I don’t often get on my soapbox over things, but I think it’s time I started doing so more often. So, to that end, I’m setting up an area of the site for blog, blogging and blog-like phenomena, where you can read posts (such as this one) about things near and dear to my heart.

Right now I shall rant and rave about one of the great loves of my life: Video games. One game in particular. Well, make that two games. Or actually three. Bear with me.

I tend to wear two hats where my work is concerned. I’m a writer and a game designer. There was a time, a few years ago, when I was the design lead on an Open Source project called UFO: Alien Invasion. It was a re-imagining of the X-COM series, where you defend the Earth against a marauding alien power. Sound familiar? Well it should!

Now, interestingly, Firaxis Games has come out with a brand new remake of the original X-COM, and I admit I’ve been playing the Hell out of it. It’s a good game. It has strengths, and flaws, and I’d like to look into both of those from my own perspective, under my hats.

Let me talk about old X-COM for a bit. It’s no surprise that ever since the series exploded onto the scene damn near 20 years ago, and stopped being developed 15 years ago, people have tried again and again to recapture the magic. I was right there with them. That’s because old X-COM did almost everything right. It had tense, challenging tactical missions which gave you huge amounts of control over your troops and the way battles played out. But importantly to gamers like me, it didn’t just string you along from mission to mission like some titles; it had something which, to gaming in those days, was revolutionary. It had the Geoscape.

The Geoscape was the thing that tied it all together. It extended the strategy elements beyond guys shooting at other guys with funny heads. It put you in charge of a larger organisation with tight financial constraints, all the challenges of research and development, and a very real sense of the burden of trying to defend the whole Earth at once. It was hard! There were UFOs constantly out and about, doing their thing, and if you didn’t catch them then that was a win for the aliens. They’d build bases, abduct people, infiltrate governments and generally further their own cause even while you weren’t looking.

And from a design perspective, the Geoscape is what gave the battles context. There was a wonderful exchange where the stuff you brought back from battles allowed you to research new things to bring with you into the fight, giving you a constantly changing game experience. It didn’t get old because it kept giving you interesting toys to play with, frequently allowing you to pull off completely different strategies.

Firaxis’s game . . . Well, it does and it doesn’t.

What it does, it does very well. The turn-based ground combat is fast and flowing and generally a super-smooth experience compared to juggling Time Units in old X-COM. There are nice benefits to cover. You can move a lot, and you frequently have to move a lot, because turtling up is not a feasible strategy in this game. I particularly liked the addition of character classes for your soldiers, along with their unique special abilities. The difference in how each class behaves really fleshes out the whole tactical experience. The well-designed maps give you lots of options, and even replaying the same map usually yields a different result each time. It really is a lot of fun.

On the Geoscape, there are a few changes and alterations. You have to work to get more countries on board for your project, by building satellites and stationing interceptors to expand your coverage. There’s also a bit more going on at the base, where you interact with actual characters such as the head researcher and engineer. This is one of the things I appreciated and actually pushed for when I was developing UFO:AI. It adds a nice human touch to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, that leads us into one of the major pitfalls: There’s a lot less going on worldwide. Compared to old X-COM, missions are relatively few and far-between. An average game is concluded within 30-35 missions, between 200 and 300 days of in-game time. That includes the entire research tree. Most research projects take only a few days to complete regardless of how many laboratories you build or how many scientists you have. The game itself labels any project that takes more than 12 days as ‘SLOW’, in big red font, and if you grab a certain easy-to-get continent bonus you can complete all alien autopsies and interrogations — about half the number of research projects in the game! — instantly!

On top of that, there are a lot fewer projects in general. There just isn’t very much to research, which only highlights the fact that this game is about the tactical missions, and only the tactical missions. It doesn’t see the Geoscape as anything but a framing device between shoot-outs. That, my friends, is a problem.

Let me give you an example. UFO interceptions are an afterthought. Even with coverage over the entire world, you won’t get more than five or six opportunities to intercept a UFO over the course of a game. Most missions will just pop up out of nowhere without any warning. You can research the high-tech Firestorm craft, but it’s completely unnecessary as a standard Interceptor or two with upgraded weapons will easily do the job. There are no fuel concerns, and if a craft gets damaged, it will usually be repaired long before you spot another UFO in that part of the world.

The same kind of design continues in other elements of the game. Remember when I was talking about old X-COM, how the aliens would easily take over the world if left to their own devices? That doesn’t happen in Firaxis’s game. Everything in it is solely there for the player. If a ground mission comes up and you send in your troops, you will never be too late to the scene. Landed UFOs will never take off before you get there, and there will always be exactly 18 civilians left to save during a terror attack. There is only one alien base in the game, which you see during a mandatory story mission. The aliens don’t build anything, and the UFOs you spot don’t do anything if you let them go (except, oh horror, they may shoot down a satellite which you can easily replace). They exist only for the player to go in shooting. With proper planning, it’s almost impossible to lose the support of even one Council nation, let alone to actually lose the game.

This next seems like a minor complaint in comparison, but the research itself tends to be a little uninspired. All the advanced weapons you get are the same except for higher damage/accuracy numbers, and they only have one firing mode. Most of the passive bonuses you get from topics such as alien interrogation only make the already-fast research even faster. There are a few interesting armours, but most just end up as useless novelties, like the flying armour which turns the character into a great big fully-exposed target.

To tell you the truth, though? I can forgive most of that. Many of the same mistakes have been made before, in the numerous X-COM clones that have peppered the last decade. There’s just one thing. The number one flaw in Firaxis’s game, the only real issue that won’t stop bugging me, is the wretched pacing. It’s making me suspect that Firaxis have missed the point. By devaluing the Geoscape and shoving the throttle all the way up to Ludicrous Speed, the whole game becomes less meaningful, less impressive in its scope. Even a few small touches would’ve made the aliens feel less like pop-up targets at a shooting range. There’s no reason why there couldn’t have been more than one alien base, at least on ‘Classic’ campaign difficulty. There’s no reason why there couldn’t have been more chances for interception. Almost every single ground battle gives you multiple new artifacts and/or multiple new levels of promotion for your troops. I have spent literally weeks of my life glued to a screen, moving my little isometric soldiers around, building my bases and taking the fight to the alien scourge. Do they think the audience is gonna get bored if they don’t keep throwing stuff at us rapid-fire?

I really do enjoy the new effort. It makes many design choices which I understand and approve of. It’s closer to measuring up to X-COM than anything which has come out since 1997. I just maintain that it’s not as good as it could’ve been, and maybe when the modding scene gets hold of it, it will finally come into its own.

2 Responses to “Game Design Blog: Damn, Dirty Aliens”

  1. Games are designed to come out broken and then be fixed. That’s the genius of mods, after all… … ya played Thief? They’ve still got people writing fan missions for it!

  2. Stephen says:

    Enjoying your story. The original xcom were great games finished the new one, now playing ufoai 2.5 also a very good game.

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