XCOM: Wait, what?

by northernbeholder

So as much of a hit as XCOM is proving to be (wonderfully showing off that, yes, turn-based tactical games still sell and not everything needs to be a first-person shooter), and as much as I enjoy playing it, the game isn’t without its problems.  Some people have chosen to complain about the graphics not being quite as bleeding-edge as they’d like, or only having a dozen different hairstyles to give their soldiers instead of two dozen.  Personally, I’m more concerned with the gameplay.

The first, and thorniest, issue is how your soldiers get their specialty.  If a rookie survives enough missions and/or accrues enough kills, they level up and are randomly assigned one of four classes – sniper, heavy weapons, assault or support.  The issue here is the ‘random’.  If you’re in desperate need of, say, heavy weapons, but your rookies keep promoting into snipers, you’ve got a big problem, because snipers can’t do what heavy weapons can do (and are actually fairly specialized in their role and need lots of others to screen for them).  On the one hand, this does make certain soldiers more precious resources, and makes losing them hurt a lot more – which is good, and part of the appeal of the game.  On the other hand, this means you can get completely screwed by a run of bad luck.  At one point I had my three high-level support soldiers die off in one mission after another. Support soldiers are the only ones who can use medkits more than once, and they can only do that several ranks into the level tree, so I had essentially lost all my medics, and all of my rookies were turning into assault and heavy weapon soldiers.  If I hadn’t lucked out and gotten an optional mission reward shortly afterwards of a free high-level support soldier, I would have started taking unsustainable casualties without the ability to effectively heal my soldiers in the field.

On the one hand, allowing you to choose what your soldiers level into would help to avoid the sort of situation I’ve just described.  On the other, it would make preserving certain soldiers less important and lessen the tension of their danger and impact of their loss.  That’s why this one is so thorny; while it has the potential to actively work against the player, it reinforces the important underlying tensions and danger of the game itself, which is important to the overall feel of the title.

The next issue is much easier to condemn.  Sometimes enemies will spawn in right on top of your soldiers.  I’m not referring to enemies appearing from the fog-of-war in a surprise ambush (which happens and is cool AI behaviour), nor am I talking about when enemies leap in from off-map during escort missions to make your run to the dropship more challenging.  Occasionally, with no fanfare, introduction or movement, squads of enemies will literally just appeared right in the midst of your soldiers.  This has yet to prove deadly for me, since the moment they appear they trigger the usual introductory “The humans have seen us, growl menacingly and leap into cover” sequence, so they (so far) never get to start shooting before I have a chance to react.  It does, however, break the atmosphere and tension, since it’s such an obvious bug, and it can be annoying to have to stop whatever advance you’re focusing on to clean them up.

There’s also some questionable line-of-sight issues.  Both your soldiers and the aliens need to see something to shoot it, naturally, but I have run into issues where my soldier cannot target a visible enemy, yet when I end turn that same enemy – without moving position – immediately starts shooting at my soldier.  It most often seems to happen when I’m holding some sort of high ground, so there’s obviously some manner of bugginess around line-of-sight when it comes to elevations.  After all, if the alien twenty feet below can see me, then surely I can see him.  Has that not been the point of holding elevated positions in warfare for millennia?

And … well, that’s it, really. I could complain that, no matter how poor a soldier’s ‘aim’ stat is, it should be impossible to miss a shot on an alien that is literally two feet away from them, or mention that it crashes on occasion, but otherwise it’s a very solidly constructed game. Not to mention massively fun. Losing your better soldiers can be devastating, pulling off a successful tactical maneuver is immensely satisfying, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat for every mission.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my engineers just finished building me a remote-controlled tank to accompany my soldiers, and I need to take it for a test drive.