X-Com Archive

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Game Review: Invisible Inc

If a good game scratches a player’s itch, then surely it is the mark of a great game when it scratches an itch a player didn’t know they possessed. Klei Entertainment’s Invisible Inc is of the rare breed of game that excels in doing the latter. It combines the best parts of Shadowrun, X-Com/XCOM, and Monaco into a tactical, turn-based, game of espionage and corporate raiding. Behold, the game I never knew I always wanted.

Invisible Inc’s story and setting are the video game analogue to a really good William Gibson short story. The game is set in the late 21st century; where nation states have collapsed and tyrannical corporations have seen fit to fill the power vacuum. The game opens with the headquarters of the titular black-ops organization being raided by the corporations’ enforcers. As “the Operator”, players have to lead Invisible’s two remaining field agents on a series of missions to secure a new base of operations before the company’s AI dies.

Though restoring Invisible’s standing among the criminal/hacker/freedom fighting underworld may seem a daunting task, the game, itself, is refreshingly short. I mean on the order of FTL short. Though there are plenty of settings that can stretch the game out, a standard run at Invisible Inc could be finished in the neighbourhood of two to three hours. Make no mistake, this is not a point against the game. Nor should it be seen as an indicator that Invisible Inc lacks substance. As was the case with Don’t Starve, one of Klei Entertainment’s previous games, there is much more to Invisible Inc than the scripted story.

The game’s tight timing is, in my estimation at least, a three-fold triumph. First, the time span means I can get invested in a play-through, spectacularly fail at said play-through, and not want to rage quit the game. Second, beginning anew means more variety thanks to the game’s astonishingly robust procedural level generation. Third, every mission is vital when there are only six or seven to a complete game.

Time also manifests as a structural motif within the gameplay. Raids against the corporations are measured on an alarm scale. Each turn gradually increases said alarm. The higher the alarm level, the more guards, security mechs, and firewalls appear. This means the old X-Com stand-by gradually exploring a map and letting the bad guys come to the player won’t work.  Invisible Inc expects players to be bold in their scouting and swift in their actions. Hacking every corporate safe on a level is a great way to score some much needed operating capital, but it also means contending with more infosec and armed security guards. Mobilizing the language of execu-speak, Invisible Inc is a study in risk/reward decision-making.

It’s also deliciously evil of the developers to have money doubling as experience points for the game’s light-RPG elements. This shapes the game such that there will never be enough money to buy everything and level-up all of a character’s stats. Minmaxers and munchkins, the door is on the left.

Though Invisible Inc can be downright brutal on its hardest difficulty level, the learning curve is very accessible. The game features a “rewind” system that lets players reset the game to the start of the previous turn. On the starter difficulty level, players can do this multiple times as a means of effectively having a mulligan on a truly botched job. Once again, the choice reiterates a seeming mantra of challenge absent rage quits.

In terms of interface, Invisible Inc knocks it out of the park. The control scheme is so intuitive that in about fifteen hours of playing, I’ve never had a mis-click. Likewise, sight lines and cover are easily identified – though both can be turned off if a player truly wants to test their mettle. Rotatable camera angles allow for careful planning while maintaining an isometric point of view that evokes fond memories of Origin’s old Crusader games.

It’s also worth mentioning that Invisible Inc does pretty well in terms of building some diversity into the playable characters. Of the ten that can be unlocked, half are women and three are people of colour. While some people might not think this is worth writing home about, I try to pay attention to these things when a developer is making an effort to put more than ubiquitous white dudes in their game.

In the final assessment, it’s clear Invisible Inc has a target audience. Nobody should pick up this game expecting to shoot their way through each mission. Everything about Invisible’s style is meant to reward stealth and cunning. In fact, it’s entirely possible to work through the game without killing a single guard or blowing up a security mech. Violence is a player’s last resort, and senseless violence is always punished. Those inclined to use their wits while sticking it to the man will likely find endless hours of fun with this game. At the same time, Invisible’s story will leave any sci-fi geek worth their salt clamoring for more. Overall, Klei Interactive has produced another game with an aesthetic all its own and mechanics that turn the familiar into something new. Buy it, play it, and feel good about yourself when it shows up on various “Game of the Year” lists.


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Video Game Review: Xenonauts

As of this review, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours with Goldhawk Interactive’s Xenonauts, the planetary defense simulator and self-styled spiritual successor to 1994’s X-Com: UFO Defense. This is triple the amount of time I normally need to spend with a game before putting pen to paper. My delay was primarily due to not knowing what to make of Xenonauts. Despite its claim to being X-Com’s spiritual successor, Xenonauts is more like an artefact from an alternate universe where nobody has ever heard of Microprose. Needless to say this makes Xenonauts a stupendously rewarding and also very challenging experience. Seriously, you will want to read the quick start manual for this game.

Yet from a critical point of view, parsing the game proves to be something of a challenge. Specifically, I had a hell of a time determining the point where homage ends and originality begins in Xenonauts.

On first blush, everything in Xenonauts can be traced back to a common ancestry in X-Com. The Xenonaut organization is X-Com by another name. Solder stats see the return of time units: a game mechanic made (in?)famous in X-Com. Elerium is to Alenium as Mutons are to Androns. Even the strategic flow of the game is replicated from X-Com. Players build a base, shoot down UFOs, send strike teams to clean up crash sites, research alien technology, build their own laser guns, and vanquish the alien threat. Even with the spiritual successor designation in play, I found myself initially unsettled by the wholesale similarities between the two games.

As a slush reader for a SF magazine, I understand that derivation is part of the creative process, but duplication is almost always the anathema of good work. Nevertheless, I kept playing Xenonauts.

I wanted to shoot down one more UFO.

I wanted one more ground operation to break in some rookies.

I wanted one more excuse to try out my new tank.

I wanted more.

Whatever secret sauce goes into the “just one more turn” phenomenon, Xenonauts has it to spare, and that says a lot for the game’s quality.

As I played on, the subtle differences between Xenonauts and X-Com emerged. First and foremost, Xenonaut soldiers can pick up and use alien weapons without researching them. This is absolute heresy for X-Com loyalists. I instantly questioned how Goldhawk could claim to be a spiritual successor to X-Com while getting such a fundamental point wrong. Fortunately, they negotiated these waters to my satisfaction. While a soldier can pick up and use an alien plasma rifle, he/she can not reload it and suffers a huge aim penalty due to alien ergonomics. I quickly learned that it was better to stick with my trusty terrestrial assault rifle than trust the fragile lives of my team to an unknown variable. Thus was the potentially game breaking flaw averted.

Xenonauts also offers a tactical layer to interceptor combat that was absent in X-Com and Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Uknown/Within. Air combat is resolved on a radar screen where players have to jockey for position against UFOs. Further distancing itself from X-Com, Xenonauts’ UFOs attack in waves at multiple points around the globe. Even when a UFO isn’t within the detection radius of a Xenonaut base, players can see the aliens’ nefarious actions – as well as how those actions affect a region’s funding to the Xenonaut project – in real time. Xenonaut interceptors and UFOs alike can fly in squadrons of up to three craft, allowing for some interesting tactical choices on the part of the player. Do you send a pair of F-17s into combat against one target, knowing they can down it with ease, or do you risk sending a single interceptor into combat so that it’s wingman can deal with another threat, thus garnering a financial boost from the nations of the world?

In terms of ground combat, Xenonauts has a complex and often infuriatingly realistic cover system. The game manages line of sight with all the ruthlessness of a cranky Battletech DM. Ground battles also reflect the cheapness of life on the battlefield. Aliens will attack from within the fog of war, killing Xenonauts before they have a chance to return fire. Critical hits can ruin the day of even the most experienced, armoured, and decorated soldier. The inclusion of combat shields and shotguns pairs with brutal breaching actions when Xenoauts have to clean out alien survivors in a downed UFO. X-Com veterans who thought opening doors was a tense process in UFO Defense are going to be in for a new level of pain in Xenonauts.

Then there’s the game’s economy. X-Com always reached a certain phase where black market sales made funding from sponsor nations a moot point. Not so in Xenonauts. Now there’s never enough money. Shooting down a small UFO and securing its wreckage for sale on the black market brings in enough cash to buy ¼ of an interceptor. The funding loss that comes with camping an alien base and shooting down the surrounding UFO traffic is greater than the salvage that the alien wrecks bring in. Not to mention the fact that alien bases get bigger and harder to clear the longer they sit un-harassed. Goldhawk has done a great job in presenting the game’s economy as an exercise in staving off entropy within the closed system of the alien invasion.

While Xenonauts does a lot of things that I like, I think it missed on one rather obvious point. The Cold War setting feels completely arbitrary. It doesn’t translate into the game play where, for example, mixing NATO and Warsaw Pact soldiers on a strike team produces an initial morale hit. Nor is the Cold War influence on the game’s aesthetic particularly profound. Why mobilize a geopolitical conflict rife with narrative promise only to use it as window dressing?

Returning then to my original question: where does homage end and originality begin in Xenonauts? I’d have to say in the fine details. Broad strokes, it’s very similar to X-Com. Because of that, a $25 price point may put some people off this game when they can download Open X-Com for free. However, Xenonauts’ most rewarding feature is that in following the X-Com model, it evokes all the things that made X-Com an engrossing and heart wrenching experience. At the same time, the game changes the variables just enough to force X-Com veterans to add a few new chapters to their playbooks. Xenonauts won’t replace X-Com in the hearts of gamers. Then again, I don’t think that’s its goal in life. Unlike humans and aliens, the two can co-exist quite peacefully together. Ultimately, Xenonauts will provide an experience that compliments everything people loved about X-Com while taking a few baby steps into its own territory. It might not score many points for originality, but it excels in the execution.


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Fighting Words – Episode 1 – The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

Hi there. Welcome to Wednesday’s post. We’re going to do something a little different today. Today, I’m going to get angry, or rather, I’m going to channel some of my previous anger into the first of a series of fast hitting podcasts called, “Fighting Words.”

You see, when something is so poor as to offend my sensibilities, the first drafts of my reviews are often a little more angry than what appears on the blog. Entertaining as it is to write angry, it’s often not conducive to the critical process. People lock on to the anger and tend to miss the larger message in the review. However, if I channel the anger toward something fast and punchy, then perhaps the medium might not overpower the message…at least not quite so much. If nothing else, it’s fun to swear into a microphone.

So, here we go.

Fighting Words – Episode 1 – The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and Historical Revision.

Click here to download the MP3.

Music Credits

“Pump Sting” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


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Video Game Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

If bad ideas are the product of decision making by committee, then I can only assume hell’s own focus group is to blame for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Not only is The Bureau a poorly engineered Mass Effect clone in its gameplay, but it’s also evident that 2K Games wanted to produce something that is as far away from X-Com’s roots as they could get. To put it another way, 2K found a way to make a worse version of X-Com: Enforcer.

Bravo.

For the remainder of this review, I’m going to set aside the well-worn argument that the original X-Com was a turn based strategy game and this XCOM is a third person shooter. Said difference is far from being the worst part of The Bureau. I’ll even sign off on 2K tossing aside X-Com’s not-too-distant-future aesthetic in favour of Don Draper versus the space aliens. Fine, whatever. The real problem with this game is it completely ignores the common sense that makes X-Com work.

Classic X-Com, and even new XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is about researching the alien enemy and, ultimately, using the alien technology to defend the Earth. The Bureau pays some lip service to this history with its introduction to the game’s protagonist, Special Agent Chip Squarejaw William Carter – like the X-Files creator, get it? After we meet Carter, XCOM’s director, Saul Smokingman Myron Faulke, tells the XCOM staff how the bureau will take the enemy’s technology and use it against them. Traditionally, and as common sense would dictate, this requires researching alien weapons and boot-strapping human technology up to extra-terrestrial levels. For The Bureau, turning alien weapons against their masters is a literal affair. Players pick up discarded alien weapons, as if The Bureau is any other FPS, and go to town on the grey-skins.

What the hell?

One does not simply pick up an alien weapon and use it like Rambo. Such things are not done in X-Com/XCOM for very good reasons. Namely, it doesn’t fucking make sense. Terrestrial weapons, let alone an energy weapon from another planet, require some marginal level of training before they can be used effectively. Carter, a war veteran and CIA field agent, would know better than to trust his life and the lives of his people to a completely alien firearm. He’d be as likely to shoot off his own foot as he would be to headshot an alien. This shameless use of un-researched alien weapons illustrates the crucial way in which 2K tosses aside their source material while also divorcing the entire experience from common sense.

After failing so spectacularly, so early on, at such a critical point of logic and design, the game’s additional shortcomings seem all the more glaring. Particularly, Carter’s AI squad-mates are laughably useless. They require micro-management to the point of frustration. There’s no way to get into the flow of a firefight when every three seconds an AI is screaming that he needs a medic. Why does the AI teammate need a medic, you ask? Primarily because he so often chooses to eschew cover for standing in the open while engaging the enemy. Fortunately, the aliens are equally derpy. In fact, I marvel at how such poor tacticians could master interstellar travel. In combat, the aliens’ main strategy is to make The Bureau like Call of Duty multiplayer and spam the player with an unending supply of grenades. Sectoids don’t wear trousers, so where do they keep all these grenades?

Ah ha, I’ve stumbled upon the answer to the mystery of alien anal probes.

Beyond the dismal combat, there’s also a pervasive laziness to The Bureau’s design. For example, upon discovering a new species of aliens, AI cohorts never freak out and yell, “Holy shit, what is that thing?” Instead, the Jr. J. Edgars call out Mutons and Sectopods by name (also I fought a Sectopod on the second level, what’s with that?). How would they know this? How hard would it have been to program in a line or two of “What the hell is that?” dialogue for first contact with an alien? Rough edges like this, as well as poor lip sync, weak storytelling, and archetypal characterization, have a souring effect on the game’s overall experience.

All said, it’s no surprise that 2K released The Bureau: XCOM Declassified with almost no fanfare compared to its smarter, more attractive cousin XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The Bureau is the answer to a question that nobody asked. It relies too heavily on the presumption of 60s charm – a decade which holds little nostalgia value for modern gamers – to make up for the fact that its combat is wholly derivative of Mass Effect. Its cardinal sin, however, is its refusal to adhere to the roots of X-Com. This choice is game breaking for X-Com loyalists and newcomers, alike. Ultimately, these poor fundamentals speak to the generally lackadaisical design that permeates this title.  The bottom line: 2K games phoned it in, and I don’t think they’re sorry for it, either.


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Some Thoughts on Spiritual Successors

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing Xenonauts, Goldhawk Interactive’s spiritual successor to X-Com: UFO Defence. Rather than gum up my review of said game with a discourse on the ontology and taxonomy of video games, I thought I’d use today’s post to talk about spiritual successors.

Let’s begin with a suitable definition of the term spiritual successor. Here’s what TV Tropes has to say on the subject.

A Spiritual Successor is a type of sequel that is not part of the same world or story as its predecessor, but is nonetheless considered to be a successor because it’s made by the same creators; shares common themes, styles, or elements; or, most likely, both. In other words, it’s a sequel “in spirit”.

In tackling the first part of the definition, it’s common enough to see game designers iterating on old projects for new studios/publishers. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Shipbreakers, an upcoming RTS from Blackbird Interactive. BBI is billing Shipbreakers as a spiritual successor to Homeworld, despite the fact that Gearbox now owns the rights to the original game. Shipbreakers qualifies as a spiritual successor because of its aesthetic and the fact that a number of Blackbird Interactive’s team worked on Homeworld back in the 90s.

Taking the Shipbreakers approach is probably the easiest way to sell a spiritual successor. The fact that Shipbreakers is going to be set on a planet, rather than deep space, means that the game won’t be a clone of Homeworld. We are, however, likely to see markers of Homeworld’s DNA at work within Shipbreakers e.g. real time switching from a battlescape to a tactical map, or the high-fidelity voice acting that’s meant to sound like it is coming through a cheap radio headset. The game might even be set on Kharak, assuming Blackbird can sneak that one past Gearbox.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the spiritual successor that presses the hottest button in all of gaming: the streamline button. With streamlining often, but not always, acting as a euphemism for taking a smart thing and making it accessible to a dribbling idiot, the streamlined spiritual successor is well positioned to piss off the loyal fanbase. I’m sure there are still System Shock II fans holding a grudge against Ken Levine for his perceived Cleveland Steamer on their childhood via BioShock.

Sitting between these two opposites is the most nebulous of the spiritual successors: the non-iterative homage piece. Demon Souls versus Dark Souls. X-Com: UFO Defence versus Xenonauts. Bayonetta versus Devil May Cry. Baldur’s Gate versus Dragon Age. From where I sit, this type of spiritual successor invites some very hard conversations on originality, fan service, and game design. I use the following as my first litmus test: does the spiritual successor stand on its own, or does stand on the shoulders of giants?

While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a homage piece – see my review of Pacific Rim – I still think it is incumbent upon the spiritual successor to prove that it is engaged in a business beyond excelling at the sincerest form of flattery.

Regardless of the form that the spiritual successor takes, I think their very existence is also a reflection of us, the audience. Though I’ve focused on video games in this post, the spiritual successor, in any medium, is a product of a collective inability to let go. We cling to the things that we loved because new things are often terrible and derivative, looking at you Doom 3. We raise a classic on a pedestal and shout, “more like this.” What we get never seems to live up to expectations e.g. X-Com versus XCOM (I don’t agree with that notion, but I know it’s a popular one.) Of course, the audience is less to blame than the studios and publishers who take our “more like this” message and translate it into “more like that thing they like, but make sure we can sell it to everybody.” Be that as it may, our part of the conversation could benefit from citing the things we loved as benchmarks to be surpassed.

Why can’t we have a game that is better than X-Com: UFO Defense or Alpha Centuri? Go ahead, developers of the world; if you build it, I will buy it (or attempt to weasel a review copy). Putting it another way, Citizen Kane might be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean directors and writers stopped innovating after its release. In terms of spiritual successors, my hope is that these are a creative oasis. We can stop and drink deep of the refreshing waters that remind us of home. But let us then make the longer, harder journey to bigger things.


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XCOM: Pure Joy for Creative Types and Weekend Warriors

What those not familiar with XCOM, Firaxis and 2K Games’ reboot of Microprose’s classic turn based strategy game X-Com, need to understand is that it’s not just a game. XCOM/X-Com is about building an internal meta narrative over top of the game’s actual story. Much of this occurs through the simple act of naming one’s soldiers after friends, family, acquaintances, and people you stalk on twitter. Allow me to demonstrate.

This was my XCOM A-Team.

Resplendent in their armour, little did they know not all of them would return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Scholtens, Amos Yu, and Matt Moore are all friends of mine. Granted none of them volunteered to have their names usurped but such is life. NB: All of them have said they’re good with being used as examples for the benefit of this post.

As a team representing the Earth’s first and last line of defence against an alien invasion, they had all survived one mission together and made at least one alien kill. Operation “Lazy Dirge” would be their second manoeuvre as a squad, each an experienced “Squaddie” with a specialized role.

But war is a nasty thing, especially when you’re trying to secure a crashed UFO.

What follows is a narrative replay of an actual mission I took this squad on within the game.

One of the little grey bastards, the scientists back at the base call them Sectoids, got off a lucky shot on Amos, who died instantly from plasma burns to the face. This sent Adam into a panic. He managed to cut down the Sectoid with a .50 caliber sniper round to the head. The extraterrestrial’s green blood splattered as Adam’s vision tunneled on the tableau of death. Screaming for his mother, he curled into the fetal position.

Without sniper cover, two Sectoids were able to bum rush Ken’s left flank. Matt was on overwatch, but his snap shot against the lead Sectoid went wide. Ken tried to pull back to better cover, but he caught a plasma bolt in the stomach as he was retreating. It was all Matt could do to toss a grenade at the oncoming aliens, avenging his fallen comrade.

The explosion killed one Sectoid and left another wounded.

Finally, Adam was able to pull himself together. He took out the injured Sectoid in a single shot. With his head back in the game, he flanked around the burning wreck of the crashed UFO. There was only one grey-back left and he meant to catch it in a crossfire. The first sniper round went wide, his vision still not yet returned to normal. By then Matt charged to catch the alien out of cover. With one burst from his assault rifle, the bug-eyed grey squawked and collapsed.

The battle was won. The wreck, secured. The techs back at base were overjoyed to find an intact alien power supply waiting for their study. Various council nations were already offering to buy the captured alien technology. Still, it came at the cost of two lives too many.

There was only one thing left to do, I had to tell Ken that he was dead.

me:  Bad news.

Ken: No…Don’t tell me you got me killed already.

me: It was at a crashed UFO site, you got bum rushed by a pair of mind linked Sectoids.

Ken: F***!

F*** you!

How many men must you kill?

me: F*** you, man. I lost good people on that mission. Good men that might be alive today if the council nations recognized the threat that the invaders pose. Instead I have to send out green boys with pop guns and write letters to their parents when they come back in body bags.

Ken: Shame on you, commander! Shame on you!

Did these valiant soldiers know what you were sending them into?

me: They all knew the risks, and they all knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves.

Ken: None of them signed up for these suicide missions that you are sending them on.

me: What other choice do I have? Let the world fall into panic because of all these abductions and UFO flybys? One life on the battlefield buys a million people still showing up for work tomorrow. Tell me that’s not worth it.

Ken: We are going to have a lot of fun with this aren’t we?

me: Yes we are.

Since then I’ve refined my technique for delivering bad news. What comes next is a letter sent to another of my friends after his character died in the line of duty.

Dear Mr. Noon

It is with a heavy heart that I speak to you today. Last night at
approximately 6:22pm local time, your avatar, Corporal Chris Noon,
died in the line of duty on a mission in Japan.

Chris was a valued member of my team. He was an inspiration to others
around him. When things got tough, and lesser soldiers would panic,
Chris would stay steady and do his job. In the short time that he was
with the organization, he defined himself by his leadership and
professionalism. In doing so earned the respect of his squad mates
and his superiors. His absence will be sorely missed.

As you have received council clearance for classified information, I
can tell you that Chris died doing what we all thought to be
impossible. Chris breached the interior of an intact UFO. He held the
line, buying time for his teammates to secure their compromised
positions. His sacrifice was the turning point in an operation that
would have seen far greater casualties were it not for his sacrifice.
I know this knowledge will give you small comfort, yet in your grief
you must never allow yourself to believe his death was meaningless.
Chris died protecting his friends and safeguarding all nations of this
planet from a threat it has never before known.

Please know my thoughts are with you during this time.

Yours,

A. Shaftoe, Commander, XCOM

There are no saved games in XCOM: no mulligans, do-overs, rollbacks or pleas for “just one more try”. Consequences are real. The game moves forward. People die and stay dead. That’s just how it works. Yes, there is an option to turn off permadeath, but that’s not my bag. As Captain Jack Harkness once said, “Now we carry on.”

If you’re a gamer, then likely you played the original X-Com and these stories are all the review I need to give you.

If you’re a gamer and count yourself creative, you’re welcome. If the game doesn’t suck up enough of your time, the hours spent writing in a world that is somewhere between fan-fic and original work certainly will.

And if you just want to kill aliens, blow shit up, and not worry about all the drama, XCOM’s got you covered there as well.

XCOM is a “must have” on all counts.

Finally, if anybody wants to indulge me and volunteer their name and likeness for my squad, I can promise you screen shots and a nice “we regret to inform you” letter when you eventually go KIA.


2

Conference Call with X-Com: Enemy Unknown’s Jake Solomon and Garth DeAngelis

Through what I can only assume was a random cosmic alignment, I ended up on 2K Games’ press list. Therein I was invited to submit questions to a conference call with XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s Lead Developer Jake Solomon and Lead Producer Garth DeAngelis. While we still didn’t get an official translation the XCOM agency’s new motto, Vigilo Confido, the two gentlemen from Firaxis Games managed to raise my anticipation for this game up a few more notches.

I’ve included the full audio of the call in this post, but for the benefit of those who need to know right now here is an executive summary.

Game Mechanics

Anybody following the game’s development cycle knows that players will be limited to one supreme XCOM headquarters. However, Jake and Garth let slip that players will be able to build additional interceptor bases around the world toward the mid and end game.

DeAngelis called the “ant farm” XCOM base “the real aesthetic for our strategy layer.” Expect to be able to do more with that than you ever could with the old X-Com base.

Like the original Enemy Unknown some elements of the game will be randomly generated. Though the map pool for the tactical element will be fixed, locations and alien species in play on a given map will vary. Both Jake and Garth said they would be surprised if a player plays the same map twice in a single play through.

Game Play

Nothing particularly new came out on this front. Jake did specify that the key to success for XCOM field operatives is going to be complementing abilities and working as a team.

On game difficulty, both Jake and Garth stated that XCOM is going to be a tough experience. However, Solomon quoted a Mr. Miyagi style support system that will “…start you at painting fences but leave you doing Karate.”

Mr. Solomon also said that the game play was built with classic X-Com fans in mind. In fact, he specifically said that this game would not be happening without ongoing support from original X-Com fans.

We also got a sense of in-game timelines. Where UFO crashes and responding to terror sites could demand a lot of time in the original game, even if it was a comparatively easy mission for the player, this iteration intends to streamline that experience to a degree. In broader strokes a normal difficulty play through of XCOM will take 15-20 hours. On higher levels, Solomon said it would take “much longer.”

Multiplayer

Jake and Garth played things a bit close to the chest on this point.

Resource management seems as important as tactics for this aspect of the game. Jake did say that an individual XCOM operative upgraded to full power in multiplayer would be stronger than the strongest alien. Yet, the implication was that playing a round in multiplayer in this way would lead to a Die Hard situation.

Playing XCOM on a console versus PC

DeAngelis stressed that building the strategic layer was an exciting process on consoles and the PC. Both also admitted the PC has some advantages with respect to better graphics (no surprise there).

The Bottom Line

If there is one takeaway message from this conference call it’s that Firaxis cares about making a game that is respectful to the tone and design concepts of the original game. As a gamer who lost many a night’s sleep to the original Enemy Unknown and its sequel Terror from the Deep this makes me very happy.

Have a listen to the full conversation below if you’d like to know more.


47

Vigilo Confido: Translating X-Com’s New Motto

Latin, despite what people might tell you, is a very cool language. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican who came to power in France and from there conquered Europe, had the Latin phrase Ultima Ratio Regum (The final argument of kings) inscribed on one of his cannons. Somehow saying the same thing in French – Le derniner raison du rois seems less impressive. In developing a “re-imagined” version of the PC classic X-Com: Enemy Unknown Firaxis Games and publisher 2K Games have rebranded the titular extraterrestrial research and defence organization with a cool new logo and words befitting the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Vigilo Confido. What does it mean?

Well that depends who you ask. X-Com lead designer Jake Soloman probably has one definition in mind. The trick with Latin is that there are usually ten meanings for a single word. Naturally, you might ask how anybody in the Roman empire ever understood what they were saying within such an ill defined system, especially when Rome’s biggest cultural influence, Hellenic Greece, had a language where there were never less than ten words to express a single concept. Much of a sentence’s meaning in Latin is tied to a grammatical system which is in some ways far more specific than what we have in English or French. Also, a lot of understanding Latin has to do with context. So let’s break things down.

The first word, Vigilo is probably the easiest to parse, though not at one in the morning when I first started trying to figure this out. For some reason I assumed both of the words to be nouns acting as an indirect objects. You can see the proof on the Page of Reviews’ facebook page.

Latin is all about the verbs. “Start with the verb,” my Latin professor would always say when we were stuck on translations. Vigilo looks to be a first person singular, present tense, active voice conjugation of the root verb Vigilare (To monitor, to guard, to keep an eye on). Given the nature of X-Com’s work, monitoring and responding in force to alien incursions on the Earth, which is represented by wire frame lines of latitude and longitude in the south half of the patch, Vigilo is probably best translated as “I am watchful.” A literal or “Barking Dog” translation would probably be closer to “I am watching” but mottos are meant to be somewhat more artistic in their meaning.

Figuring out Confido proves a bit more of a challenge. The simplest translation for the infinitive Confidere is “to trust”. But X-Com’s mandate is anything but trusting; they are suspicious and questioning by design. Though, I suppose confido could be read as I am trustworthy, but that seems too much like something a person puts on a cover letter, not a motto. Other definitions include: to have confidence in, to take refuge in, to rely upon. Now we are talking. The safe translation would be “I am relied upon.” As mottos go, “I am watchful. I am relied upon,” is pretty solid. I, however, want to take it a step farther. To rely upon something is to deem it necessary. Granted it is a bit of a stretch, but why not translate Confido as “I am necessary.” It certainly fits with the theme of the game: a council of nations activating an international paramilitary organization as Humanity’s last line of defence.

And this is why Latin is such a fun language. What should ostensibly be a simple bit of translation turns into a mad dance to find a best fit solution. There’s also this as well…

 

However, as a bottom line I’d have to say that the best translation for the phrase Vigilo Confido is I am watchful. I am relied upon. I really like “I am necessary,” but it’s too much of a conceptual leap. If by chance somebody knows of a precedent to justify “I am necessary” as the ideal solution, I’m all ears.

X-Com: Enemy Unknown releases October 9, 2012 on PC, X-Box 360 and PS3.


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The Daily Shaft: Know your X-Com

The year was 1994.  Young Shaftoe fancied himself something of a gamer’s gamer.  Young Shaftoe had assembled the triforce, vanquished Doctor Wily, defeated Shreder and Krang.  Sure he got his ass kicked at Silver Surfer on the NES but, really, anybody who claims to have beaten that game is the worst kind of liar.  And despite his youth, he had thrice earned the title of Master of Orion.  Yes, Young Shaftoe was full of gaming hubris. But like much Achilles, a very nerdy Achilles, Young Shaftoe was soon to suffer a humbling most dramatic.

It was a game with three names.  To some it was called Enemy Unknown. Others called it UFO Defence.  I would come to call it X-Com. Two years later, the game that became the gold standard in strategy gaming would humble me again with an equally unforgiving sequel, X-Com: Terror from the Deep. Then there were three more sequels that changed the formula much to the ambivalence and, in the case of 2001’s X-Com Enforcer, universal disgust of the franchise’s massive fan base.

I could devote thousands of words to exploring the strengths of the first two X-Com titles, especially in light of the baroque state of contemporary gaming.  For the sake of brevity I will summarize with this: X-Com offered all the depth of something like D&D, but it kept the dice rolling, stat management, et cetera completely behind the scenes.  All players had to do was manage the day to day operations of an internationally funded paramilitary organization as it fought a losing battle against an alien invasion. Troopers who died in battle stayed dead.  Failure to respond to alien attacks led to nations cutting their funding. In short, X-Com was the greatest table top game every played on a PC.

Back in 2010, 2K Games, who through a series of mergers now owns Microprose’s original X-Com IP, decided it was time to reboot the franchise.  Instead of keeping the game true to its roots, 2K decided to rebrand it as XCOM, set it in the 1950s, fill it with J. Edgar set pieces, and make it a first person shooter.  Where the hallmarks of X-Com were macro-management and turn based combat, new XCOM will focus on twitch reactions, personal relationships between field agents, and researching individual powers for an effective three man combat team.  It’s basically Mass Effect with X-Files style black oil aliens.  Here’s the video.

At this point you’d be right to accuse me of nerd rage. On the grounds that this is a shameless appropriation of a now classic IP to push what appears to be a rather derivative shooter, I’m angry.  The alien foe of X-Com was a polyglot of races who were enslaved under one supreme race.  This clip, and more recent footage, shows “possessed” humans and what looks like a TARDIS morphing into a Stargate of doom. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t X-Com.

Perhaps in response to a growing choir of pissed off nerds, perhaps as part of the most back handed bait-and-switch marketing stratagem ever, Firaxis Games, a wholly owned subsidiary of 2K Games, announced via Game Informer that they are developing their own XCOM title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  Quoting from GI, “this title is a full-on strategy game that puts players in command of a global anti-alien defense force. XCOM’s leader needs a worldwide perspective where threats are identified, populations reassured, and national leaders mollified – but a tactical mind is just as critical considering every shot XCOM’s soldiers fire on the battlefield is under the player’s turn-based control.”

There’s also a pretty stellar video on Game Informer where the development leads at Firaxis talk about their experiences with the original X-Com.

Other than the obvious respect that Jake Soloman and co. have for X-Com, a few interesting details emerge from the video.  When talking about games with challenging difficulty, one of the devs mentions Demon Souls, not the more recent sequel Dark Souls.  Also, the art director talks about what he and his team did when they “started” on the project during its first months. I think the implication to take from this is that Firaxis has been working on Enemy Unknown for quite some time now.  It might not launch simultaneously with XCOM: Invasion 1952 (Not the official title, just what I’m calling it) but their promise of a 2012 release might actually happen.

While the below screen shot fills me with dread that the black oil aliens might continue through this game, I can only hope that Firaxis’ claims to reverent adoration of the source material will allow them to produce no shortage of Sectoids, Floaters and Etherials as they maintain their story within the same universe as 2K Games’ XCOM shooter.