Thursday, July 17, 2008

X-Com: The Legend

At Greg's Stag Party the weekend before last, my good friend Glen delivered a delicious present that he had picked up for me some time before: X-Com: UFO Defense the Novel. I can't in good faith say it was a good book, but that doesn't mean it wasn't enjoyable. As an aspiring writer, the value of books that comfort my self-conscious worries cannot be underestimated. If this book can get the green light then I should be okay.

Regardless of the caliber of writing, there is something to be desired in a book where one can switch off all active parts of the intellect and simply enjoy, free of judgment and analysis. James Clemen's Banned and the Banished series is a great example of this type of intellectual freedom.

The best part of the book, however, is that it got me playing X-Com again. I absolutely, unforgivingly, unabashedly love X-Com. When you learn that the first two games we had when we bought our first computer were X-Com and Daggerfall it is not hard to see why I am still primarily a computer gamer.

But what is it that makes X-Com so good? I challenge you to pinpoint it. In today's game reviewing sphere we tear apart games for flawed ai, poor story, poor interface, bland graphics and flawed gameplay, but it is much more difficult to define exactly what a game does right, and that is the skill that seperates the best game journalists from the crowd. Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch, Shawn "Certis" Andrich and Sean "Elysium" Sands over at Gamers with Jobs, Shawn Elliott and Jeff Green at 1UP (formerly of CGW and GFW) and the folks over at PC Gamer are all journalists that can be positive about a game without the hype, can be negative without the hate, and can explain the reasons for every opinion.

So let's put on our reviewer hats and take a good hard look at this classic, ubiquitous top ten resident and nostalgia target.

X-Com: UFO Defense is a squad based tactical game with an overarching logistical management aspect. As the manager of the secret international anti-alien organization X-Com, you tasked with building, staffing and overseeing bases, research, manufacturing, finances and combat in order to put an end to the ever accelerating alien invasion. Perhaps the most striking thing about the beginning of the game is the vast gap between your soldiers and the aliens. Most games start the player off at a disadvantage, at level 1 with the most basic equipment, but most games also start off with weaker enemies so that the two can ramp up together, keeping pace with each other. From the very first fight it is clear that X-Com takes a different tack. Your unarmored, underskilled and underequipped squads are put up against aliens wielding terrifying plasma weaponry and mind control. They can see farther than you can in the dark, shoot faster than you can in the light and whenever you land they are already there, waiting. You are always assaulting a fortified position, always fighting at a disadvantage. One of the standout qualities of X-Com is that it is unforgivingly difficult at times. The computer doesn't coddle you through the first terror mission, when your terrified and harried squads are trying to take down a cyberdisc with only their rifles, or forced to gun down a teammate under alien control. And they never get much easier, even when working with a veteran squad, armored and equipped with heavy plasma, the aliens still always have the upperhand, constantly introducing new and more dangerous species into the mix. The battles are challenging and stressful, but because of that they are immeasurably more satisfying when your squad survives with a cargo hold full of alien goodies.

Completing a battle reveals one of the strongest elements of X-Com: pacing. Regardless of how tense and difficult the combat is, the world map is slow paced and thoughtful, allowing the player to sit back and relax a bit, to pick what research is most pressing and what manufacturing needs to be done. The steady pulse of the action in the game keeps everything fresh and welcome. The tech tree advances at a perfect pace, with enough different paths that there are always new things to discover and integrate. Each new technology is exciting, pushing for further innovation. It is something akin to the "One more turn" emotion of the Civ franchise, there is always a new horizon to aim for, whether it's a shiny new base in Asia or adding missle defences to you base in Europe, building your first Firestorm or equipping a Plasma Cannon on one of the beat up old Interceptors. And every advancement gives real, tangible rewards, whether it's increasing your squad's mobility with flying suits or shooting down that first large ufo and preventing a terror strike in New Delhi. There are no artificially retreating horizons here, each goal reached is a verifiable accomplishment that changes the way you interact with the game and the game interacts with you.

The few bothersome quirks with the game rarely get in the way, but there are some niggling issues. It would be great to be able to equip particular squad members from the base screen, rather than having to rearrange equipment before every fight. To the same end it would be immensely useful to be able to arrange your squad in the transport and choose who comes out first and who is stuck in the back. In fact, the way the game treats soldiers in general is almost as if they are never meant to survive. They are just names and numbers, sometimes a skin or hair color. One good shot will end them forever, with no notifier, no eulogy, no second chance, just a number in the mission summary and an open spot in the skyranger. Despite this murderous disinterest in your squads that the game displays, they will still move beyond the randomly generated name and numbers that the game presents you with, especially if you have a single squad that you work with through the entire game. You invest such a tremendous amount of emotion into each member simply to survive through each encounter that you cannot but see them as an individual. By the end of my first playthrough I had assembled, out of these fragments of names, numbers, battlefield pairs and performances, an entire back story for my team complete with sibling rivalries and romances, assigning character archetypes and histories to each.

X-Com: UFO Defense stands among the greatest games ever made primarily because it is challenging and cold. It will not guide you through to victory, and because of that each tiny victory is all the more gratifying. Every encounter is crucial, every technology valuable and every inch gained is fought for and died for. X-Com does not care if you fail, but it will reward you tremendously if you succeed. No one will help you climb the mountain, but when you get to the top and the cool breeze flows over you and the view opens up before you you will know that it was all made sweeter by virtue of the effort spent.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed.

People dislike change. It is as much a universal constant as change itself. Wherever things are in flux there are people that disagree with it and file petitions against it.

So it is shocking when a well loved IP comes out with a new version and there is not an outcry against it. Take the most recent iteration of the Dungeon and Dragons ruleset. Some would argue that the new direction is a "step backward", drawing the focus back from the roleplaying aspect and concentrating on the combat, but many others would counter that the new edition is easier to step into and easier to understand than previous versions (I'm looking at you thac0). "Easier" is not often a word that is welcomed by fans, usually supplanted by "dumbing-down" and followed by "for the console kiddies", but here it is hard to argue against. The younger generations have grown up with videogames, sitting around a tabletop "imagining" must seem like a waste of time when someone else has already done the work for them elsewhere. Dungeons and Dragons is operating in a difficult space and needs to work against that, and 4th Edition is an adept move in that direction. The online implementation could potentially allow for more flexible matchmaking and meeting as well as a competitive visual element to the playing field, the ruleset allows even first level characters to jump in and feel like heroes, the character classes are similar enough to be understandable while still fitting nicely into different combat roles. It is as easy to jump into as WoW.

Some would argue against that direction, but most understand the place Dungeons and Dragons occupies in the tabletop roleplaying landscape. It is a vanguard for all other tabletop games: almost everyone who plays got their start in Dungeons and Dragons. From there they branch out to White Wolf or Seventh Sea, the more complex systems focused on roleplaying over combat. Dungeons and Dragons is an entry point, and that is why it is so important that it is marketable to the mainstream. That is not to say that those who roleplay move past DnD and on to richer worlds. There is something very refreshing about jumping into a 4th edition game. With the simple combat and tactics of the miniatures it is easy to understand and fun. It is classic hack and slash dungeon crawling, which DnD has always done best, now they've just focused more upon it. There are other games that do the roleplaying better, there are other games that do intrigue and politics and suspense and horror better. Dungeons and Dragons has always been about dungeoneering, and this version does that quite well.

Update: In Episode 92 of the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call they discuss the relationship between the pen/paper and video game spaces. It's definitely worth a listen. One interesting point that Michael Zenke makes is that the simplicity of the combat ruleset allows the players and the DM to focus more thought on the other aspects of the game, i.e. roleplaying. It is a curious concept, considering that games with much more complex rules for combat (I'm looking at you Seventh Sea) do non-combat interactions so well, in part because there is a well-designed and dedicated ruleset for those interactions.