I had a plan. It included skipping Brakketology last week. It’s a holiday and there wasn’t much happening that I was interested in writing about. I mean sure, I did land an Xbox One on launch day, but that’s all considerably less exciting when it’s a gift for the kids that will go unopened until December 25th. (I am trusting you with this secret. Mum is the word.) I’m rather proud of myself, actually, for not so much as opening the box, which I was sorely tempted to do. Not part of the plan was our esteemed Mr. Abner landing the flu Sunday night, forcing us to cancel the podcast. We’re definitely sorry not to have an episode go up yesterday, but Brandon and I will get something recorded this week and up for next Monday.
And so it goes.
In the meantime things are happening…
This was a lie to get you to click over. There is very little happening. Almost nothing remotely interesting at all. So instead of rounding up the Internet in search of boring things, let’s talk about actually playing stuff. Which I’ve been doing! Huzzah! (Fair warning, while I try to be vague in most places, there are spoilers herein.)
Running from the dead. Like, a lot. A couple weeks ago I played through Telltale’s Walking Dead adaptation. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard about. You have to give Telltale some real credit here because all choice and consequence in a game is illusion and this is one of the most effective efforts I’ve seen at making said illusion feel authentic. The way they weaved characters in and out of the story made it possible for Telltale to keep the interesting choices coming every time conflict arrived (be that conflict be with zombies or between characters). And, yes, having a kid to protect, though easy to botch, always makes things more interesting. The fact that Clementine is not much younger than my own daughter (do they establish her age?) amplified my protective motions ten-fold. I didn’t see little Clementine in danger. I saw my own kids and I made decisions based on what I’d do if it were my own kids in mortal peril.
Now there are your obligatory pitfalls and they mirror the same pitfalls you get from the show. Encounters with walkers coming out of nowhere are all too predictable. Has the story gone for awhile without a zombie? Is this the worst possible time for a zombie to appear in the most unlikely of places? If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re going to find a zombie jump on top of someone, often when all common sense says this would be impossible. Also, because there is need for character drama, characters do bicker and argue and fight for reasons that strain credibility. Not in every instance, but it happens. No one is more emblematic of this than Kenny. There are times he’s a dick and it feels incredibly forced and other times… shudder. What that man endures.
Then there’s the end. You had to know your own fate was coming. There’s just no place else it could’ve gone, but The Bite is a classic example of one of said forced zombie gotcha moments. The fallout from it, however, prevents this contrived moment from derailing the story. How you handle your crew and how it leads into the variable paths in the final chapter is brilliant. (I’m proud to say I kept everyone together upon entering the final chapter.) What I’m less okay with is little Clem on the run. I had it play out such that two of the characters were supposed to be waiting for her at a specified place. She knew where she was to go. Why do I see her wandering in the middle of nowhere in the final shot? Perhaps the 400 Days DLC, which I’ve purchased but haven’t started yet, provides an adequate answer to this question?
The enemy. He is within. But not really. I finished the XCOM expansion, Enemy Within, last night. This really doesn’t prevent the game from being great, but the Enemy Within theme is a bit of a red herring. One, there’s the terrorist organization, Exalt. It’s rather insane to think a group like this would have these motivations –Aliens, yay! We say, let ’em win!– and still be anything more than a fringe group gathering in some in a basement or off in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. The notion that they’re a well-funded XCOM rival is ludicrous. Whatever. It does make the gameplay better by presenting you with a few more interesting encounters that force you to adjust your tactics. Exalt squads operate like XCOM squads and that makes them much different to face on the field than the aliens.
Then there’s the gene splicing and meching. You splice and dice your soldiers six ways from Sunday, which you’re supposed to believe creates a moral dilemma in which you wonder if adapting alien DNA and whatnot to human soldiers comes with undesirable consequences. Aside from Chief Engineer Killjoy hemming and hawing every five minutes, it does no such thing. No soldiers are compromised through having their abilities. In terms of gameplay gene splicing and meching out and adding psi abilities is pure win with zero pitfall. This is fine. It’s what best serves the game, but it also makes the Enemy Within framing look silly.
As Ray Stanz will tell you, don’t look at the trap and you’ll be fine, because the game itself is aces. There is no going back to pre-Enemy Within XCOM. Gene-spliced skills are gravy. Properly upgraded and used MECs are essential tools throughout. The only real problem is that XCOM is a game in which the beginning is hard, but if you survive to the middle it gets progressively easier. This is even more true with all these extra tools at your disposal. By the end, playing on Normal difficulty, it’s laughably easy. I had all nations satellite covered with no raised panic levels. I had researched everything I could find. (Either somewhere something didn’t pop or the achievement is wanked in Steam.) I had built everything in the Foundry. I could field two full squads of major/colonel-level troops, complete with maxed out psi abilities and a host of gene mods. I reached the final mission (unchanged after this expansion) and waxed the Ethereal Commander dude two turns after he appears. This is not the climactic battle you were hoping for. (And it would have been one turn had he not deflected my sniper’s epic headshot.)
I understand some of this is that the difficulty level in that Normal is really too easy. My next game will have to bump up to Classic difficulty, which I’ve read is punitively difficult. (There are still too many problems with errant clicking and the occasional crash to make playing on Ironman mode worthwhile.) That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that the difficulty curve actually starts out high and then, as long as you are successful through the midgame, drops precipitously. This doesn’t change with the difficulty. It’s backwards in that it’s all about surviving until you have satellite coverage (no small feat, that) and once you do, you’ll have enough extra resources coming out of your ears to dress up every aspect of your squad(s). It is disappointing that Firaxis didn’t do more to re-balance the curve (and possibly stick a difficulty level in between Normal and Classic, where aliens land ridiculous crits aplenty), but it does not stop this from being a must-play for XCOM fans. Hell, I’ve now played through twice on PC, with about two other half-plays, plus another 2/3 completed game on iOS. This is not something I do with other, non-Bioware, games.
Some other things worth noting:
– Medals are a cool addition, but the game went from dishing them out too often in the early going, to not at all from the mid-point forward. I don’t know if it’s coded this way (which would be odd) or if I hit a bug that prevented them from being awarded. It was a bummer either way.
– Meld, like many facets of the game, is both great and far too plastic. If a mission has Meld it will feature two cannisters of it. The first cannister is always nearby and almost always easy to get to. The second cannister lasts longer but is harder to suss out. You will not have to try hard to have enough Meld to field a couple of fully upgraded MECs and a handful of gene-enhanced squaddies. I think they would have made the decision to go after it or not more difficult if it didn’t act as full-height cover.
– The new maps for random missions were sorely needed and made a huge difference.
– Fire >>> Chrysallids.
– Sectopods == Death (still)
– The scripted missions are better than the ones in vanilla XCOM. The XCOM base invasion is just bananas (in a good way), but I think it was a bit crap to not let you equip your guys before it starts. I see what they’re going for, but equipping your squad is a pain in the butt that is only tolerable because the game establishes that you always get to equip your squad before the mission starts. (The new free up equipment button is a godsend.) Having it throw your guys into the fray based on whatever they had on last (including whether or not they ditched equipment because of injuries) is incredibly dumb and potentially game-killing because if you lose the mission you lose the game. (Ironman players, you are warned.) Then there’s the whale mission. LOL. Hat tip.
– Being able to use international voices for your international soldiers doesn’t change gameplay, but the little extra flavor is worth a lot.
This one is worth the price of admission, folks.
Around the web. It turns out that playing video games probably does not have the same effect on kids as plopping on the couch watching TV. Who woulda thought? Mount & Blade II is coming. I’m in. There’s a D&D-themed Civ 5 mod in the wild that is evidently pretty good.