Monday, May 12, 2008

X-COM Rumors Buzz Again

Strategycore reported last week that IGN has unofficially-officially confirmed old rumors that a new X-COM game is being made and that 2K Boston (the team that developed BioShock) is working on the title. IGN's new Warplay column has a piece on the prospects of a new X-COM and what the author, Steve Butts, would like to see in the game. Here's a summary of game mechanics that Butts would like to be maintained:

  1. Realistically modeled tactical strategy game.
  2. The overall atmosphere of an alien invasion as an imminent global threat has to be maintained.
  3. The game really has to offer a sense of attachment and vulnerability for the members of your squad.
  4. We'd love to see the new game emphasize the element of time.
And a couple of improvements suggested by the author:
  1. A much better system for equipping and organizing your soldiers.
  2. The game design from the original redone with the concepts and technologies that have developed since.
The author also seems to suggest that we could be seeing a revival of the failed X-COM: Alliance, because the RPG-based, story driven tactical squad FPS is an industry favorite at the moment (BioShock, Crysis, Gears of War), and it would make sense if the team that brought us BioShock is indeed developing the game. While an X-COM: Alliance game would be alright, I'd much rather see a re-imagined X-COM: UFO Defense, much like what X-COM: Genesis was supposed to be before it was canceled.

In this space, I'd like to offer some game mechanics that I think are necessary for any X-COM sequel to have the same kind of impact that made the first game legend.

First, I think I need to discuss the different kinds of game engines that could be used for a squad-based tactical strategy game. While there are many squad-based tactical strategy games I could discuss and cite here, I'm going to stick only to games that are within the X-COM universe or are inspired by the X-COM series.

X-COM: UFO Defense, and it's sequel X-COM: Terror from the Deep, used a turn-based system, which I believe has worked the best out of all the engines used. In UFO Defense, the player could move one soldier at a time, which I think helped players focus solely on that soldier as s/he executed commands. This kind of focus would help players write their own stories about these characters because everything that happened to each soldier would be right there on the screen. Players would be able to focus on every detail as private Otter Zander successfully guns down several aliens only to have his mind controlled and later turn on his own comrades. Those are the kinds of gaming moments people remember most, not the ones told to them, but the ones players can write themselves.

Additionally, this turn-based system gave the player time to tactically position soldiers around the map, plan ahead, and form mission goals. The most interesting part of any tactical mission was breaching a UFO's front door and watching a carefully planned storm go to shit as aliens inside gun down soldiers or as the plan executes perfectly. No matter how experienced the soldiers either scenario was always possible, and it's that kind of tension that made the game.

Moreover, the pacing is perfect. There's no long planning stage of just setting up moves, which I find to be incredibly boring, or too much happening at once that the player becomes overwhelmed.

X-COM: Apocalypse used a combination of a turn-based engine and a real-time engine, which I believe hampered both gameplay modes in the final release. Turn-based in Apocalypse felt uneven with poor pacing in mission, while the real-time mode was heavily overpowered in favor of fast firing weapons (the machine gun and the chemical handgun). This removed much of the need to play strategically. In real-time, it was much easier to load up on those weapons and run around the map mowing down anything in sight. These aspects of the real-time game bleed into the turn-based game as well, though not the same extent.

Other games, such as the UFO: After... series, used only a real-time game mode. I played the Aftermath game (first in the series) and was really disappointed with the real-time engine. Moving strategically was a chore, mostly because instead of giving a command and watching that command executed immediately (as would happen in UFO Defense), I would have to pause the game, queue commands on multiple soldiers, and then hit play, hoping that I would have the ability to watch several independent teams across a large map react to changing circumstances on the battlefield. If that sounds like a mouthful, that's because it is -- the real-time engine put too many things happening at once in front of the players' eyes. No longer could the player focus of the actions of one soldiers because something else could be happening to another soldier across the map. The game became a pause-fest, which destroyed the pacing in mission. In the end, I would end up just grouping all my soldiers in one clump, running them around the map and focusing fire on one enemy at a time.

Finally, we have the turn-based/real-time hybrid mode of Laser Squad Nemesis. The game is turn-based but the turns are split into ten second intervals. Both players queue up all actions during the same turn and then hit the play button to see what happens. It's a sort of simultaneous turn-based engine, which addresses the issues that some have raised about a purely turn-based game favoring the player who goes first. While the idea works well, I don't think it is as much fun as a purely turn-based game. There's too much focus on planning instead of acting. A lot of time is spent planning moves for a turn, and the only reward is a ten second animation of simultaneous actions across the entire map. I found keeping track of everything that happens to be difficult. Furthermore, the focus on each individual solider that I mentioned above is removed from the gameplay.

Overall, I do hope to see a purely turn-based game because I think the focus on individual soldiers is very important to the X-COM experience. Furthermore, immediate responses to commands are important to keep the pacing smooth, and the turn-based game will give players plenty of time to plan and execute tactical maneuvers across the entire map without feeling overwhelmed.

First, any X-COM game should include the basics of the series -- base management, research, manufacturing, personnel management, geopolitical relations, UFO interception, and squad-based ground investigation of UFO activity.

The game also has to be dark. No cartoony bullshit, please. I want a sense of dread every time I send a squad into a mission. That tension made X-COM the kind of game that the Civilization series is known for being; "just one more turn." A dark motif fits the genre well and gives players a sense of purpose for each mission. I think that prevents missions from becoming like chores for the player to perform in-between building bases and researching alien technology.

That leads me to my next point -- an expansive tech tree is a must. Part of the joy that was X-COM was building a rag-tag organization of rookie soldiers from the pits of human technology into an elite squad packing the superior firepower of the alien menace. I would hope that the game provides a more interesting tech tree that lends itself to re-playability. I want a tech tree that allows for different paths but not enough time to explore all branches in one play through. The player would be given choices like, "should I continue exploring this laser technology, or scrap it for the alien plasma technology?" Either tree could lead to powerful weaponry, albeit with different tactical focuses and usefulness, but the player would have to make a choice between the two because the looming alien invasion will only allow so much time before the earth is overrun.

Re-playability is key to any X-COM game, which is why my next point is about X-COM's randomization. Maps need to be randomized. Players are going to expect to play hundreds of missions in an X-COM game; therefore, it is imperative that each map is different. One of the major failings of the X-COM inspired UFO: Extraterrestrials was the fact that maps were pre-rendered. With only 200 maps, missions quickly began to look the same. Randomization was a big part of X-COM and it created an unpredictability about the game that kept it fresh year after year. In that spirit, randomization shouldn't only be limited to map generation but should be applied to almost everything within the game. Damage, healing, stat increases, etc. should all have a slight random element to keep the game a bit unpredictable. No one likes playing a predictable game for very long.

Mission variety would be a welcomed improvement. Terror from the Deep expanded on the classic mission types from UFO Defense (UFO crash sites, landed UFO sites, alien base raids, and terror missions), but did so clumsily. The sequel added some mission types but also extended missions to make them longer. Terror missions aboard a cruise ship became the equivalent of two terror missions from UFO Defense. More does not always equal better. Rather, I'd like to see more types of missions that have importance for the larger game. For example, raids on supply ships going to an alien base could open a window of opportunity to attack the base when it's supplies are low, thus making the attack a little easier than when raiding when the base is fully supplied. More mission types, not longer missions.

Furthermore, missions should have fully destructible terrain and multi-level buildings for players to explore. Another part of the tension was sending a team into a building and checking each room for any hiding aliens -- the player never knew what might be behind the door. Fully destructible terrain keeps the tactical game realistic while also providing a nice, satisfying feeling when sending a blaster-bomb to level a building holding an entrenched enemy. Destructible terrain opens up more tactical choices.

RPG elements for soldiers are also a requirement. Soldiers should have stats that increase with experience, although, nothing should make soldiers omnipotent. One of the great things about X-COM was the fragility of the player's soldiers, which helped shape that all important tension. Even if you were sending your best soldier with a heavy plasma rifle and power armor into a UFO, you'd still be worried that s/he could die from one well placed shot from the enemy. Stats shouldn't be directly user-directed, either, as that can lead to power-gaming. Stats should increase based on actions performed by the soldiers (i.e., firing a weapon in mission will increase accuracy). Since the actions are commanded by the player, this in an indirect way for the user to influence stat increases. The RPG elements also have the effect of creating a sense of progress, which gives the player a feeling of having created something special and unique. No two soldiers will ever be quite alike, which also has the effect of the player becoming attached to his/her soldiers.

In addition to the RPG elements, soldiers need to have morale effect their ability to perform. Some of the most terrifying moments happen when a soldier panics, drops his/her weapons and walks straight into danger. Even more terrifying were the moments when a soldier went berserk and shot in all directions, sometimes accidentally killing fellow soldiers. Morale keeps that tension going -- the player never knows what may happen.

I think that it goes without saying that any X-COM game should have two interconnected games within itself -- a turn-based, squad-based tactical game as well as a real-time, strategy management game. X-COM split this into the "battlescape" and the "geoscape," and I hope that any further X-COM game would capture this game mechanic in some way. A lot of the fun was building bases, researching technology, and managing relations between X-COM and the sponsoring countries of the earth. A really sophisticated geopolitical model should be a part of any new X-COM; something like a refined political model from the Apocalypse game would be a great starting point.

Base building and management is also key. Extraterrestrials also failed here by automating a lot of the management aspects of the geoscape. Taking control out of the players hands leads to the player feeling less attached to the organization as a whole. With the kind of control given to the player in UFO Defense, the player really feels like s/he is a part of something that s/he has built from the ground up -- a mechanic that taps into the sandbox genre.

Finally, a compelling story needs to be a part of the game. The story should unfold through research, which puts the pace of the game's progress into the players hands. The "UFOpaedia" entries were short and concise, but detailed enough to keep the story interesting. As you may have noticed, many of my X-COM requirements put control of the game into the player's hands. This is on purpose, and I believe this is what makes X-COM so captivating; in a sense, the game is about allowing the player to create a story about saving the entire planet from an alien invasion.

Of course, many small things should be updated (like soldier equipping and the user interface, as IGN mentioned) to the standards that gamers have come to expect in top-tier games today. What I'm most concerned about are the game mechanics I've outlined above.

One last note -- I'd hope that if the rumors of a new X-COM being under development are true that 2K Boston would have enough sense to contact Julian and Nick Gollop!

Here's to hoping that this will indeed happen, and that the developers take care to listen to a fan base that has been aching for a true sequel to UFO Defense for nearly 15 years.


Kelvin said...

Hey a very nice read man.
I'm also a huge X-Com fan,and im delighted to hear that they might make a true sequel.

One thing i also wanna see is,when you research something,you get a nice lil video about it or something,i just love the research part,in the UFo-after series when u research something u gotta check the ufopedia for some info about it or read some realy short text wich kinda makes it all less satisfying..

Anyway keep on blogging x-com nerd lol

illegal youth said...

I like the video idea -- it's kind of like Civilization's wonder videos, and it adds that extra level of immersion. My biggest hope regarding the tech tree would be to make many different research paths available to increase re-playability.

Thanks for reading!

animattor said...

Silent Storm had the best implementation of a turn-based strategy game of any I'm aware of since X-com 1.

I think it even improved on the x-com system by allowing you to choose how your soldier used his left over TUs if an enemy happened upon him instead of just automatically taking the reaction shot.

illegal youth said...

I think Silent Storm has a great graphics and physics engine, and I agree with you about the opportunity fire mechanic.

One mechanic that I had a sort of love/hate relationship with was the implementation of real-time between combat with the enemy. I believe the Jagged Alliance series also used this mechanic. In theory, it sounded like a good idea to allow the player to move in real-time when not in contact with the enemy to quicken the mission pace; however, in practice I usually found some of my soldiers in a disadvantageous position when I did happen upon the enemy.

Ultimately, I ended up using my tactic from Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, which was to sneak around the map, set up ambushes, and jump out all my soldiers at the same time. The thing that made this possible was the computer AI seemed to be on patrol instead of actively seeking out my soldiers. I rather liked the X-COM AI's tenacity regarding search and destroy.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there is much point contacting Julian and Nick Gollop. After getting screwed by MicroProse, they developed an intense mistrust of game publishers, and have sworn they want nothing more to do with corporate game development.
Hence, they now have their own business where they are their own bosses, and own their own rights.

illegal youth said...

Thanks for the comment.

I think you have a valid point. You're right that whether the Gollops would be on the project is a matter of debate; However, I still think that it would behoove 2K Boston (if the rumors are true) to contact the Gollops to understand the concepts and mechanics of the original X-COM games, the philosophy behind the games' development, and the mythology of the franchise.

If we want a new developer to recapture the addictiveness that was those early games, the more information at their disposal, the better.

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