How to make XCOM 3 the perfect strategy game – Reader’s Feature

XCOM 2: War Of The Chosen – what would a sequel be like? (pic: 2K)

A reader imagines exactly how he’d like XCOM 3 to be, if Firaxis makes it their next game after Marvel’s Midnight Suns.

The announcement and reveal of strategy developer Firaxis’ newest game, the turn-based Marvel’s Midnight Suns, was a pleasant surprise to me as an XCOM fan. After a decade of rebooting the classic franchise and pumping out three full games and two expansive DLC campaigns, the developer notorious for making games that make you feel stressed out and vulnerable is now coming back with a game full of powerful, god-like characters. Sounds like a welcome change of pace for XCOM fans and a refreshing respite for Firaxis.

After playing my Wolverine Berserk card like he’s Pikachu a few times, though, we’re going to have to come back to alien chess eventually. As I start a run of XCOM 2: War Of The Chosen in anticipation of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, which is less a DLC pack than it is a complete reworking of XCOM 2 and the definitive way to play it, I can’t help but imagine what XCOM 3 is going to look like. Or rather, what I wish for it to be.

Playing through War Of The Chosen (WOTC) is like playing the world’s most intense game of chess, where you have an intimate connection with your chess pieces, followed by the experience of using your non-tech savvy aunt’s 10-year-old Dell desktop with only Internet Explorer to check your email. The presentation of the strategic layer of XCOM, when you’re deciding which items to build and which missions to go on, is awful and needs a complete reworking.

All you get is pop-up after pop-up, telling you where to go and what to do, except half the tasks are mandatory and you are forced to do them on the spot anyway. You have to park your ship at spots on a map to hoover up resources for X amount of days like you’re a Roomba. And because we all complained about it, Firaxis decided to make this context-less map of inanity even worse in WOTC, where there are even more talking heads interrupting your scanning busywork to tell you that you need to go on some mission right away or the aliens will continue to make progress on the Avatar project.

Speaking of that oft-memed line, the deliverer of it, ‘Central’ Bradford from the first game, really needs to have a mute button. He is the worst offender of the talking heads that rush you from one mandatory mission to the next. For a strategy game, XCOM sure does give you very little choice on how to devote your time and deploy your forces.

Some of this can be explained by the race against time narrative of XCOM 2, which takes place after the ‘bad’ ending of the first game where the aliens have won, but there are so many missed opportunities to make the missions matter. Why is it that you enter the actual tactical gameplay and send your precious soldiers out to die for things like random guerrilla missions and supply raids, but you just use your Roomba to scan a dot on a map when you’re actually trying to unlock a region from alien control?

Besides constant pop-ups for missions that you can’t or shouldn’t skip, XCOM also needs a serious reworking of its in-game currencies. Yet another element of the strategic layer that is presented without context, you need supplies to build facilities, but you also need engineers. You can get engineers through missions or buying them. You need intel to unlock regions, but you also need resistance contacts, for which you need to build and staff your base with supplies and engineers.

You can sell stuff on the black market for supplies, but you can only use intel to purchase things yourself. You can get supplies, intel, staff, and items from scanning sites, but some upgrades you can only build with a combination of supplies, alien alloys, alien corpses, and elerium. Now, elerium is not the same as elerium cores, which you also need. Once you unlock a region, you can also upgrade a radio tower, but this time you need supplies, not the intel you needed to unlock them initially.

To this day, I still don’t quite understand why scanning a site with my Roomba yields supplies or intel in any way. It’s not that the game doesn’t explain their use or why I need them, it just doesn’t offer me any context or sense for how I should be going about my non-chess activities. I know I need all the resources to progress, I just don’t care.

For XCOM 3, it would give the player so much more of a connection to the gameplay if the missions themselves were about freeing the regions of Earth and recruiting difference factions. Different countries could even have specific skills or classes exclusive to them. They could also each have specific materials to mine to aid research, and even dedicated science and engineering hubs specialising in their own areas. Instead of the base-building ship view, we could choose to walk around each region as our favourite soldier of choice, observing the various hubs for each activity.

More than anything else, it would be great if the game was a soft reboot of the timeline and did away with the forced urgency of the resistance style narrative. We should be able to pick where we want to go and what we want to do, whenever we want to do it. A game should be compelling enough on its own that a player wants to continue to play without forced timelines, and XCOM definitely has that in its tactical gameplay. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than offering players a means to level up the units they like.

The strategic layer might need to be streamlined and rebuilt from the ground up but the lore of XCOM is captivating and should be more at the forefront. The aforementioned Central, as annoying as he is, is a very sympathetic character when the team is chatting via the ambient narrative, as is Shen, the daughter of the previous head engineer. Tygan, the chief scientist, is perhaps the most intriguing of all, and he’s played in a way where I kept waiting for him to betray humanity, even though he never did.

He has great asides about the nature of the aliens during his autopsies. You learn that most of the names given to your foes are nicknames bestowed upon them by the units in your garrison, not actual scientific names. Fascinating titbits abound, such as Tygan’s surprise when we find out that the mech enemies are not piloted by an organic being. He states that most of your soldiers thought the aliens, known for their cruelty and immoral approach to genetics and augmentation, would have stuffed a mutilated operator into them. He also learns that the acid-spewing enemies, a tribute to the Big Daddies of Bioshock, are actually fragile aquatic aliens from a world that is poisonous in Earth’s atmosphere, and the suits are as much for containment as they are for combat.

Finally, the game’s most imposing regular enemy, the Gatekeepers, are stated to be an unholy example of the extremes the aliens will go to genetically modify their troops, as they basically amount to sentient mechanical death spheres operated by organic beings that have been mutilated in order to fit inside them. Incredible lore-building, and it was a shame that the humans’ own unholy mechanical augmentations were only in Enemy Within, the DLC expansion to the first game, and did not make an appearance in the sequel.

Just ignore the Legend Of Korra style narrative put forth in the Chimera Squad spin-off, which takes place after the ‘good’ ending of XCOM 2, where both sides try to put the past behind them and cohabit in the same city, with your team being a mix of humans and aliens. WOTC handled this better, and the idea of alien deserters like the Skirmishers and Templars is fascinating enough without going down the path of recruiting Mutons and snake ladies for your main team.

WOTC also polished the addictive tactical gameplay to a mirror shine, with amazing new enemy types like the eponymous Chosen and The Lost. The Chosen, who have different weaknesses for each playthrough, give you an effective and thrilling ‘final exam’ for testing how much you understand the game’s mechanics, while the zombie-adjacent Lost test how much you really understand about how best to spend your action points on each turn, throwing the cover system out the window.

The gameplay however, as addictive as it is, is not perfect, and is starting to show its age. WOTC amped up the unfairness artificially with those aforementioned mandatory pop-up missions, that you can’t skip, and offered you such trips to Hell as those insane operations where you had to blindly move your units forward to mark supply crates. The game never tells you that just have to mark one and evac, so you will die again and again trying to get all the crates while clearing the map. It might even throw in The Lost and some other story objective at you early, like using a melee item to access the aliens’ closed network, and expects you to do all that without killing your soldiers. These side missions play like not a single person at Firaxis actually play-tested them.

Another way the legendary difficulty of XCOM is artificial and starting to show its age is that most of what makes it hard comes down to the fog of war effect present on every map. There are countless Reddit threads about how to avoid triggering enemy pods because that is usually how you die, especially when you accidentally spot a new set of enemies with the last character before your turn is over. The game wants you to understand lines of sight on the battlefield and how to move your soldiers, but it never explains any of it. I have played plenty of XCOM and I still find this crucial aspect of the game inexact and a bit of a crapshoot.

Sometimes, you will move a unit and no enemies will trigger, and then move another soldier right next to that one, we’re talking the next square over, and somehow that triggers a gigantic Sectopod, an imposing and tragic Gatekeeper, and bullet sponge Berserkers and Andromedons. This always amounts to you sending one of your units to scout ahead, which is sending them to die essentially. Contrast this with Fire Emblem, which manages to be plenty difficult even though you can see where all the enemies are on most maps at the start. For trained soldiers, your units sure have pretty bad eyesight.

The classes, however, need the most reworking for XCOM 3’s gameplay. The sniper class has never stopped being overpowered, and new enemies like The Lost only exacerbate the class inequality in the barracks of XCOM. A good sniper can chain-slaughter zombie after zombie and never stop to reload because their pistols have infinite ammo. They almost always do the most damage, especially in the late game, and as fun as it is to take off half the health bar of a Chosen or Gatekeeper with one shot, it also gets old. Because snipers need both action points to get off a rifle shot, they are always at the back of the line, and so it would be easy for the aliens to actually take them out if they behaved like actual armies.

They would just have to sneak someone behind you.

The heavies of the team, the Grenadiers, have always missed their shots too much for my liking, and grenades are guaranteed damage but only a single use for each equipped. The close combat Rangers are awesome killing machines, but the new WOTC Reaper class far outclasses them in the overall mobile unit department, and the healing class Specialists are completely useless and need to be replaced with something else. Their Gremlins, which can heal and attack, should just be made available to all classes as an additional item.

We need to get one or two new classes with compelling mechanics for XCOM 3, or just scrap the classes entirely and allow the units to level up individual traits like proficiencies in each weapon type, health, aim, mobility, and dodge. The classes are probably what get me the most excited for XCOM 3, because I’m tired of snipers being so overpowered. For a developer as cruel as Firaxis, it is telling that even they did not give the aliens a sniper type unit of their own, because if they did, we’d all be dead.

By reader David Wonpu

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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How to make XCOM 3 the perfect strategy game – Reader’s Feature

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