Saturday, 9 August 2014

What I'm Playing: XCOM

So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we've shuffled tiles with  Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There.

Throughout, I've been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?

Or does none of that actually matter?

XCOM Logo

Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven't experienced since my mid-teens.

Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn't really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game.

It's probably my favourite of the past however-long-it's-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It's a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don't do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Day and Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus.
XCOM 7
If you pull at XCOM's edges, and tease it carefully apart, you'll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game.

The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible.

It's taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they're not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness.
XCOM 3
Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another.

Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks...

Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it's also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready.
XCOM 1

It's here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there's no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you'll be accelerating your own demise.

Every few days, there's a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it's game over.

Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlich call from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You're going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn.

Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.
XCOM 2 Jeffy
Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that's Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he's been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff's appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname 'Rogue'. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety.

Each mission is an opportunity to lose your best men and women. If Jefferson gets blown to hell, as he inevitably will, eventually, that's the end of his story. His name will be engraved on the 'Memorial' menu in the base's barracks, with a brief history (how many missions, how many kills, the ridiculous codename for the mission that finally claimed him), and that's it. All his experience and personality will be lost, like tears in rain.

Somehow they're not just jumbles of stats or resources with arms and leg, they're little people. Contrast with the 'SHIV' robotic gun platforms which can fill the role of a soldier in a battle. I'll happily let these anonymous droids perish, despite the adorable way they skim across the landscape, but the humans gather stories and identities too quickly to ever be disposable.

Meet 'Papa Bear' Muthambi, who was always up front ready to take his lumps from those alien bastards. Deceased. 15 missions, 42 kills, KIA: Operation Brutal Gaze. Or Tiffany Spencer, who I was already predisposed to like even before she earned the nickname 'Shotsy' and took a whole squad of Mutons with a shotgun. Deceased. Or 'Doomsday' Liu, who once had to blow up a civilian to take out a Chryssalid that would have torn through the entire squad – the right decision, but she was never the same again. Deceased.
XCOM 5
A confession: some of these people have died more than once. I've let myself cheat a couple of times, purposely crash the game or just boot up an earlier save. That's something I never did on PC, but this is my unreliable smartphone, and these poor bastards shouldn't have to suffer because of a clumsy thumb or hungover commute.

Still, even knowing I can reload at any time, XCOM is terrifying. Ridiculously so, for something that's playing out on the five inches of plastic burning my hands as I miss a vital tube stop. For all its complexity, the beating heart of XCOM is simply this: sending beloved characters forward into the unknown, over and over again.

That can hurt, but when one system exhausts you, another pulls you back in. A battle ends, disastrously, but there's that fast-forward button. Inviting you to research the piece of alien tech your one surviving soldier dragged back to base. To build that new plasma rifle that's going to avenge your fallen comrades. But then you hit an alien encounter, and it's all go again, and the combat draws you back in.
XCOM 6
This alternating loop pulls you through the story being told by your game: which countries you save, which you let burn, who makes corporal and who dies alone on a battlefield. Because at its best, XCOM is the equivalent of a cracking pageturner. The game engages your attention on a moment-to-moment basis but what's really compelling is the constant question: what happens next?

Which brings us to the reason that XCOM is actually, secretly, a fucking excellent mobile game too. Like that thick wad of paperback you're addicted to, it can go everywhere, fill any gap, become an intrinsic part of your life for months.

Unlike a book, though, this story belongs entirely to you. There's never going to be another Jeff 'Rogue' Jefferson. That's why I have to hold onto this one.
XCOM 4


Other games what I've been playing:

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.