Tag: aliens (page 2 of 2)

First Impressions: XCOM Enemy Unknown

Courtesy Firaxis Games

The road that brought the alien defense series X-Com back to us has been a winding one. Rumors of an update or remake were never far away, and at one point, a game with that title appeared but was something more along the lines of BioShock, with first-person shooter gameplay and heavy influences from Fallout, which did not endear the previous games’ fans to the notion of a remake. However, after years of subsisting on the original UFO Defense, it appears that Firaxis games have finally gotten it right with XCOM Enemy Unknown.

A playable demo is available on Steam, and after playing it through twice, I can say this is more than likely the game fans have been waiting for. The situation is the same as the original game: aliens are invading Earth, abducting or flat-out slaughtering human civilians unchecked. To stop them, a multinational council is formed to fund and oversee XCOM, an elite paramilitary force dedicated to preventing and investigating these attacks. With a handful of rookie soldiers, very little funding to begin with, and only a single base to protect the entire world, you as the Commander of XCOM start in a very unenviable position. Oh, and if you screw up, you may lose your funding, to say nothing of letting the world get conquered by malevolent extraterrestrials.

Courtesy MicroProse
Courtesy Firaxis Games
Old vs. new.

At its heart, XCOM appears to be hewing as close to the original formula as possible: go from broad real-time base-building and research to turn-based tactical isometric combat. Technology has advanced, of course, so XCOM employs the Unreal engine for its rendering. I’m sure there will be purists who miss the stylized, cartoonish art of the original game, and while I admit that style gave the original a lot of character, the new models and animations make it clear this is an XCOM game, not just another futuristic shooter dressed up as an old favorite.

The maps and character designs are colorful and varied, tossing out the grayish-brown aesthetic of certain other action games with guns. Instead of mucking about with time units, each soldier gets two actions, which can be used either for movement or for shooting. Some weapons, like the sniper rifle, require you to not move on your turn, while others allow you to shoot then move, or move before shooting. In addition to these basic aspects, each soldier now has a specific specialization, with assault troopers being able to “run and gun” while heavy weapons guys carry rocket launchers. The engine even breaks up the turn-by-turn movement with occasional dynamic zooms and pans, giving you a very “in the thick of it” feel for the action.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
Mary the sniper lines up a shot.

The demo doesn’t show much of the new base mechanics, but instead of an overhead view, we see it from the side, with soldiers relaxing or training in the barracks while scientists consult their research in the lab. Characters now have distinct voices and personalities, and the international nature of XCOM is emphasized. The promise being made, or at least implied, is that research and fabrication between missions will remain important, as your soldiers still only begin with the most barebones of equipment.

All that said, I think the interface is a bit dodgy in places. It was difficult, at times, to adjust the map properly to see where and how to move my soldiers into better firing positions. As neat as the dynamic events are during combat, once or twice the camera didn’t seem to fit into place properly and I ended up looking at the barrel of the gun instead of at my soldier as they fired. Finally, and this is purely an aesthetic thing, I can do without the initial assault rifles of the squad being roughly the size of a Smart car. They’re just ridiculously big.

However, playing the demo has definitely brought back good memories and whet my whistle for this newest iteration of XCOM. If the promise of the base layout delivers, and combat within the game evolves as it did in the previous titles, this is a sure-fire winner. XCOM Enemy Unknown releases on October 9, and can be pre-ordered on Steam.

Shifting Tone

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

I was bantering with some friends recently about True Blood, and how this season feels different from the previous one. There is a lot more emphasis on vampire political and para-military shenanigans, and less on messy or convoluted love triangles. It’s a shift in tone that, personally, I am 100% behind, and it makes me invested in seeing what happens week to week. It has me thinking about tonal shifts in storytelling in general, when it works, and when it doesn’t. If you plan on writing more than one thing in your lifetime, you may see tones shifting in your own work, by accident or by design.

Movie sequels can see major tonal shifts. Alien was a spookhouse horror in space, while Aliens was action-packed suspense. The shift in tone works, though, because elements remained consistent and the storytelling was solid. You have a strong female protagonist, icky xenomorphs, shifty androids, and corporate douchebaggery. I hear Prometheus contains all of those elements1 but keeping some names the same between tales does not guarantee a solid shift in tone.

Consider The Matrix. It began as a very solid near-future tale of mystery and self-discovery, but the sequels suffer from their shift in tone. Instead of focusing on the characters and meaningful expansions on the world they inhabit, the second and third films let the bulk of their time become dominated by action sequences and terrible philosophy. Whenever they shift between those two elements, there’s an almost audible clunk, like a transmission that’s about to fall out of the bottom of your car. It’s damn close to painful, and it’s evidence of tonal shifts being handled badly.

Good stories aren’t just one thing all the time the entire way through. Your characters should experience a mix of emotions, bringing the audience along for the ride, and that means the tone of the story is going to change from time to time. While they might not always see it coming, the shifts should feel natural, and flow with the story and the unfolding personalities of the characters. Good examples of characters who experience these shifts well include Harry Dresden and Coburn the vampire.

You do have to be careful, though, as jarring shifts can stop your story dead. It can be very hard to balance comedy with tragedy, and messing it up is a death sentence. You can’t have Oskar Schindler suddenly break into a rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ in the middle of trying to rescue Jews from concentration camps. If your story’s been consistently light-hearted, interrupting a slapstick routine with the news someone has inoperable colon cancer will go over about as well as a lead balloon. While these things can work, they’re very easy to mishandle and I would advise extreme caution. Your audience is paying for the ride they’re taking with you; if they’ve felt you’ve driven them off the road into a ditch filled with brambles, they’ll be sure to let you know it.

What are some of your favorite, or least favorite, shifts in tone?

1 I still haven’t seen Prometheus yet. I may just have to suck it up and go alone to see it.

Ghoulish Games III: X-Com UFO Defense

Courtesy MicroProse

The first game I discussed for this holiday dealt with the experience on a personal level, free of monsters. The second focused on a particular monster. Now, let’s talk about an overall game that actually captures an atmosphere of dread. The situation in X-Com: UFO Defense is as follows:

Aliens are attacking human cities. They land in the town, blast civilians and leave. The multi-national community has created X-Com to investigate and prevent these attacks. They get a couple jet fighters with missile launchers, a transport to carry a squad of around a dozen troopers, some scientists to research alien technology and a workshop to build new equipment based on those discoveries. If X-Com does well, the nations of the world will keep giving them money. All you have to do, as the leader of X-Com, is at least keep your soldiers from dying.

It’s turn-based squad combat, and mechanically it isn’t bad. Every solider has a set amount of time units to use every turn, and if you’re out of time units when the enemy turn comes around, you can’t shoot back at them when you see them. So you need to plan the moves and position of your squad carefully. Add to this the fact that you start with just over a half-dozen volunteers with the combat experience of a weekend’s paintballing, armed with weapons purchased on a budget and multi-pocketed jumpsuits for armor, and the result is a surprisingly tense scenario in which a wrong move will have the aliens blasting your so-called professional alien hunters with glee.

The idea of putting humanity at an initial disadvantage worked in Independence Day and it works very well here. With limited funds, there’s only so much you can do when you start out. To get ahead, and gain any sort of tangible advantage on your foes, you need to meet them in combat, disadvantage or no. The combat in underscored by a minimalist, menacing theme that captures the tension perfectly, and night missions are particularly terrifying.

Stopping a terror attack means landing in the city and hunting building by building, room by room for the aliens. On their turn, the aliens blast any civilians they see, but you can’t see it. Their movement is hidden unless your soldiers can see what’s going on, so for the most part you’ll hear the fire of plasma weapons and the screams of the dying. Not only is it chilling in and of itself, it reinforces two key points of the scenario. If you don’t hurry, there won’t be any civilians left to save; and if too many of them die, you’re going to piss off your investors.

The terror in attack an alien craft or base is a different sort. Sometimes you shoot down a UFO over land, sometimes it lands on its own for some unknown purpose, and on occasion you’ll find a base they’ve established on Earth. In all these scenarios, you’re taking your team into an environment where you are at an even more severe disadvantage. In the case of a crash, they know you’re coming and are waiting for you. Just getting off of the transport can be punishment, as the aliens helpfully assist you in reenacting the Normandy landings. Even if you survive the initial encounter, getting into the UFO or alien base means going into a confined space with which you’re unfamiliar but the enemy knows intimately. Be prepared for ambushes, booby traps and unforeseen consequences. You might have your squad kitted out with flying suits, repeating plasma blasters and remote-controlled rocket launchers, and you still may find yourself biting your nails in nervousness as they open a new door in an alien stronghold.

This is why X-Com: UFO Defense holds up after many, many years of innovation and progression in the realm of game design. It’s straightforward presentation, atmosphere of dread and unrelenting challenge make it a lot of fun to play even today. It’s also pretty damn scary, to the point where you can almost find yourself sympathizing with the stereotypical swaggering platoon leader who freaks out when the soldiers actually come into contact with the enemy. In other words, you almost feel sorry for Gorman from Aliens. Almost.

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