Blog #7: XCOM, Bastion and Her Story

Recently strategy gaming’s been on and off the menu. The RPG fatigue is still in me, so it’s been a time of neither here nor there. XCOM beckoned and the backlog needed beating, so I’ve been all over the place.

XCOM: Enemy Within

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Immediately, this game feels awesome. It’s completely committed to its hardcore B-movie presentation, and that’s just so endearing. Take the voice acting of the council’s representative for example. Pure awesomeness. 

“We will transmit the coordinates NOW.”

Anyway, it does take a while to get a feel for the combat. Elementary stuff like how far should I move my soldiers forward. Me being still somewhat used to the Tactics Ogre LUCT gameplay (it’s a relatively similar game), it’s been weird to be able to move my soldiers this far in a single turn. The trade-off would be that dashing is risky stuff because once you spent that second action for movement, you’re committed and exposed to any reaction attacks from aliens. Turns out that XCOM is really quite different from japanese SRPGs. It’s a shooter as much as it’s a turn-based game, so cover is important, and having your guys and gals watch each others back becomes paramount. I learned a couple lessons the hard way, losing soldiers at advanced stages of development. But that’s not the most inaccessible part either.

When I started out with XCOM for the first time, I had no mental guidelines as to what is important spending money on. I’d buy too many medkits for example, and neglect workshops. Stuff like that bites you in the ass a few hours later, so it can feel like a trap. Inevitably, I restarted my campaign now armed with more of an idea how to run this operation. I’ve gotten farther than before, but now things start getting real tough. I’m not proud of it, but I started resorting to save-reload scumming, not for hit-chances but for readjusting my tactics in a given fight.

The good stuff is that XCOM is incredibly tense. Like, nail bitingly tense at times. You botch up your approach a little bit and it puts you into difficult situations, where your unit placement is messed up. Your bad-ass assault is pinned down from 3 sides and you agonize about the best way to save her. Do you send in your support and take your chances with the enemy’s overwatch? Do you pull your heavy all the way around a building to get a better shot at the main threat to you assault? Every decision you make has varying degrees of risk and reward attached to it. I once had to essentially abandon a rookie (the lowest rank of soldier) in order to guarantee the survival of a more season (and therefore valuable) soldier. It felt meaningful, because it was. More than in a movie, or so many games that try to convey this kind of moment with cutscenes, this hit me. If I didn’t had him die, he could’ve gone on to become an amazing asset later down the line. But that assault is one of my top killers and main contributor so many victories. She had to live, so he had to die. In the end though, this was my call. If I’d been better at XCOM, this needn’t have happened. To get slightly wanky about it, this made me think about how real life soldiers in commanding positions are put in charge of the lives of other people, and the heaviness of responsibility that entails.

More XCOM will be had, but this feels like a long-term commitment. I’ll jump back in and out as I see fit.

I actually beat a game

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My backlog needs a good beating, so I felt like it’s time to take care of some unfinished business. I’m terrible at staying with one game for long. I just get too bored too quickly and I’m always curious about playing some other interesting game. That way, it’s not easy to actually get real closure in my gaming. One of the games that have been chilling out in my library half-done for far to long is Bastion.

Bastion is a funny beast, because it’s so obviously brilliant, yet somehow it still manages to feel meh. I can’t seem to figure out what it is. A proper review will be written later, but for now I’ll just say this. I beat Bastion and I still don’t know what my true opinion of it is. The actual play in Bastion is delightful. With a gamepad, the combat system just sings. It’s sort of feels like a Diablo-like, but instead of timely use of abilities, basic movement and lots and lots of clicking, Bastion’s combat revolves around good use of the two weapons you have and one special ability, as well as using your shield. The genuine gameplay variety from the different weapons is great. The hammer feels completely different to the spear, for example, and that warrants a different playstyle. You can significantly alter a weapon’s attributes. For example, the hammer can be upgrade to stun enemies. It’s such a great combat system that I wish this gets picked up from other game developers and used in different contexts.

Also, the presentation both visually and audio is so fresh and unique. As you walk around the levels, they literally assemble themselves before your eyes. It’s fancy looking and, while not really being much different to conventional fog of war, has a way of keeping you going. It’s just rewarding to the eyes to see these beautiful 2D environments come together like that.

The ears are treated to the greatness that is Logan Cunningham’s voice playing the narrator called Rucks. There is no dialog and your hero doesn’t utter a word. All story and exposition is told by the narrator. This could be jarring and boring, but it isn’t thanks to the well written script and Cunningham’s deep, manly voice. It’s real good. Also, moving through levels, fighting the enemy in this thought-out combat, looking with delight at the colorful levels and listening to the narrator tell you more about this place is engaging on so many levels.

So what is my problem with Bastion? I don’t know. I finished the game yesterday and the game never gets worse. The difficulty is just right, and at the end there was even a moment of genuine surprise.

Her Story

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Her Story is a game just released and it’s making a big splash. It’s been called brilliant, the future of game narratives and so on. To me, it’s mainly a very clever game and a really interesting story told in a genuinely new way. A review will come up soon, because there’s some stuff to consider about it. For now though, know that I recommend this to those who are unafraid to try unusual kinds of games, and also those you don’t usually play games but enjoy mysteries.

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