Saturday, August 24, 2013

Exciting Expansions (part 2) - XCOM: Enemy Within

This past week, two expansion packs were announced for the recent iterations of Diablo and XCOM. I felt that both of these games fell a bit short of their potential and I believe that an expansion may be able to rectify this. In this post I cover XCOM: Enemy Within.

The XCOM Legacy

Mention XCOM to any PC gamer over 25 years of age and you will almost immediately see their eyes glaze as they stare into the distance remembering a crushing defeat in an embroiled campaign against alien oppressors, shell-shocked and traumatized from their inability to keep humanity safe. XCOM is an engrossing game that pulls you in and makes you sweat every decision from where to build a base to should you opt for cover or take the long odds on killing that last invader. The game is difficult and occasionally unfair, but provides a thrilling experience each and every campaign. I have never experienced more tension in a turn-based game then I have during raids against landed alien craft, never knowing what to expect and always wary that losing a critical squad member could have serious long-term repercussions. The 2012 reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, was met with reasonable critical success and did its utmost to stay true to its roots while still being accessible for a modern audience.

Where it Went Wrong

The XCOM reboot is worthy of a playthrough, especially if you have fond memories of the original. The campaign does an admirable job of blending the old school gameplay into a very approachable package without compromising on difficulty (especially if you opt for the 'classic' setting). That said, the game suffers from replayability issues. In the several campaigns I played through, I found a consistent pattern of an extremely difficult first batch of battles until I had sufficiently processed down the tech tree until combat became trivial. Once combat hits this trivial stage, the game really starts to drag as, often, battle ends with tracking down that last enemy who has camped out on the far side of the map one turn at a time. Ultimately, I found myself no longer interested in starting a new campaign because the blueprint for victory felt unalterable. In essence, instead of feeling like I was exploring different ways to play each new campaign, I felt more like I was perfecting a single strategy. Exasperating this problem is a set of fairly repetitive maps and the unmistakable feeling that the random number generator was just a bit skewed in favour of the computer. In fairness, I never opted to delve into the multiplayer skirmishes mainly because I feel that the removal of the base management aspect is ripping out a crucial organ from the game. As such, my mileage with XCOM may have been less than a player who really got into the multiplayer.

The Expansion

XCOM: Enemy Within aims to breathe some new life into the base game. Below I break down the features but first I would like to point out that summed together, it all feels like a bunch of DLC packs then a traditional expansion. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in direct contrast to Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, which will give a new act to play, Enemy Within doesn't promise an additional segment to the campaign (the main story will pretty much play out unaltered).

New Squad Class (MEC)
The new MEC squad class will likely serve as a damage shield and offensive support slotting between the scouting and ordinance roles played by the existing assault and heavy classes. I think a new squad class can help revitalize the battlefield a bit but suspect that the MEC will simply be taking the place of one of my solider slots rather than being a genuine tactical decision. In other words, I feel that the MEC will probably only provide a few new strategic approaches as opposed to completely redefining the game. I would like it if the MEC was a one-per-squad addition that could function as a support lynch pin; the type of unit that brings big reward if you are willing to risk putting them into harms way. Another cool way I think that squads could be shaken up is to make it so only a limited amount of MECs can be made during the campaign; each could be a bit more powerful then a standard unit but the cost of losing one would proportionally higher as well. While details are sketchy at the moment, nothing seems to indicate that the MEC will be implemented in such a unique way. That said, some sort of damage shield is sorely needed in the early to mid phases of the campaign and the MEC should fill this spot well.

Eight New Maps
Variety is the spice of life and anyone who has played through a few campaigns in XCOM has certainly found things to have become bland in the map department. The biggest problem with repetitive maps is that some of the tactical strategy is neutered when you know the layout behind the fog of war. Eight new maps more than doubles the original count and should make things more exciting for a while. That said, I would have much rather heard that maps would now feature a random layout features though I understand that this would invariably create some imbalance.

Offline Squad Editing (multiplayer)
As stated above, I haven't really explored the multiplayer mode or the vanilla game too much but this feature should improve the quality of life for those who do. Being able to define and select a pre-built squad should dramatically speed up matching and allow players to jump into the action that much sooner. I suspect this feature will be patched in instead of requiring the expansion as it primarily fixes a short-coming with the original game as opposed to adding something new.

All Localisations for Customization
When I heard about this feature, my initial reaction was "you can't already do that?". This pretty much shows how much I care about the squad customization. I guess it is nifty that you can make your Japanese squaddie now speak Japanese but this isn't exactly a deal breaking feature. To be perfectly honest, this seems like a feature that is probably already available on the PC version through mods. For those who tweak every aspect of their squad, I am sure this will be a lot more important than it is to me.

New Resource (meld)
Meld is, by far and away, the biggest draw of the expansion for me. It functions as a secondary resource that can be recovered in maps that can be spent back at base to enhance squad members with alien abilities. The twist is that meld degrades quickly, thus rewarding players who are able to more efficiently clear a map of baddies. Assuming that the rewards for applying meld are great enough, this should provide an incentive for players to adopt a more 'run and gun' approach to the game as opposed to the standard strategy of 'wait and bait'. My only concern is that the base game occasionally runs into slogs where hunting down that last alien feels more like a game of battleship then tactical maneuvering. This shortcoming could ultimately leave players feeling frustrated as they successfully dominate a map but lose out on meld due to spending too much time tracking down the last grey. In many ways, the meld system seems like an extension of the lackluster psionics of the vanilla game and I really do feel it can provide an avenue to multiple winning campaign strategies. It is not difficult to envision the tech tree such that a player has to make a genuine choice between grabbing MECs or going for meld in the mid-game.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I am much less excited for Enemy Within then I am for Reaper of Souls. I feel that most of the additions, with the exception of the meld resource, are little more then what could be included in DLC packs or mods. At the expected price of $30, this probably won't represent enough value for me to pick up Enemy Within until it goes on sale. That said, I do think that, if done right, the meld resource might be enough to provide the campaign variety that the vanilla game is lacking.