Archive for February, 2016

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XCOM and Story

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I finished my first campaign on Tuesday. So I experienced the story now, I guess. I already got into “it” a little bit when talking about Enemy Unknown/Within, that the story was the sole major disappointment for me. Sure, similar to StarCraft II, XCOM is a game that is maybe more about its gameplay than a deep and important story. And yet I think they have chosen the least satisfying method to handle these matters. In general, I think it is perfectly acceptable, to make a “story” that’s just “Aliens attack Earth and that’s why/then we fight them” and there is nothing more to it. The other end/extreme would be a deep and well thought-out story, which one could enjoy on its own merits, a story which might even make players just go and play XCOM again to experience this story.
Now, the reason why I find XCOM’s story so unsatisfying, is that its story doesn’t fit into either category. It likes to act as if it’s more than just category one, but it still never reaches category two. I was really hoping the story in 2 would be better than in the first game, but they seriously did the exact same thing again!

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The alien leaders are absent for pretty much the whole game except for the last mission. And when they show up, they spout all kinds of almost esoteric crap, which is cryptic at best and without context absolutely meaningless. If there is one big lesson to learn from Mass Effect 3, it’s that no major/main villain should ever only show up in the very last scene of the game – especially not  if it’s for the very first time. There is a “special”/unique (?) Ethereal in the very last mission, which also marks its first appearance. While this is most likely the worst aspect of the XCOM story, it shows its flaws quite prominently in other parts of the game too.

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When the Viper aliens are introduced, they are accompanied by the explanation, that they were the Thin Men in Enemy Unknown/Within, but the aliens now no longer need infiltration units. And which unit is introduced in the next mission? The faceless, the alien infiltration unit (which reminds me of Clayface from Batman)! It’s really jaw-dropping, how ill-thought-out it all is. They can’t even stop poking at these flaws, to stick with this example, the aliens use a spokesperson, which is a Thin Man. Why keep this Thin Man when they don’t need infiltration units anymore? Why isn’t an undisguised alien openly addressing the humans? Why are the Advent soldiers wearing helmets to hide their true faces? None of it makes sense and all these flaws are glaring mistakes, almost as if they wouldn’t want us to miss them.
Their lore (and the book XCOM 2: Resurrection) states that no one can use Advent weapons (which is why XCOM has to develop their own instead of just grabbing what the soldiers leave behind), because they are bound by tech to their owners and different people, who would try to pick it up, would… even be killed? The final cut scenes however show resistance members picking up Advent weapons and nothing happens to them, whereas they should be triggering the Advent security measures.

Remember Dr. Vahlen from the first game? She’s not in XCOM 2 and other than Dr. Shen, it is not explained what became of her. This is yet another prime example why the story doesn’t fit into either satisfying type of storytelling. They didn’t just have her vanish, never to be mentioned again AND they don’t reveal her fate. What they do is, they have “clues” all throughout the campaign, where something having a connection with Vahlen pops up and then there is no pay off, no resolution, no nothing. No one should ever do this, unless they were actually setting something up for later! The game simply ends, leaving the player behind without any kind of closure or any other type of meaningful message. It’s not even funny, which would have been one of the few possible tricks to save such a mess.

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Enemy Unknown/Within ended without me knowing what the aliens plan was and what was going on, XCOM 2 does the exact same thing BUT, as if this wasn’t bad enough, bundles it with something, that is apparently supposed to be a cliffhanger… Seriously dude…

XCOM 2

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What RPS says about XCOM 2 is basically true, but most reviews don’t really showcase “a little something” they should have (it’s a good thing they are talking more about “it” in newer articles [1]). Which is why it is easy to feel disappointed by them, to say the least.
The performance of this game is abysmal. If it wasn’t turn-based strategy/tactics, it might be outright unplayable. When this game boots up, I get 1 FPS for a moment until it lags up to 30. Turning down effects doesn’t help much, which shows how much the game itself is the problem.
I can’t help myself to be reminded of Arkham Knight (a game I didn’t play, but still), because both of these games use the Unreal Engine 3.5.x in a more customized version, that was cooked up by their respective developers. They messed it up. Usually UE 3.5 is totally awesome, especially where performance is concerned.

I’m also further disenchanted with reviews, because they don’t mention all the bugs this game has. Bugs that aren’t very hard to find. Just a few examples for bugs that most reviewers must have encountered at some point:

– In at least one mission type saves can no longer be used – I know right? You’d think that would ring some alarms. Update: There is actually a hotfix now that promises to fix this: http://steamcommunity.com/games/268500/announcements/detail/843667188501609284

– My ranger was grabbed by a viper but used bladestorm and killed it. The ranger’s animation however, stayed that of a strangled character for the rest of the mission.

– Bladestorm is an ability that is supposed to attack enemies that come into melee range. Sometimes it happens with enemies that are nowhere near the ranger.

– All character have nice info boxes above their heads, so it is easy to learn what happened when whoever or whatever uses their respective abilities. Sometimes this box just stays empty. The player can see that SOMETHING has happened, but not WHAT has happened.

– At the bottom of the ant farm there are buttons to access all parts of the Avenger, without having to click on the rooms directly. Did I say all rooms? No, because there is another room they seem to have forgotten. :D The living quarters are another accessible room, which is mysteriously absent in the menu. If I hadn’t used the mouse on everything inside the Avenger, I wouldn’t have noticed.

– Okay that’s not so exotic (I’ve seen it in many other games), but sometimes dead enemies are still standing around, as if they were still alive.

– The menus are still rather bad to use. It happens a lot that scrolling through lists has the scrolling stop until the mouse is moved around, because there are spots where the game acts as if the user has moved the mouse outside the scrollable field, even if that’s not the case.

– Sometimes elements on the world map overlap and it’s really hard to reach the desired one. And it’s necessary to hurry, because time keeps running.

– Check out Focus and Advanced Focus, both say +15 Will. :)

– The Proving Grounds offer a demolitions upgrade, that basically replaces all grenades/bombs with more powerful versions, they get a nice green logo on them once it’s done. Before I completed this research, I had already build one EMP grenade and had it equipped on a soldier. But the EMP grenade didn’t become a EMP bomb, it stayed equipped on the soldier. Once I removed it, I couldn’t equip it anymore. I had to build a new EMP bomb and use that. Once I reached the black market, I actually could sell the old EMP grenade, which I could no longer equip. I don’t know if the reason for this was that it was equipped during the upgrade completion and it would have happened to any optional grenade, or if it’s a problem specific to EMP grenades.

– This is just a random animation, I swear. :) I didn’t have to look hard, is what I’m trying to say.

– In one mission I mindcontrolled an Andromedon and left it behind (obviously) when the extraction took place and the game then claimed I lost one soldier. At the end of the campaign this Andromedon was also counted as a lost soldier in the final statistics.

They delayed the release from November to February and honestly, the game looks and plays as if they should have delayed the release even further. The bugs that are present in many missions aren’t even that bad, because most of them are minor, but the performance issues alone are so terrible, that they would have required much more attention. It doesn’t perform well even on some PCs that are above the recommended specs and that is something that shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t even address that this game doesn’t look all that much better than the first one. There is just no reason for it being so demanding. Unless they’ll be able and willing to do some major changes/improvements here, there’ll always be a shadow over what is otherwise a truly brilliant title.

[1] And one thing that makes me a whole lot less excited: Like many others, XCOM 2 doesn’t run at all well on my PC. I can get it to perfectly playable so long as I compromise on visual bells and whistles, but 60 frames is a dim and distant dream.

https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/02/05/why-should-i-play-xcom-2/

[2] Firaxis “Working Furiously” On XCOM 2 Fixes: “We Didn’t Know It Would Be This Way At Launch”

https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/02/19/xcom-2-framerate/

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