundamentally, you have to accept some amount of disbelief in order to generate the gameplay that is traditional in this genre.

While I agree with that, i do think that if it can be avoided, it is not a good idea to just push everything on "Oh well, it's that way because of plot.". If a realistic, reasonable explanation can be found within a non-excessive amount of time, then i do think it can be expected of the writers to do so.

 

On 6/11/2018 at 5:39 AM, RustyNayle said:

I like the idea in X-COM: Apocalypse of agents taking conventional vehicles like cars to a site, it gave a real "men in black" feel.  Hey, if you're running on a budget, why not send a team with concealable weapons on public transport - taxi, train, bus, or tram?

I actually like that idea A LOT. For most places around the globe, reaching them by plane and then car is reasonable within a day, even though it is very understandable why the operatives will be dead tired after a few missions. Even declaring that operatives just need two days for a mission wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea: it will necessiate the player to employ several different teams, which is something that Chris wrote he wants anyways. Of course a number of military installations are deliberately placed in remote locations, so that anyone attempting to approach by car can be more easily detected ... and if things got hot and a military chopper starts looking for you, getting away by normal car becomes impossible if you can't shake pursuit in a nearby city. Another thing is that "concealable weapons" makes it VERY difficult to get to the mission zone in apropriate body armour. You might get through customs with it fine, but it'll make it fairly easy for the aliens to determine the area your base is located in. From what i understood the time span of the game would have to be extended drastically for the idea to work, so that the player could smuggle equipment and personal to and from an operation zone.

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2 minutes ago, Drakon said:

it is not a good idea to just push everything on "Oh well, it's that way because of plot."

Yeah, it is something you have to judge on a case-by-case basis. Ask: does pushing the realism here add anything to the game? Anything less is lazy design. Anything more is kind of a waste of the fact that games are fantasy.

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1 minute ago, Ninothree said:

Yeah, it is something you have to judge on a case-by-case basis. Ask: does pushing the realism here add anything to the game? Anything less is lazy design. Anything more is kind of a waste of the fact that games are fantasy.

Doesn't increasing the realism of the game intrinsically add to the game by educating players, and not doing so ends up causing incorrect beliefs to spread and stick amongst people? I'd go a step further and ask whether deviating from reality adds anything positive to the game, and if not, advise to make things as realistically as possible without a significant increase in cost.

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I think I have to disagree here. I don't think it is the job of a game designer to educate players. Sure, it is great when myths are dispelled but I'm engaging with the game for recreation. Often, for silly and unrealistic escapism. There is room for simulation games, ones that strive to portray the world accurately, but I wouldn't say that is a rule for every designer to adhere to.

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Yes, is this a simulator for education / training purposes, or a game for enjoyment / entertainment / past time?  I think most gamers in this genre opt for the latter, rather than the former.  The game designers have the prerogative to make it whatever they like.

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20 hours ago, Ninothree said:

I think I have to disagree here. I don't think it is the job of a game designer to educate players. Sure, it is great when myths are dispelled but I'm engaging with the game for recreation. Often, for silly and unrealistic escapism. There is room for simulation games, ones that strive to portray the world accurately, but I wouldn't say that is a rule for every designer to adhere to.

You juxtapose a game being realistic and educating with engaging with it for recreation like those were opposing goals. By and large more realistic implementations are also more fun ones ... or game companies wouldn't pay so much to obtain realistic physic engines.

While it's from a different genre, a friend of mine recently sent me a video on the importance of physics in superhero movie fights of all things (Link here)... A lot of people would be inclined to say that here the audience is already expected to accept individuals that spit on most laws of physics to begin with, so why bother? But if you look at a well implemented superhero fight comparing it to the "Batman versus Superman" scene at the end of this movie, i'd wager you'll have to agree that actually a realistic implementation of physical reaction does help in making the movie a better one. Same goes for games.

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1 hour ago, Drakon said:

By and large more realistic implementations are also more fun ones

Yeah I see that. If you consider Portal, its merit is that the physics engine is so plausible. The acceleration of gravity feels so right. Without that accurate reflection of the real world, the game would, quite frankly, suck ass. I think the point I'm arguing is that there is a group of those issues which should be implemented carefully, and another group of those which are too difficult to bother with, or that being bothered to get them right would diminish the fun of the game. I mean look at something like the size of the maps that are used in these games. From what I understand, that isn't a realistic scale for a skirmish. You don't bring a sniper and a shotgun to the same arena. But, it works for the game and that is the golden rule. You can have realism and fun aren't opposing goals, but when they come into tension, fun should pretty much always win. Unless you're using that realism as a theme. It would be an interesting game, one that implemented very real physics in the battle of sci-fi weapons - but I just don't think that it is this game.

Edited by Ninothree

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