Xenonauts

So, time to use a weird analogy where I compare alien-fighting turn-based strategy games to cars.

The original X-COM is a quirky old British sports car. Yes, it’s unreliable and the dashboard looks like it was designed for some bizarre species, but it has an undeniable feeling of fun, with the strange suspension part of the thrill.

The new XCOM is a modern performance car. Still a premium, somewhat niche product, and definitely smoothed out compared to the old classic, but keeps enough of the “feel” to be both practical and exciting.

Xenonauts, the X-COM spiritual sequel, is an econobox without power windows. It’s still a car, and it’s ultimately filling the car roles, but it’s dull and tedious.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Xenonauts ultimately isn’t a bad game, just as how a basic point-a-to-point-b econobox that’s reliable and has good enough cargo room and mileage ultimately isn’t a bad car. But it’s just… bland. I was “spoiled” by the new XCOM using the same basic concept in a “Streamlined” fashion. This is just the original X-COM with the worst excesses polished off.

There’s two problems with this mechanical approach. The first is that enough issues remain from the old X-COM-the two worst being garbage-tier rookies and a clunky “time units” system for determining what you can do in a turn-that the gameplay experience can drag. The second is that the very polish drags away a lot of the goofy charm of the original X-COM, where you start with rookies who exist as grenade tossers and stun-rod zappers and plan to lose half of them in every fight, and end with super-psychics who never have to leave their starting positions. Instead, it’s just-bland. Harder and blander.

And the visual design has to win some kind of award for being “bland”. It’s a combination of “as close as we can get to the original X-COM without legal trouble, but without anything silly” and “generic military base”. I generally don’t care about graphics, but this was still a big issue. The only good thing is the excellent music.

It’s playable, and something true X-COM style fans can enjoy as a part of the experience. But it’s just bland.

Advertisements

Nintendo E3

So, I saw Nintendo’s E3 presentation. Two things of note.

-We finally have something for Fire Emblem Switch/Three Houses, which is better than nothing, even if all I’ve seen is A: The characters are surrounded by NPC soldiers, and B: The game is unsurprisingly keeping Awakening/Fates’ art style mostly the same. (I could do a whole big post on how after Awakening, FE is a victim of its own success, but that’s for another time, and I don’t want to jump the gun when the game isn’t out yet).

-The reason everyone was here. SMASH BROS! Now I’m biased for two reasons. Melee and Brawl were my childhood multiplayer games of choice, and Smash Bros. fans have a reputation for being —picky— even by the standards of other gamers. So while a part of me wanted something fundamentally different from the “focus more on past characters than new ones” they’re going for (at least at launch), I can understand it. Still. New. Smash. Bros. It looked very good.

Playing Crusader Kings II

So, I played my first full game of Crusader Kings II.

I started in the safest part of the game, aka Iceland. I spent most of it ruling a county in one half of Iceland, but sometimes grabbed the other half and ruled it as a duchy. The only military interventions were ones of my own making, save for one. The game ended when I ran out of male heirs in the early 1300s.

The game is a little clunky and overwhelming, but it was still fun and I can see why its fans like it.

The Paper Cow and The Paper Wasp

So, there are two types of enemies in video games that have a reputation for being memetically impossible, for being tough, for being bad. These two are Whitney‘s Miltank from Pokemon Gold/Silver, and Cazadors from Fallout New Vegas.

These happen to be two of my favorite games of all time and I played both extensively. And I can say that I never found either of them that challenging.

First, Whitney’s Miltank. I have an idea as to why she got the memetic reputation. Because Gold/Silver, at least the initial portion, is a very, very easy game. Even as a child, I still knew it was a very easy game. So, anything that makes you grind a tiny bit or use a tiny bit of optimization will look harder in perspective. I never found the Miltank that hard, even by the game’s standards.

Second, the Cazadors. They’re easy to take out compared to say, Deathclaws. My speech-optimized first courier could easy handle them (this cannot be said for some other opponents.) They have venom, but thanks to the “generosity” of legion assassins that dropped it after I took them out, I had plenty of antivenom at all times.

(I also think my playstyle might have helped. Because I mainly ran through the main quests and didn’t wander around, I could navigate cazador-filled areas in short, prepared bursts, so I wasn’t caught by surprise.)

So I’m considering these paper tigers. Or paper wasp-thingies and cow-thingies.

Heat Signature

So, I got and beat the game Heat Signature. It’s a fantastic game. Quite possibly the greatest “Hit people with wrenches” simulator I’ve ever played.

To be more serious, I was actually a little skeptical of it, given its nominal relationship to super-twitch reflex-why-do-you-hate-yourself hard Hotline Miami. But it’s pausable, and when I actually played it, I saw right away the influence of its predecessor by the same creator, Gunpoint.

The two games make it so that your character is vulnerable but not weak, and trying weird gimmicks and self-imposed challenges is part of the fun. Hit people with wrenches, then nonchalantly get sucked into space after breaking a window on purpose to make your getaway.

If I had to give some criticisms of the game, I’d single out two. The first is that the environments can get kind of samey, being procedurally generated on certain templates. The other is that the in-game difficulty doesn’t scale very well, on “Audacious” and “Mistake”-level missions, I found myself either skipping them as cost-ineffective or munchkining my way through with special builds-they didn’t feel as satisfying as the “Hard” mode.

But Heat Signature is a really, really good game nonetheless.

 

 

COIN in wargames, a response

So, there’s been a really good article on counterinsurgency and wargames posted on The Wargamer. Take a read, it’s a well-written and certainly thought-provoking piece. For an examination of Vietnam 65 and Afghanistan 11 on Spacebattles, regarded as the height of well-designed COIN in gaming and far more positive towards them than even the article, see here.

However, I also have some quibbles with it, that I think are worth a response. The first, and it’s purely stylistic is that I think the tone is a little too axe-grindy for my tastes-I’ve been working extremely hard to avoid such a tone even in my own mind, so I’m a little sensitive, maybe more so than someone else would be.

That being said, I think it’s a little too unforgiving. If I had to distill them into three main arguments, it’d be…

  • Gameplay still matters.
  • Asymmetric war exists on a spectrum.
  • Existing games can model asymmetric war better than the article lets on if done intelligently.

Gameplay Still Matters.

Ok, I’ll be honest. This statement tripped a circuit in the scenario-developer part of my mind.

And even then those games are really forgiving when it comes to fog of war. Sure, you can run a company into an ambush in Vietnam or get hoisted by an IED in Afghanistan. But neither game shows the accumulated stress, propaganda-fueled racism or simple evil of your soldiers resulting in atrocities. You don’t risk calling in an airstrike on a wedding or an errant hospital because CIA doesn’t really care about where the information comes from. You don’t need to deal with Generation Kill’s Captain America-level subordinates who will annihilate villages with artillery because they’re scared. In those games, you don’t need to deal with your own side working against you. The military establishment is almost Command and Conquer-like in not being affected by human failings.

My thought was that this sort of thing is a lot more interesting and easier to do in theory than it is in practice. This may be do to my bias against making things too luck-based, but it’s also because the meaning of a game is lost if it’s too difficult or unresponsive to play.

Again, I like it in theory. (Heck, I even included a target that turns out to be a falsely identified building full of innocents in one of my Command scenarios). It’s just that my “better is the enemy of good enough” mind views a somewhat unrealistically “smooth” command system as the price to pay for the experience overall.

And on the subject of atrocities, I view them as something that has to be handled with extreme care, and has the potential to be a “be careful what you wish for” moment if they’re implemented in the wrong way. Because there are people online who’ve been asking, in games like Hearts of Iron, to be able to commit war crimes deliberately. And there the path leads to something far uglier than simple Rambo II-style wish fulfillment fantasies.

 Asymmetric War Exists on a Spectrum

I never thought that the OPFOR chart I did a little while ago on a lark would be legitimately useful to make a point. But it symbolizes, given the prospective threats identified on it, a continuum between the two extremes of “occasional attack insurgency” on one end to “World War III” on the other. I think my own Black Gold Blitz is somewhere in the middle, not just because Iran is closest to the Light OPFOR/ROWEN fictional opponent, but because it’s a conventional conflict where one side still has to try using asymmetric tactics to counter their weakness in traditional arms.

So I’m in total agreement that real, serious COIN would require a game built from the bottom up-to be honest, my biggest inspiration wouldn’t be any existing wargame, but SimCity. It also would be niche even by the standard of the wargaming genre, and have the potential to, as any risky project would, be a swing and a miss that doesn’t live up to its potential. However, especially if the scope was narrowed and the enemy identified/changed to go up the threat scale slightly, there’s something more suitable for a conventional wargame to handle.

Existing Games Can Model-If Done Intelligently

The key word is “if done intelligently”. The comment from “some guy” that helped prompt the original article does not sound like a reasoned, intelligent approach to using an existing model to address a sensitive issue. The words “politically correct” give it all away.

But if narrowed down, it can at least potentially work, especially if it’s toned down to “one tactical engagement”. One option is the classic Mirbat-style “attack on Outpost X”, with an enemy force at least slightly above the bottom of the threat spectrum. At least in regards to Command, I find such an encounter works better in older (definitely up to at least Vietnam, and increasingly so even up to 1991) time periods where the AAMG they lugged up can post a threat to your friendly aircraft that has to fly low to hit anything rather than a more modern scenario where the fighter can fly above and safely attack with smart bombs.

That’s the easy-to-make Command scenario.

The considerably more ambitious, and difficult to make one was something I brought up earlier in the release stream of Black Gold Blitz. Where you do have some “Stuff”-even a lot of it, but where there’s a giant set of proper ROEs, fleeting targets, concern for collateral damage, and so on. It’s still ultimately tactical, and it’s still not for everybody, but it’s a huge variation on the standard Command theme that illustrates the challenges of a low-intensity environment. (Ironically, one of the biggest inspirations, and showing how these restrictions can be modeled, came from a totally conventional PVO-vs-SR-71 scenario)

In conclusion

So, that was my response. I probably came across as more critical towards the original article than I actually am. I have to say it’s because I’m a pretty critical person, even towards stuff I enjoy greatly, and it’s just easier for me to say what I didn’t like about something than what I did.

But I don’t disagree with the main points of the article, whatever my other critiques may have been. I hope my critique and commentary are well-received, and I hope any readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it.