ALIEN MOVEMENT. Firaxis teased more XCOM at PAX East recently. This triggered a series of quick sensations. First: the flashbacks. I saw all the soldiers I'd lost last October when I ploughed through XCOM: Enemy Unknown . So many dead. Then there was happiness as I remembered how Enemy Unknown successfully modernised a classic turn based strategy while keeping its soul intact. Then - excitement, and questions. So many questions. Will it be an expansion, or a sequel? What could they improve? What would we want from more XCOM?
I remember when John Keats was a rookie with little more than a basic assault rifle to his name. By the end of the invasion he was a bright yellow bus with a plasma rifle. He lost friends along the way. William Blake died on the asphalt outside a shop in some nameless American town. Sergeant Balls Balls died in the mud at the entrance to a crashed alien spaceship. Keats endured. Just when I thought he couldn't get any more powerful, he went psychic.
But all his comrades were dead, replaced by a procession of fresh-faced strangers. They feared their bright yellow leader more than the alien menace. Silenced by loss, Keats had become a scarred, paranormal monster. In my head, that is. That XCOM soldier stared back with the same blank face from mission to mission. In my head Keats' armour became scuffed and worn. His faceplate became flecked with dull green alien bloodstains. Mind's-eye Keats lashed a circlet of crooked Thin Man fingers to his belt - trophies of foes killed in the name of fallen Sergeant B. Balls.
I'd like to see a bit of that realised in-game. Perhaps veterancy could be represented visually to differentiate weathered vets from trembling newbies. More squad customisation options would give players a chance to personalise their favourite soldiers and impose their own sense of order on the squad. In the PC Gamer office we all ended up colour coding our soldiers differently, some by role, others by seniority, others by each soldiers' perceived personality. You spend a lot of time looking at your soldiers in XCOM, greater control over their appearance would build stronger bonds player/squaddy and make every dramatic perma-death even more nyoooooo-worthy.
Shooting down alien ships was more of an extension of the research and development metagame than a contest in its own right. Success and failure depended entirely on the quality of your vessel, and whether or not you chose to boost a ship during combat - a resource spend action that never felt worthwhile. If air combat is going to have its own interface system and require the attendance of the player during conflict then there should be some interesting decision-making going on.
It could become a game about organising good planetary coverage, placing launch sites and refeulling depots around the world map. If you wanted something more involved, this excellent little flash game, SteamBirds , shows how accessible turn based air combat could be presented. If you wanted to go even further, the pilots themselves could become characters and hang around your base getting into fights with the infantry, Starship Troopers style.
More of everything would be nice, of course. More aliens, more weapons, more armour types, more weird alien tech to assimilate. That's a given, but I'd especially like to see more varied missions. Terror missions, crash/landing sites, Bomb defusal and escort targets provided a good range of objectives initially, but lost their novelty value before the campaign was through. More high-stakes events like terror missions could offer commanders a way to rescue a despondent country on the verge of quitting the XCOM project. Rescuing the Queen from an alien attack on Buckingham Palace would do wonders for XCOM's reputation in the UK, for example. Battlegrounds could also do more to differentiate between the continents they're set in.
XCOM is a good story generator, but it could be better. Every XCOM player I've spoken to has stories about the heroes and dunces that lived and died in service of their XCOM project. Additions that allow for more complex narrative arcs will only strengthen the player's natural tendency to weave combat happenings into epic war stories. Emergent events could do more to turn your faceless squaddies into individuals. Soldiers could risk picking up lasting war wounds, for example, or gain terror/vengeance penalties/bonuses toward the alien hybrid that scarred them. Randomised personality traits could denote how they react when panicked. String enough little milestones like this together and you get a varied and interesting backstory for your surviving characters.
Soldiers could also interact with each other a bit more. If a rookie panics near a vet, the experienced soldier could calm them with a barked order. "Get your head back in the game, soldier!" Fighters could bond on the battlefield. If a soldier rescues a fellow rookie on the verge of death, they could enjoy improved morale when fighting together. There are much more elegant ideas out there, I'm sure. What would you like to see?
XCOM's campaign is a heartening story about nations coming together for once to kick the vital goo out of greater foe. It's not a new story, sure, but it's effective, especially when the tide starts to turn in humanity's favour. It's like the bit in Independence day when the aliens' weakness has been discovered and everyone in the world phones everyone else, only without all the horrendous cultural stereotyping.
I loved having a squad made up of the best of the best from armies around the world, but it's a shame they all spoke in the same generic US voices. It sounds like a minor gripe, and an it's an expensive fix given all the extra voice talent you'd need to make it happen, but accents inflections from other countries would do much to sell the fantasy of assembling a group of transglobal superheroes.
Firaxis backed up Civilization V with a map making tool and Steam Workshop support. A similar show for XCOM would be most welcome. I enjoyed the range of maps XCOM provided, but any scarcity problems would swiftly be solved by a busy modding community. Think of all the new new aliens, weapons, missions, texture packs, visual tweaks and voice packs we'd get. Modding is a great way to give a game extra legs and XCOM could be a great canvas for player creativity.
Every XCOM campaign filters into the same slipstream for the grand finale. Multiple endgames would encourage more replays and could present consequences that reflect how well you've done. The story could so easily end horribly. When countries leave the XCOM project, you lose resources and they effectively vanish from the map. It would be easy to imagine them descending into in-fighting or forming their own competing defence force.
And on top of all that, there are the ideas that the XCOM series has explored before, like the aquatic warfare of Terror from the Deep. What would you like to see from a new Firaxis XCOM? Underwater battles? A return to multiple bases? A black market that lets you sell weapons of destruction en-masse on the black market for huge profits? Aliens the size of skyscrapers? Let us know.
IN MEMORY OF SGT. B. BALLS. GOD REST HIS BALLS.