FILTHY CONSOLE JOCKEY
As mentioned before, I’m playing X-Com 2 on my Xbone with the season pass add-on (I know, I should be waiting for the War of the Chosen expansion to launch in August but this itch demands scratching now). Why the console version? Because Firaxis (and by extension, the wonderfully titled Blind Squirrel Games) have done a disgustingly good job of making it work on a console. Believe me, if X-Com 2 had remained PC only I would have bought a new rig to play it, such is my passion for the gaming equivalent of a kick to the face.
I fire up the tutorial mission because I haven’t played in a while. It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to play, it’s just that the tutorial starts the campaign story and that gets me in the mind-set. I go through the motions, getting reacquainted with an older version of Central Officer Bradford from Enemy Unknown and his current mission to rescue the commander (me) from the clutches of the now entrenched aliens.
There’s some interesting role reversal in X-Com 2 as, regardless of how well you played the previous games, it starts from the position of the alien forces having won: they occupy Earth. X-Com is now a ragtag band of insurgents and this allows Firaxis to address a complaint made about their two earlier games: the enemies were always lying in wait for the player, often unfairly ambushing them. In the sequel, most missions start with the player’s squad in stealth. Now the player can orchestrate ambushes on the AI. Unless they’re spotted.
And we’re back to the shiny thing with the infeasibly large dark cloud brooding within it.
The tutorial explains the stealth mechanic, as well as movement, turns, how to perform actions and all the associated gubbins you need to know to play the tactical portion of the game. An interesting wrinkle of the tutorial mission is including the unavoidable death of two squad members. One dies through negligence after being flanked by an Advent trooper, the other sacrifices themselves to allow Bradford to escape with the commander. The game doesn’t dwell on these events but they are important tips that will become more relevant as the game progresses.
The mission wraps and the story continues, revealing that you are the same commander that took part in the ‘original’ war of Enemy Unknown/Within and have been held hostage by the victorious aliens for some decades. You also have a mysterious piece of alien technology buried in your skull that your new science officer Doctor Tygan removes – what could it mean?! Yes, the story is tropey as Hell but it has fun with it so I can’t criticise too harshly.
An introduction to my new base follows, along with some explanation of the various departments and functions of it, but your engineer, Lily Shen, requires you to steal some tech from Advent to fulfil it’s potential.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Our first mission then. Operation: Diamond Shriek?! Hold the phone. No, I did read that correctly. Honestly, this game creates mission names like any self-respecting terrible action movie: by joining two words that don’t belong together in a sentence.
I go with the default squad presented to me. At this stage it doesn’t really matter as everyone is greener than the Riddler’s underpants (with the exception of Jane Kelly, a survivor of the tutorial who was promoted to ranger class).
Of the four recruits selected, one of them has been drawn from my own pool, my female version of Damon Baird (coz I loves me some Gears), complete with goggles and questionable blonde highlights. I opt to stick Kelly with her default shotgun loadout rather than swapping to the assault rifle as I normally would (at this stage, staying as far away from the enemy as possible is always desirable). The X-Com part of my brain has already set her on a wetwork path for wreaking havoc up close.
That’s really the only change (or not) of note. I have a broad rule: randoms don’t get customized until they’ve earned it by making the rank of sergeant. That way when they die because of my mistakes, I can care less. At least that’s the theory. Eyes the box of tissues sitting next to him warily.
The squad drops into the mission (the game does a great job of making your soldiers look like badasses in the cut scenes) and I’m presented with a scenario I’ve encountered on my previous attempts: make it to the target tech and disarm a faulty component before it destroys the objective.
This is where Firaxis has really started turning the screws on X-Com.
THE SADISM OF GAME DEVS
You see, in Enemy Unknown there were no timers. You could take as long as you wanted on a mission. Hell, you could take as long as you wanted on the campaign, within reason. One of the elements introduced in Enemy Within that was retained and expanded for the sequel are timed mission imperatives (and a doomsday countdown clock for the campaign). Whereas previously I would have swept a mission slow and steady to ace it, now a lack of speed can cost me the objective and, in some cases, my squad as well.
The tech is located on the back of a truck in a small stationary convoy located in snowy Bent Armpit, Nowheresville, and I have 8 turns to reclaim it.
Mindful of the round timer, I move the 4 man team up the convoy quickly – but not too quickly, no squandering both actions to move. My squad always finish a turn in full cover on overwatch where possible, hunkered down behind partial cover where not.
X-Com can be regarded as a cover shooter of sorts. Positioning troops behind half cover (a waist-high object like a fence or trash can) will provide a defensive bonus, moving them behind full cover (taller objects such as vans or walls) gives a better bonus. Flanking an adversary where their cover no longer provides, well, cover, gives the attacker an offensive bonus in the same way Private Cannon Fodder experienced the business end of in the tutorial.
Two turns in and I happen across the first enemies: an Advent officer and two troopers guarding the truck carrying target package. Red ‘tiles’ on the ground mark the areas where I can’t move my squad or they will be discovered and I lose the element of surprise.
I take a further turn positioning the four soldiers in cover around my prey, using trees and stopped vehicles, making sure each of them has line of sight on the Advent forces. Pulling right trigger with each selected soldier confirms my pessimistic suspicions: the target hit percentages are all soft. All troops start with an aim attribute somewhere in the low sixties (out of a hundred) which sounds okay but once you start adding cover and enemy buffs to that aim number, it goes from okay to more chance of them shooting themselves in the face than hitting the target.
Luckily, each soldier has a grenade that doesn’t require a hit percentage. And my Baird wannabe has the best angle on all three enemies.
So I prepare my first ambush. The grenade will damage the officer and outright kill the weaker troopers, while my 3 other soldiers will be in high cover set to overwatch (a passive mode that allows soldiers to fire on enemy movement with a slight aim penalty) when the explosion alerts the AI to my presence and triggers the enemy movement phase. Overkill perhaps, but at this early on my troops are both squishy and fairly incompetent – like me playing an FPS.
It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel with a rocket launcher, right?
NEXT WEEK: DROPPING THE HAMMER (MOST LIKELY ON MY OWN FOOT)