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20 January 2015 @ 10:39 pm
(modded) Game Review: XCom: Long War  
Twenty-two years ago, I put a demo disc in my computer and installed a demo for a game called X-Com: UFO Defense. The demo was a single tactical mission with no strategic layer at all, where you took six soldiers with laser weapons and a mix of armor on a terror mission. At night. Against snakemen and chryssalids.


That's X-Com, baby! photo chryssalid.gif

I played that terror mission dozens of times, and by the time I got a hold of the actual game I could nearly do it in my sleep. I played X-Com classic for hundreds of hours over the years, most recently playing through a full game just a couple years ago. Just after most of the info about XCom: Enemy Unknown came out, actually, since a lot of what I heard really didn't make me happy. No time units? Only one base? Only four units in combat at one time?! Blah blah dumbed down blah blah kids these day blah blah grognards.txt.

Then when the game came out and I heard about stuff like multiple abduction missions at once of which you can only pick one, because apparently X-Com is too cheap to hire a helicopter, or how some missions just appear with no warning (in X-Com classic, the aliens created a UFO for everything they wanted to do, and you could stop it if you had the intel and resources to do so), I gave it a pass. I read an interview a month or so ago that summed up the differences pretty well:
It’s not that I would have done things the same way they did it, I certainly would have done things somewhat differently, because although you had some interesting strategies to pursue and so on, it did feel like you were being constrained along certain paths, rather than have a more open random game, which is what the original X-Com was.
-Julian Gollop, creator of the original X-Com, here
I wasn't interested in illusionism that in trying to give me a cinematic experience would only annoy me, so I ignored nuXCom entirely.

Then I heard about Long War.

Reading the description, it seemed like it would solve a lot of the problems that leapt out at me when I read about nuXCom. More units in battle? Aliens need to spawn UFOs to perform missions instead of teleporting abductions in? No overwhelming need to satellite rush? Eh, I'd give it a try. So I waited until nuXCom was 75% off on Steam, waited a few more months until "Enemy Within" was 75% off, then waited a few more months and finally gave it a try. And, well:


Long War is long.

All of that is from one game of Long War. I haven't played nuXCom vanilla at all, so it's possible that some of what I talk about here might sound bizarre or nonsensical. I don't know know that all of these are issues with the original game, problems that are introduced by Long War, problems exacerbated by Long War, or just pet peeves that I found annoying.

But let me leap into my first major complaint--line of sight detection is unbelievably bad.


"Hey guys, the new issue of US Weekly is out! Can you believe...what? What are you yelling about?"

After 177 hours I'm never playing nuXCom again, but if I did, I'd never play Ironman because I've had tons of problems with moving to positions that should be able to see aliens coming up with nothing. That screenshot is one of the most egregious, but I've seen soldiers on top of ramps be unable to see aliens standing on the ramp, soldiers getting shot by invisible (to them) Floaters, soldiers getting shot through walls, soldiers being unwilling to lean just a little farther around a corner or over a roof to fire on an enemy, on and on and on. Since there's no time units and soldiers can only perform one to two actions per turn--generally, shoot, move and shoot, or move twice, though perks can change that--shitty LoS can completely ruin a turn and was one of my major sources of reloads.

LoS was a lot better in X-Com classic both because the basic detection was better and because X-Com classic allowed free fire, which nuXCom does not. You can only fire at visible enemies, I assume because nuXCom ditches the strategic management of ammo: weapons require reloading, but everyone has infinite reloads (unless using explosive weapons like grenades or rockets, where ammo is tracked). That's not automatically a bad thing, especially since X-Com Classic was bugged and all ammo still in weapons at the end of a mission vanished, resulting in silly "eject all magazines then end turn" strategies, but it does mean that allowing free fire would let soldiers blow up all the cover or buildings with no tactical considerations other than time taken, so I can see why it was removed.

But even so, it means that I don't have any of the stories I have from X-Com classic, where my solution to a couple aliens in a house was to just open fire on the house with everyone and hope that the flood of bullets/lasers/plasma would hit something, or where I'd run out of time units in view of an alien with a blaster launcher and have a rookie cooling his heels in the Skyranger take a Hail Mary shot across the entire map and hit the the alien, saving my squad. Plus, look at that picture. Most of the time I could draw a clear line (of sight) from the soldier to the alien, but nuXCom refused to let me do anything about it. Ugh.


That's a lot of categories compared to the original.

In X-Com classic, all your troops were basically interchangeable. Sure, your soldiers could get promotions and their stats would go up a bit, and stronger people should carry heavier weapons, and anyone with Bravery <40 should be immediately sacked, but X-Com classic is less about any individual soldier than about the squad as a whole. nuXCom has perks and soldier classes and special abilities and gene mods and MEC soldiers and fiddly bits galore.

I thought I would hate this feature of nuXCom, but I actually came to really like it. Two actions per turn instead of time units is awful when all you have is rookies, but once you start promoting troops up to Infantry or Rocketeers or Medics or Scouts and they start gaining abilities that interact with the turn structure, it gets a lot more interesting. Do I move to try to get a better shot, or do I stay here so I can use Light 'Em Up. Do I sent my sniper off alone because she gets a bonus if no one is nearby, risking her being caught out alone? Do I chop off a soldier's limbs to make a MEC trooper, when it changes their abilities and XP? Who do I give gene mods to?

Those kind of expanded individual options also led to some great moments.


FALCOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON PAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNNCCCCCCCCCCCCCCHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

On the other hand, I hated the limited number of troops. Long War has more than vanilla nuXCom, with a base of six (instead of four), increasing to eight with some research, ten when assaulting alien bases (plural. Apparently you can only assault one in vanilla?), and twelve when going on the final mission. In comparison, the Skyranger in X-Com classic can carry fourteen troops, and the Avenger can carry twenty-six. I save-scummed a lot while playing my game, and while I think some of it was just caused by naming a bunch of my soldiers after my friends and not wanting to see them die, a lot of it was because I had eight soldiers against up to fifty aliens in some maps, so any single death represented a huge loss of combat potential. In X-Com classic my soldiers died in droves, but every individual was basically interchangeable so it didn't matter and I had a lot more of them.


Tiny patch of fog of war has six muton elites? That's XCom, baby!

While I loved the visual design of the aliens--compare old sectoids to new sectoids, and that picture doesn't show the way the new sectoids scuttle around on all fours--the actual behavior of aliens in battle is mostly bullshit illusionism. Aliens always come in pods, and they get a free move whenever they're spotted. Usually it's to move into cover, which in classic modern fashion is basically required to avoid a horrible death in nuXCom (and, admittedly, in real life), but if it's something like a sectopod that can't take cover, they'll sometimes just blow up your soldier. Of course, if an alien group moves into your line of sight during their turn, you don't get a free move. Not letting aliens move into cover would mean they all died before they could take a turn because cover is so important, but it still feels like aliens are cheating. And not in the "they have advanced technology" sense, in the "the rules are different for them" sense.

Of course, the rules really are different for them, because aliens in the fog of war don't actually move. They just teleport from waypoint to waypoint until you see them, and which point they scatter into cover. There are some powers or pieces of equipment that reduce alien detection range, and if your soldiers have these you can actually see the teleporting happen. Apparently there used to be a bug where the aliens would teleport into a waypoint in line of sight, or even in the middle of the player's squad, then all open fire and kill half the team. This is a bug in the sense that they weren't supposed to teleport that close, but teleporting is intended behavior and can lead to things like soldiers covering all the entrances of a scouted and empty building only to have Mutons pile out of it if someone takes a closer look. photo 9-675b55b0c6c6cf55890299e1f2ff8237adb6ac4d.gif


Uh, Strike One, you've got necromancers on your six, over.

Similarly, terror missions are also mechanically annoying. On the one hand, moving next to civilians tells them to get to da choppa, unlike X-Com classic where they just wandered around randomly with no concern for their own safety. On the other hand, every turn the game decides that a certain number of civilians have to die. This can be zero, and if more civilians are killed by active aliens than the counter it doesn't kill any extra, but if the counter isn't hit the game will just murder civilians in the fog of war regardless of the presence or absence of aliens. That picture there is one of (note: one of. There were more) the times I saw it happen--no enemies nearby, fog of war only small enough to contain civilian, civilian...dies and comes back as a zombie, because there were chryssalids on the other side of the map.

Game design always has some illusionism because simulating the world is impossible, but when you notice it this blatantly it just seems lazy. There are other issues that bothered me, like the fact that my Europe-based interceptors can head to Siberia to chase UFOs in Russian airspace but UFOs in Egypt are off limits because apparently the continents have invisible air walls around them, but the major ones were the cheats on alien movement. I know there were a lot of complaints about the hunt-the-last-XT part of X-Com classic missions and how you'd spend fifteen minutes and then find them cowering in a closet on the third floor of a mansion somewhere (and they'd Overwatch shoot your soldier who found them, because of course), but I'd rather have alien movement tracked and the occasional shot out of the darkness than teleporting spawn pods.


We shall defeat the XT menace using shotgun jazz hands.

Other than these annoyances, the moment-to-moment gameplay was pretty similar to what I remember. Build up a stable of soldiers; shoot down UFOs, though only small ones until you get better weaponry; retrieve alien technology and research it; slowly turn the tide; and became a black market arms and medical cavader dealer in order to fund your multinational organization. I even made the same stupid errors as in X-Com classic--pro tip, never sell or give away Elerium--with the same result that I had to run UFO missions to pile up more materials to get the MacGuffin so I could win the game. While nuXCom has more of a storyline, with the mysterious Council occasionally popping in to give you storyline missions directly and characters like Dr. Vahlen and Officer Bradford and a scheduled alien base assault and alien attack on XCom, Long War meant that I could ignore most of those without much problem. I stopped doing Council missions that didn't offer panic reduction about halfway through, I spent one turn in the Newfoundland mission and spawned four packs of chryssalids before deciding LOLNO and dusting off, and I shot down a lot of UFOs without sending a squad after them or even just let them do their missions and still continued on. Long War is about the long game, and you can avoid a lot of battles and still win the war.

You can't quite lose a lot of battles and still win, though. The increased importance of individual soldiers means that if your star troops keep dying you're in for hell. Taking a squad of rookies and PFCs up against end-game troops was much more possible in X-Com classic, where almost all improvements came from technology research, whereas in nuXCom you'll probably end up with nothing more than corpses to show for your efforts. On the other hand, you can lose a few soldiers and run, and even showing up is better for managing panic and advancing the war effort than just ignoring the situation completely.


Human, hear me! I am the Almighty Tallest!

The end-game story is dumb.

I'm tired of sci fi stories where humanity is uniquely special and amazing and has a glorious destiny due to our fantastic abilities. It's a lot like games about grizzled, brown-haired thirty-something white guys. The problem isn't that any individual sci fi story has humanity as uniquely special and amazing with a glorious destiny due to our fantastic abilities, but that all of them do. You have to go to something like Blindsight to find sci fi that doesn't take that view, and I'm not sure it counts because it takes the complete opposite tack.

Besides, if the Ethereals wanted a successor species to carry on their legacy for "what lies ahead," they had it nearby the whole time. Sectoid brains in chryssalid bodies. Superior physical ability coupled with superior psionic power, all in a neat package. Sure, the new species would be dependent on cybernetics and surgery to reproduce or even exist, but I'm sure a few hundred generations of genetic engineering could fix that. And the chryssalids have a physics defied gestational period, so a few hundred generations would take maybe two, three months, tops.

On the other hand, we already have Starcraft, so maybe it's better this way.  photo 6-0faa7aa343f6c067899c8c2579e6ea91d335662e.gif


Sic semper aliēnīs.

I came into this expecting to dislike it because of its deviation from the original, and while there were certainly aspects I really didn't like, it's a bit unfair because there were annoying parts of X-Com classic too, like the ammo shuffle I mentioned above or the fact that your starting base's layout is awful, which matters when the aliens can attack you multiple times and you fight in the actual base layout you have. I played it for 177 hours, after all, and I'm not going to be one of those people who post the Steam reviews about how terrible the game is and how no one should buy it, playtime: 500 hours.

But I won't play it again. After I post this review, I'll be heading back to Steam and deleting nuXCom. It was fun, but that kind of controlled experience isn't what I look for when I play strategy games. I prefer X-Com classic's sandbox approach to nuXCom's plot, even if I do like nuXCom's alien designs better and appreciate some of its other features, like gene modding or persistent soldier inventory (though mods give X-Com classic that one). And a lot of storyline and the missions just annoyed me, and that's not a function of the mod. But overall, I think I had a good time, and I'd recommend it. At least, the modded version. There is a "Not So Long War" setting for people who don't have months to pour into the same game, and it's tweakable for some of the things that annoy you. But if you're an X-Com classic partisan like I was, approach it carefully. I came on the edge of quitting in disgust dozens of times, and only sheer bullheaded stubbornness kept me going. That's not a great recommendation overall, but it is what it is.

I played large parts of the game with the music off and the Frozen Synapse OST queued up, which I recommend both intrinsically and as XCom battle music.
 
 
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Frozen Synapse - Focus
 
 
 
q99q99 on January 21st, 2015 06:46 am (UTC)
One of the nice things about chryssalids is as long as you have one live one, there's never a shortage of chryssalids corpses!
dorchadasdorchadas on January 21st, 2015 03:26 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I'd use nice to describe that!  photo chryssalid.gif

I read a Let's Play that has the aliens deliberately creating the chryssalids as a weapon of mass destruction, with the end result that most of Japan gets overrun. Plenty of chryssalid corpses then!
q99q99 on January 21st, 2015 05:28 pm (UTC)
-I'm not sure I'd use nice to describe that!-

Convenient? Profitable for alien corpse-sellers?
dorchadasdorchadas on January 22nd, 2015 12:24 am (UTC)
It certainly helped fund my war against the XT menace.
q99q99 on January 22nd, 2015 04:06 am (UTC)
Past a certain point, who *buys* all these corpses? The governments hardly need more...
dorchadasdorchadas on January 22nd, 2015 04:16 am (UTC)
The old fan theory was restaurants.
q99q99 on January 22nd, 2015 04:28 am (UTC)
That's certainly one of the fan theories. Also private collectors.