You may have noticed a relative lack of updates on this site lately; we here at Phasemonkey hold our hands up to this and apologise for it. For Mike’s part, this has been for real, grown up reasons: he and his wife have a baby on the way, and preparations for their new arrival have obviously and understandably been taking up a lot of his time. My reasons are somewhat less valid, however, and can be summed up in four letters: XCOM.
Yes, I’m completely addicted. I’ve logged over 70 hours, completed it twice and aborted three games mid-way for various reasons. It’s stopped me from completing Dishonored (review next week though – hopefully!) and, in fact, stopped me from playing pretty much anything else. If you haven’t bought it already, then for the love of god stop reading this article, get to Steam and buy it now. You won’t regret it.
But it’s not perfect – not quite. There are a few areas which could be improved, parts which could be polished, niggles which could be de-niggled. Below are my suggestions on how an already excellent game could potentially be made even better. As ever, if you have any thoughts, leave them in the comments below!
“Give everyone jetpacks” would have been on this list, except for the fact that you can do that already.
Shape up the story…
It’s fair to say that XCOM’s story is not its strongest suit. While it provides adequate framing for the rest of the experience, it never really moves beyond your standard alien invasion tale, and the less said about the all-too-abrupt ending the better. That’s not to say that it needs a heavy-handed tale of Hollywood melodrama – too much focus on pre-defined plot and characters would ruin the player agency – but if we’re going to have an authored narrative driving things, let’s at least have a good one. But then again…
…And then strip it out entirely
XCOM doesn’t need a pre-written story! The true glory of the game lies in the emergent stories; the support soldier who dies in the process of reviving a fallen comrade, the failed UFO interception which leads to the USA dropping your funding, the crack shot against all odds that saves a rookie from certain death.
While the pre-defined story guides you through your first game, on subsequent playthroughs it becomes a burden, restricting you to a certain path and detracting from doing things your way. So let’s have another game mode entirely without it. Obviously, there still needs to be some kind of end goal – survive for two years against overwhelming odds, destroy the alien mothership within four months, etc – but other than that, leave the player to his own devices. The stories he tells through playing the game will be more memorable than anything written.
This is a significant step in your fight against the aliens. You don’t need these two talking heads to tell you so.
Let me be more proactive
As it stands, keeping countries calm is as much a matter of luck as it is of skill. If a nation’s terror level is getting perilously close to breaking point, all I can do is launch a satellite – assuming there’s not one in orbit already – or cross my fingers for a mission in that area. If no such missions occur before month’s end, that country will leave the XCOM project regardless of my actions.
In the next game, I’d like to take charge. Instead of waiting for aliens to attack, let me go on the offensive: send out a fleet of interceptors hunt out hidden UFOs, send squads of soldiers into previously terrorised zones to wipe out any remaining hostiles – whatever it takes to get the job done and bring order back. These missions will have to be expensive and extremely challenging to keep them from ruining the game’s balance, but that will just add to the fun.
Pump up the info
There’s little in XCOM more frustrating than moving a soldier to what you think is a perfect vantage point, only to find that the game doesn’t think you can see the Chryssalid that’s right there. Yes, there. Down the stairs, he’s about three feet away! Can’t you just – aagh, dammit! And now I’m dead.
Sorry, excuse me. XCOM’s cover and line-of-sight systems can be a bit obtuse at times, so build that information into the HUD. When I’m hovering over a potential movement spot, highlight exactly where my soldier will and won’t be able to see from that position so I can make a fully informed decision. Showing weapon engagement ranges wouldn’t go amiss either.
Better incentives for capturing aliens
Taking an alien alive is one of the most thrilling and satisfying things you can do in XCOM. It’s the ultimate risk: you need to be close enough to feel the enemy’s breath for your arc thrower to work, so miss and you’re toast for sure. When you get them back to base, though, the result is underwhelming: a research credit, more likely than not for something you’ve already researched exhaustively, and a weapon you’ve most likely already got. Boring.
So let’s get more creative. What if capturing certain aliens alive revealed locations of hidden bases, opening up new mission possibilities? (Something which could also fit in with the point about being more proactive!) Or maybe interrogating the aliens could open up technology branches not available through other means. You could even use captured and mind-controlled subjects as extra engineers, scientists…or possibly even soldiers. Anything but a bloody research credit!
Oh, and on a related note: put the arc thrower in the pistol slot rather than the item slot. Please.
Your reward for capturing this big bugger alive is a research credit for armour. Good luck capturing him in the first place if you don’t already have good armour, mind.
Increase the internationality
Note: Internationality is totally a real word.
The threat in XCOM is a global one, and the XCOM project itself is funded by a council of world powers. Your missions take place on every continent, and your soldiers hail from a diverse range of nationalities. So why does every speak English, with a US accent, and why do all of the maps have a distinctly American flavour to them? finding a 7-11 style convenience store in a mission set in Japan is hardly a game breaker, but it’s certainly a disappointment. XCOM is a game about saving the whole world, not just America – so a bit more international flavour would be welcome. Yes, that’s flavour with a “u”.
The chances of anything coming from Mars…
Hardcore fans of the series will lynch me for this, but I’d love to see XCOM’s gameplay applied to the setting of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Satellites and plasma rifles would give way to couriers and cannons, the world council would be replaced by the regency, and instead of interceptors we would have ironclad ships cutting down tripods as they strode across the Channel. Clearly this would have to be a spin-off rather than the next major entry in the series, but as an idea it’s almost irresistible. Just make sure the soldier customisation screen has a moustache slider and you’re all set.
Oh, and I’d basically give you a blank cheque if you can work in Jeff Wayne’s music. Ta.
OK, the game has a reasonably decent range of facial hair options already. This ‘tache is magnificent.