Injecting new blood into XCOM – but at what cost?
Welcome to the latest chapter in my ongoing quest/self-help guide to unlock 100% of achievements in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Between a full-time job, part-time writing career and a range of domestic commitments – is it possible for an average, grown-up gamer to max-out a modern title? As I post my progress, I’ll be discussing hints and tips; discussing the game’s design; and poking fun anything that comes within range. Catch the start of the journey here and the middle here.
The XCOM community is positively ablaze with excitement at the moment. From the release of sort-of prequel The Bureau (a lackluster and controversial entry to the series, but it at least created a talking point), to the very exciting announcement of an expansion pack entitled XCOM: Enemy Within – giving the game a very welcome adrenaline boost.
But for all the excitement coming out of the games press, I’ve been a little worried about the cynical side of Achievements. Are they just a marketing con, or do they genuinely enhance the game experience?
Perhaps my cynicism comes from a weakened emotional state. Friends, hold onto your butts: for I must announce the untimely and ultimately apocalyptic death of Thomas ‘Wardog’ Thomas.
I’ll start this Journal with my impressions of Enemy Within. In case you’ve been hiding under a Muton these past two weeks, you’ll be aware that Firaxis have announced an expansion pack (sort of a semi-sequel, really) to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It presents an alternative campaign, letting us enjoy a new story-line. The hook lies in the changes Enemy Within makes to your barracks: introducing two rivaling tech-trees / pseudo-classes which enable you to further customize your soldiers – turning them into cybernetic chimeras. And there’s just the hint of a wider conspiracy story creeping in: could there be an element of human subversion, too?
A far wider range of maps is promised (thank goodness), as well as some minor gameplay tweaks and a new currency: Meld. This alien substance finances the new soldier tech trees, but it can only be collected from operation maps, and self-destructs after a few turns. I’m particularly pleased that the new soldier upgrades won’t stretch your finances any further – Solomon knows its hard enough managing air defense, satellites, base management, soldier recruitment AND great construction on a single (pretty meager) income. Giving us a new currency to let us play with the new toys without incurring a mental breakdown is a great idea.
I do retain some reservations, though. Meld promises/threatens to pick up the pace of XCOM by forcing the player to rush, introducing a time constraint to encourage more aggressive strategies. I totally agree that XCOM: EU is too biased towards defensive strategies, rewarding rise-averse play and slower expansion across the map. But I don’t think Meld is the answer to opening up new play-styles. If the aliens continue to regularly score unlikely – or even impossible – hits against soldiers in high cover, then players will continue to adopt a defensive approach. XCOM is really punishing to soldiers caught in bad (or even pretty good) positions. The risks are so high and hard to manage that I don’t think we’re going to be keen to gamble our soldier’s lives like that – not without ruining the fun of the game.
No, it seems to me like Firaxis should offer more defensive skills for soldiers, or perhaps just a fairer (perceived) difficulty model. Perhaps heavy cover should offer a stronger advantage – both to players and aliens. It can still be blown away, after all, plus it would encourage flanking strategies and diverse movement. Perhaps some hits could be “glancing blows”, dealing far less damage (but still risking panic). Maybe there could be more skills to enable soldiers to last longer under fire, or have a percent chance to dodge things like grenade attacks.
I love my XCOM, and I like it to be difficult (natch). But I’d prefer for it to feel a little more fair than it does currently – too often I lose a soldier under circumstances which make me angry at the game. I’m concerned that by encouraging players to play more riskily, Meld will only increase the feeling of unfairness which players so often experience.
Capitalism: Enemy Within
But what do I know? I’ve yet to try the new content and there’s every chance it will knock my space-socks off. I’m only a part-time cynic after all, and there’s another issue here which is more worthy of my ire. Are 2K Games using achievements to manipulate me into buying the expansion?
XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes with sixty-odd achievements built into the core game. The single piece of DLC, Slingshot, adds an extra five. Enemy Within introduces some thirty more. The difficulty here is that achievements aren’t bound to the DLC or the extension itself, they’re tied to the main game – and more to the point, the main game’s achievement list is expanded regardless of whether or not I own the expansion content.
So I can buy and complete the base game – but I’ll never be able to unlock 100% of its achievements unless I’ve bought the extra content. Does that matter? Does it seem fair?
It’s not, perhaps, a major problem – but it does show what achievements are intended for. Like bundling football cards in sweets, or little collectible toys in fast food packages, they incentivise the purchase of goodies (and bind the consumer to a particular retailer). Would you buy the extension from a different shop if it didn’t contribute to your achievement progress? Would you buy sub-standard DLC or an extension package you don’t really want just to unlock all the achievements? While there are a few die-hard completionists out there, I know that a most of my readers will instantly answer “no, don’t be silly”. But I’d argue the strength of achievements goes beyond conscious motivation, striking something deep in our psyche and compelling us to make one more purchase.
Publishers and marketeers know that putting a scorecard or completion rating next to each title in a gamer’s library is like waving a flanking position at a Thin Man. There’s at least a bit of a kleptomaniac in all of us: that’s why virtual commodities like trading cards are selling like hot cakes on Steam. We like to see “100%”, we like to do everything there is to do and have that accomplishment acknowledged. We like the numerical roundness, the bragging rights, the challenge. And my gosh don’t the shop owners know it.
The way we buy play and games is changing. Every few months there’s some new outrage, instigated by publishing houses and vociferously rejected by gamers. Using achievements or bundled incentives to sell products isn’t new; but perhaps we should be a little bit worried about the extent to which our playing and purchasing habits are being manipulated.
Alright, soapbox over. When not whining about achievements, I’m supposed to be unlocking them. So how’s that going?
Er, badly. When XCOM: Enemy Unknown is going well, it’s amazing. You feel on top of the world when your strategies go to plan, when enemies miss the shots they’re supposed to miss and you hit the shots you’re supposed to hit. Victory may be smooth as silk or hard-fought and bitter, but on Classic difficulty, each one is euphoric. And credit to the game – coming up to 100 hours hours played and I still fist-pump like an 80’s action hero every time I kill an alien.
But when it’s going badly – my giddy aunt, it’s a trial. Odd things can happen on the battlefield – rage-inducing, maddening moments. You feel like the game’s against you, like you’re climbing a mountain without a summit, like nothing you could have done would have saved that soldier. As a Terror mission plummeted into the depths of abject failure last night, I honestly just wanted to burst into tears.
So it goes just about every battlefield operation. It’s a bi-polar experience: the highest highs and the lowest lows. You lose a mission and face complete disaster – only to miraculously recover the next and hang into the campaign for another month, inching closer to the next milestone.
The headline news has been, of course, the sad death of Wardog. Yes, Thomas Thomas bought it on a doomed mission, pinned down against five Mutons, closing in on him from all sides. He went down in a blaze of fire and took two Mutons with him: but even he couldn’t do much against the cluster-fuck of Operation Red Shroud. Game 14 didn’t last long after: I limped into June with a handful of soldiers, no money and a Situation Room which looked like a communist’s wet dream.
Game 15 has been better – but at the time of writing, it looks like it’ll be over before July. The aforementioned terror mission has left me in a bad state, with few trained soldiers and an almost empty armory. I’ve got a Firestorm on order to help turn the tide – but when my problems are on the ground more than in the skies, will one shiny ship be enough to convince the Council keep my campaign alive beyond August?
Hours Played: 14
Operations Completed: 25
Aliens Killed: 199
Soldiers Lost: 46
Soldiers Lost in Final Five Operations Game 15: 20
Flawless Victories: 4
Total Wipeouts: 6
Achievements Unlocked: 0
Thomas Thomas’s Killed: 1
Achievements Unlocked: 41% (35/85)
Hours Played: 14
Operations Completed: 25
Confirmed Kills: 783
Campaigns Started: 15
Campaigns Won: 1