Sunday, September 3, 2017

Difficulty Vs Design: Revisitng X-COM 2

Almost exactly a year ago I played X-COM 2, Firaxis's follow up to the wonderful X-COM: Enemy Unknown reboot from a few years prior. I was rather disappointed with their sequel. While the X-COM games have always been difficult, even oppressive, I found X-COM 2 to be more frustrating than fun. At the time I chalked this up to a decision to add in mission timers and stress in my own life. I just wasn't in the right place mentally for slamming my head into a wall. A year later and on the eve of a major DLC release for the game, War of the Chosen, I decided to revisit the base game and give X-COM 2 another shot. An additional 12 hours of gameplay later (bringing me up to a modest total of 19) I have a similar, though better understanding of what I found so frustrating the first time around.

The X-COM reboot saw a pretty familiar Earth invaded by an alien menace like so many pulp stories and summer action films. A secret organization of government officials band together to push back the alien menace. The Commander leads the organization, developing new technologies, training recruits and fighting back against the alien tide. The second X-COM envisions a world in which humanity lost that war. The aliens have arrived, taken over and rule with an iron fist. X-COM is no longer a global organization of futuristic technologies, but a rag tag band of rebels fighting in isolated cells, using whatever scraps they can find along the way. The game opens with them rescuing the Commander from the first game, leading to what was for me the best moment in X-COM 2.

"Welcome back, Commander."

The voice actor who delivers that line is absolutely perfect. It's a great set up and an interesting way to build off the first game while still leaving players in that underdog, against all odds position. The Commander, using a massive airship as his base, flies from place to place, building contacts with the resistance, researching the alien's technology to use against them and probing the enemy's defenses for soft targets they can hit with lightning efficiency. So where does it all go wrong?

In my first playthrough of X-COM 2 I blamed the mission timer for much of the games unneeded difficulty. To add to the theme of outnumbered and outgunned rebels fighting back against a totalitarian regime, the game adds an arbitrary turn counter to many of the missions. You have eight or nine turns to complete your objective and get out. Fail to complete the objective in the allotted time and your entire squad becomes captured, even if they were in a defensible position they could otherwise have escaped from.

To add to this, in the meta layer of X-COM 2, they eschew the global panic of the first game for a more ominous and vague "Avatar Project". In the first game, failing missions or neglecting certain regions would increase a level of panic in the region. If the panic reached too high a level, that region would pull out of the global initiative and decide to fight for itself. Lose too many regions, and it's game over. It was a meta level threat that made sense thematically. Nations consumed by fear, losing confidence in a world government leaving them to die deciding to go home and bunker down, defending themselves first and foremost. Lose too many regions and the world couldn't hope to stand against such a sizable threat. The themes of all for one and one for all felt at home with the game's larger message, of diverse groups banding together against a common threat. In X-COM 2, all of this goes out the window in favor of the Avatar Project. A red bar at the top of the world map shows how far the project is progressing. At certain times facilities appear on the map, targets which if destroyed will delay the completion of this mysterious project. While a weaker threat narratively, it does force the Commander to go on the offensive, taking the fight against the enemy even when the odds are against them.

Unfortunately, the odds are the problem.

Saying the Random Number Generation (RNG) is bad in X-COM is nothing new. It's like saying Nintendo panders to kids or Dark Souls is hard. The problem is that the RNG in X-COM is not just bad, not just poorly balanced, but instead serves to highlight fundamental weaknesses in the design. Some of these were present in X-COM: Enemy Unknown, others are new to X-COM 2 but all serve to highlight how a fault in one critical piece can bring the entire machine down. RNG, essentially programmed dice rolls, control the accuracy of how your guns shoot in X-COM 2, it decides how much damage those shots do and it decides whether getting hit means a wounded soldier or a dead one. A great many games do this to a lesser or greater extent. The Achilles heal of X-COM 2 is that the entire game hinges on them.

In the tutorial players are taught one of the most vital tactics in the game, using an ability called Overwatch to lure in and ambush enemy units. Overwatch puts units in a guarded state, making them shoot enemies if they move within their line of sight. Add to this the knowledge that enemies always get a free move when revealed and it becomes clear that Overwatch is essential to surviving in the game. The situation unfolds as such, if you move your units and reveal enemies, those enemies get a free move to get into defensive positions. Then on their turn they are in a good position to attack you. If however, you have units in Overwatch, when the enemy's free move is triggered, your units will attack them. This basically, though not exactly, gives your units a free attack to counter their free move. It is the basic building block of the game's strategy and impacts almost every decision you'll make.

Except that those Overwatch attacks are also decided by RNG. On occasion after occasion while playing X-COM 2, I would have my troops in the perfect location, everyone behind cover and in Overwatch and trigger an enemy movement only for the entire squad to miss. Now some of this may be bad luck, but when you add on to it the turn timer ticking down, the punishing damage that every enemy does, the sheer weight of the operation coming down on you, it's heartbreaking. Aside from causing me to pound my fist on the desk in frustration or curse at my monitor, it really breaks the illusion the game is trying to create. Here I have an entire squad of trained, battle hardened soldiers fighting with assault rifles at ranges of 30 ft. or less and they can't hit a super mutant the size of Andre the Giant? It doesn't make any sense for one of them to miss much less all of them.

Time and time again through playing X-COM 2 I would have a soldier aiming at an enemy three or four squares away, a distance of maybe 20 ft. with an assault rifle and their chance to hit would be around 70%. That's insane. Give an untrained person a pistol and have them shoot at a target twenty feet away that's eight feet tall and two feet wide and try and tell me they'll miss more than 70% of the time. And these aren't untrained civilians. These are trained soldiers, sent into battle after battle, promoted for their efforts on the field.

So they miss? So what? Shoot again. After all, that's what you would do in the first game. You might take some damage or lose a soldier in the process, but that's all part of X-COM, that is in some way part of the fun. But in X-COM 2 there are prices for that failure. You aren't just losing a soldier, you're losing a turn on a timer, maybe one of only eight for the entire mission. Not only did all your soldiers miss and someone die, but they are going to have spend the entire next turn shooting at enemies that should already be dead, and they'll have one less gun to do it.

And this, finally, brings me to my point. When is a game merely difficult, and when does it cross over into a flawed or poorly executed design. X-COM has always been hard. That's part of it's charm. A hard pressed Commander fighting impossible odds with less than ideal tools to do it. Make a bad decision, send your troops to a position they can't defend and you pay the price for it. A soldier falls on the battlefield and another name is added to you memorial wall. You got into the next battle not with an experienced veteran, but a rookie prone to panic. Your actions and your choices have consequences, making those choices more interesting.

But in X-COM 2 you aren't punished for you decisions, you aren't punished for attacking when you should have defended or going left when you should have gone right. You are punished for dice rolls you can't even see. Put a squad in Overwatch, use the tactics the game teaches you and watch as they all miss. Watch as they fall on the battlefield while an arbitrary floating timer decides you're out of time, out of chances. Watch as the game decides everyone on the ground was captured, when they could have easily escaped.

Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls are two of the poster children for difficult but rewarding games. They are trotted out when anyone says a game is hard. Oh you think this is hard, you should try Dark Souls. Both of those titles are not without their faults and there's more than one unfair death to be found in the Souls series, but there are a few crucial differences. The first is control. In Super Meat Boy, a harrowing, nail biting platformer, you have some of the best control of your jump to be found in the entire genre. The cause of this is pretty simple. When you die in Super Meat Boy it's meant to be your fault, not the game's. You missed the jump, you screwed up the timing. In Dark Souls the enemies are punishing, capable of dealing great damage, but they have patterns and wind up animations to show you what's coming. You can learn and adapt. You can't learn a dice roll. You can't control the whims of fate. Sure, you can start relying heavily on grenades and the few other items in the game that are guaranteed hits, but this is far from the intended design. You can research new equipment and unlock better gear, but how many players will get that far, how many Commanders will trust them when it all comes down to a roll of the dice anyway?

Secondly, in both the titles listed above, any setbacks from these failures are temporary. Levels in Super Meat Boy are short and load times instant so that no matter how frustrating of a death you just suffered you're back in the level and jumping before you can even think to throw the controller. In Dark Souls, dying cost you souls, the currency used for improving the stats of your character, but even this is only a temporary set back. New souls can always be gathered. There's no permanent price of failure like there is X-COM 2, no Avatar Project always getting a step closer to completion.

Difficult games often get a pass. Criticism isn't justified, it's simply the complaining of someone who needs to get better at the game, who needs to stop whining and learn the strategies to beat it. In some ways I would agree with that, but in X-COM 2 it isn't the aliens I'm fighting, it's the dice. Chance is a fundamental part of the X-COM series. In war, nothing is guaranteed, nor should it be. What I contend is that the developers need to pay careful attention to how these things are balanced, and the effect they have on the larger game. Without the turn timers, the missed attacks and botched die rolls become far less of a set back. Without the Avatar Project, losing a squad to chance means building a new one, rather than suffering a permanent setback that could result in the loss of an entire several hours long campaign.

There is much to like about X-COM 2, in the story, in the presentation. In the weapons and gadgets they give, in the varied enemies they send you to fight against. It's a shame I won't see more of it because I'm not willing to gamble any more of my time on a game that feels more rigged than fun, on something that feels more cheating than challenging.