Tag Archives: Video Games

Me, Tolkien, and G.R.R.M.

A couple of weeks ago someone told me I was being quoted in Civilization VI, but I couldn’t spot the reference. This morning someone again pointed me at the play-through video, right to the the 8:20 mark, and it’s true, I was quoted in Civ VI.

I talked about it a bit on Twitter.

civ6quoteshowardtayler-cropHere’s a crop from the graphic that accompanies the moment where Sean Bean totally reads some dialog I wrote.

Funny thing: I didn’t remember having written that line. I had to Google it, and fortunately it appears in the comic during the years where transcripts are searchable.

schlock20050105-blog

I didn’t ask for this placement, and I wasn’t paid for it¹. It’s what we call “fair use,” and “awesome.” Something I wrote eleven years ago resonated with the developers of Civilization VI, and so they quoted it² in their game.

“Me, Tolkien, and G.R.R. Martin… we’ve all written dialog for Sean Bean.” —Me


¹If the fine folks at Firaxis would like to comp me a copy of Civilization VI, I will happily accept. It’s on my Christmas list…

²The way in which they used that quote gives it a different emotional impact than the three panel strip for which I originally wrote it. And this is why fair use is so important for the growth, development, and evolution of human culture.

 

The Angry Birds Movie

TABMThe Angry Birds Movie is better than it has any reason to be. Lots of movies pull this off, but this movie manages to turn a mobile puzzle game into delightful cinema. That divide is huge, the chasm that must be cleared is—no, I’m not going to use that metaphor. The slingshot joke is low-hanging fruit. You can all see it coming, and the film deserves better than a metaphor pulled from the bottom branches of the tree.

That principle, “don’t settle for the low-hanging fruit,” is what makes The Angry Birds Movie so delightful. The story follows a predictable form, and there are tropes that simply must be present for the story to flow, but the filmmakers were not willing to settle for simply filling out the forms and making it pretty. And I’m not talking about “exceeding low expectations.” No, this film is what happens when a storyteller who takes pride in their work seeks to exceed their own expectations.

For me, The Angry Birds Movie is the second surprisingly enjoyable video game adaptation this year. It gives me hope—actual hope, complete with giddy anticipation—that the Warcraft movie can clear the “better than it has any reason to be” bar with the same amount of air.¹

The Angry Birds Movie clears my Threshold of Awesome, and yes, if you look at my list, I did, in point of actual fact, have more fun during that film than I did during Captain America: Civil War.


 

¹If there are pigs in the Warcraft movie, I want that movie to clear the bar, then sail across the screen and knock down their houses­².

²THERE I got it out of my system.

A Casual, Hacked Review of XCOM 2

logoI have loved XCOM 2, but not unconditionally.

There are some things you should know when you consider my review:

  1. I’m a “hardcore casual” gamer. I will spend dozens of hours exploring all the corners of a game, but only if it doesn’t abuse me with unrelenting punishment and frustration for meager rewards.
  2. I loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within.
  3. I can perform basic modding, especially if all that I need to do is edit a text file. (That skill, and the relatively simple server configuration files, were the saving grace of ARK: Survival Evolved for me.)
  4. I have written a second piece with the technical details in it. Some of you will want this, but not everybody.

Here’s the high-level version of my personal experience with the game:  I pre-ordered it on Steam, and began playing almost as soon as it unlocked. I began the game on Rookie mode (the easiest of the modes) and after the tutorial the game hung and I had to restart. I tried again, same tutorial mission, and AGAIN it hung. So I went out to YouTube and watched the cutscene that goes between the tutorial mission and actual gameplay.

This, as you might expect, is a pretty ugly blemish on my experience with the game. Right out of the gate I was frustrated, and angry, and bored. The tutorial plays exactly the same way every time.

I began a third game, this time with the tutorial disabled. The first real mission played fine, and I found that like XCOM:EU/EW, the game was pretty punishing if I made a dumb mistake, like trying to advance my sight-lines with the last move of the turn,  popping aggro on a new pod of enemies who now get to move *twice* before I can recover.

I lost a soldier on the first mission, which, to be fair, is exactly what I expected.

I was not playing in Ironman mode. I could save-scum, and reload from a save just prior to a fatal mistake or a really bad random result. During my Rookie mode playthrough I think I did that five or six times, but only when something went spectacularly badly, like when the Codex AOE ability was revealed, or when my mouse hiccuped and threw one of my soldiers into a flanked crossfire rather than full cover.

I enjoyed the story, and stretched out my time  before running the final missions (the one where Bradford says “there’s no turning back, Commander.”) The final battle was brutal, and delightful. I felt like it was a far better final fight than the one in XCOM EU:EW. The ending of the game was suitably triumphant. Meeting the win conditions gave me cutscenes that felt like an actual victory, even though the world is probably still a mess.

XCOM2-WelcomeBackCommander
“Welcome back, Commander…”

I thought I had the game out of my system, but no, I needed to play some more. So I cranked up the difficulty to “Commander” (the third of four difficulties) and re-played the last few missions that way. It was definitely tougher, but I handled it with no problems.

Then I tried starting a game on “Commander” difficulty. After about six hours of grueling, tedious play I had an absolutely disastrous mission in which my panicked soldiers began very effectively killing each other. Rather than save-scum, I rage-quit. This is the point at which I must either embrace buyer’s remorse, or look into cracking open the config files.

I know I’m capable of eventually beating a non-twitch strategy game, provided I put enough time into it. I also know that this is not how I want to spend my leisure time. I don’t have anything to prove. Come on! I get to make comics for a living. If gamers want to compare fancy-pants, that is what I have hanging in my closet. I don’t need a merit-badge sash covered with Cheevos.

(Chill, gamerfolk. I do respect your cheevos. I just don’t covet them.)

As it happens, the XCOM 2 config files are a modder’s dream. After a little reading I realized the extent of what was possible. I then decided that I wanted the following things:

  1. Legendary amounts of opponents, with legendary hit points and armor, all trying as hard as they could to kill me.
  2. Soldiers who could actually hit things once they flanked them.
  3. A couple more soldiers.
  4. Weapons that do just enough more damage that a solid, non-critical hit will actually kill a base-level enemy.

My next playthrough was on what I like to call “Legendary Super-Squad Ironman” difficulty: Legend, with Ironman enabled, and a wide range of upgrades to my soldiers and their gear. Their equipment was about 25% better, their offense scores were 20% to 30% better, and it took a little less XP for them to level up. They got more grenades (2 instead of 1) and could move an additional square. Oh, and I began with six soldiers instead of four.

My tweaks are documented at http://howardtayler.com/2016/03/xcom-2-the-legendary-super-squad-mods/ along with instructions that should make it easier for others to follow along.

I know the hardcore XCOMmers are eyerolling at this. “That might as well be EASY mode.” Sure, whatever. I undercut the game’s ability to destroy me with simple misfortune.  The game remained very unforgiving of poor tactics or lazy play. What this meant is that I was consistently rewarded for paying attention, and for playing well.

This playthrough was thrilling. I did not live in anxious terror with every turn. I did get a little sloppy here and there, and on several occasions I got myself into some amazingly awful binds. I lost soldiers that way, but I felt like I had earned the loss. I also had some fantastic superhero moments when a top-level ability like Reaper or Serial turned what could have been a TPK into some wounded soldiers flying home owing the Ranger a round of drinks for life.

XCOM2-CrashAdmiresHerWork
One of my rangers, Crash, admiring her work

If you’re saying “but that’s not XCOM,” feel free to shout at the screen. I spent $75 on something called “XCOM 2”, and I take enormous pleasure in having enjoyed every penny.

(To further upset the hardcore crowd, XCOM 2 doesn’t disable achievements when it is modded. I now have a merit badge sash full of Cheevos, some of which I cheated very carefully for. I still respect your Cheevos, though. Even if I can’t be sure how you got them.)

The first round of DLC is coming out this week. It’s cosmetic stuff—more costumes, more face-paints—that won’t affect game play much, but I did enjoy several hours customizing my soldiers with just the original stuff, so, yeah, I’m in.

What I really want, however, is some new story bits. My dream DLC is a campaign built upon post-win missions in which my top soldiers are teamed up with rookie and squaddie resistance fighters, selected at random, and must mop up chrysalid infestations while saving civilians, and maybe finding pockets of Something Else toward the end.

Whatever it is, though, I’m up for it. I pre-bought the DLC, and plan to squeeze as much joy from it as I can. If that means hacking the config files some more, hey, maybe there will be proper instructions online by then. If not, oh well. I paid for a sandbox, and I do know how to use this shovel.

XCOM2-RTB-SevereCut
The “Return to Base” cutscene, heavily processed in Photoshop. Suitable for wallpapers, should you need them.

XCOM 2: The Legendary Super-Squad Mods

I promised I’d document my XCOM 2 tweaks. My goal, as stated elsewhere, was to create a “casual mode” for taking on Legendary levels of enemies in XCOM 2. It’s not the same as playing on “Rookie” difficulty, because in Rookie mode the enemies go easy on you (there’s a limit to how many will fire on you in a given round,) and the random number generator will start erring in your  favor if you really take a beating.

I wanted lots of tough, smart enemies, and I did not want them to back off if I screwed up. But I still wanted to be able to enjoy myself.

This is going to be much longer than most of my posts. Here we go!

This whole project¹ takes place in the Config folder for XCOM 2. On my machine it’s at C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\XCOM 2\XComGame\Config

This folder has around 40 files in it (as of now, anyway. More may be coming.) The key files for me were these:

  • DefaultClassData.ini—I tweaked HP, Hack, and Offense gains for each character class
  • DefaultGameData.ini—boosted the squad size
  • DefaultGameData_CharacterStats.ini—lots of small boosts for characters here
  • DefaultGameData_SoldierSkills.ini—reduced cooldown a little for the really neat stuff.
  • DefaultGameData_WeaponData.ini—lots of tweaks here. Lots.
  • DefaultGameData_XpData.ini—Reduced XP required to level up.

The very first thing I did was to duplicate the entire Config folder, and call the duplicate folder called “Config.bak.” That way if I broke anything, I could just swap the folders out and put the whole game back the way it was.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Here are the changes I made. I’ve organized them by file, and while I have not listed every last modification I made, I’ve provided specific examples of each change so that even the most timid among us can confidently mod their game.

DefaultClassData.ini

I made lots of little changes here in order to make promotions give just a little bit more to the soldiers. The file has sections for each of the character classes (Ranger, Sharpshooter, Specialist, Grenadier,) and is further divided by each promotion they get. Here is the section that defines the various things a Ranger gets when becoming a squaddie:

; squaddie
SoldierRanks=( aAbilityTree=( (AbilityName="SwordSlice", ApplyToWeaponSlot=eInvSlot_SecondaryWeapon) \\
 ), \\
 aStatProgression=((StatType=eStat_Offense,StatAmount=3), (StatType=eStat_HP,StatAmount=1), (StatType=eStat_Strength,StatAmount=0), (StatType=eStat_Hacking,StatAmount=0), (StatType=eStat_CombatSims,StatAmount=1)),\\

The bolded line is where I made my change: I changed StatAmount=3 to StatAmount=4. The promoted Ranger gets a little bit more aim.

I boosted the Offense promotions for my Rangers and Sharpshooters, and gave my Specialists better Hacking bonuses.

This is where a Specialist is promoted to Corporal.

; corporal
SoldierRanks=( aAbilityTree=( (AbilityName="MedicalProtocol", ApplyToWeaponSlot=eInvSlot_SecondaryWeapon), \\
 (AbilityName="CombatProtocol", ApplyToWeaponSlot=eInvSlot_SecondaryWeapon) \\
 ), \\
 aStatProgression=((StatType=eStat_Offense,StatAmount=3), (StatType=eStat_HP,StatAmount=1), (StatType=eStat_Strength,StatAmount=0), (StatType=eStat_Hacking,StatAmount=5), (StatType=eStat_CombatSims,StatAmount=0)),\\

I changed the bolded text so StatAmount=5 was StatAmount=10. I did this for each promotion, because the vanilla specialist, even fully tricked out, was never better than a bad crapshoot for the cool stuff. It was almost *always* a better idea to have the Specialist shoot than hack. With this tweak I turned my Specialists into hackers. Good times!

DefaultGameData.ini

This one eventually required an outside mod¹ because of interface problems. The MaxSoldiersOnMission line starts like this.

m_iMaxSoldiersOnMission=4

I made it look like this:

m_iMaxSoldiersOnMission=6

This meant I began the game with 6 soldiers instead of four. Once I bought squad size upgrades I was taking eight soldiers on each mission.

The additional two soldiers, #7 and #8, were auto-filled for me from the top of my soldier list, because the interface didn’t actually let me edit those two slots. I later installed the “Max Squad Size Fix” mod¹, which changed the UI, allowing me to choose everybody who came along (and their loadout.)

This change, more than any of the others, made the biggest difference for me. I was still always outnumbered, but after I bought the squad size upgrades I could treat my crew as two fire teams of four, and that was wonderful.

DefaultGameData_CharacterStats.ini

This was my second most important adjustment. I boosted the starting character stats so that rookies weren’t worthless, and so that flanking somebody made a real difference. The bold lines are the ones I wanted to change:

[Soldier X2CharacterTemplate]
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_HP]=5
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Offense]=65
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Defense]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Mobility]=12
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_SightRadius]=27
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Will]=40
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_PsiOffense]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_FlightFuel]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_UtilityItems]=1
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_AlertLevel]=2
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_BackpackSize]=3
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Hacking]=5
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_CritChance]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_CombatSims]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_HighCoverConcealment]=1
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_Strength]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_FlankingCritChance]=50
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_FlankingAimBonus]=0
CharacterBaseStats[eStat_DetectionRadius]=9

Offense went to 75, Mobility went up by one to 13, Sight radius went to 29, and Flanking Aim Bonus went to 20.

Aim a little better, run a little faster, see a little further, and now it’s worth getting out there and flanking somebody.

I did not boost their HP. If I screwed up, I wanted to pay for it. Obviously I could have pushed all their abilities through the roof, but that would have sucked quite a bit of the fun out of the game for me.

DefaultGameData_SoldierSkills.ini

Cooldown was all I messed with here. Many missions didn’t run long enough for a soldier to get to use their high-level abilities more than once. Here’s the Sharpshooter section:

[XComGame.X2Ability_SharpshooterAbilitySet]
HITWHEREITHURTS_CRIT=10
STEADYHANDS_AIM_BONUS=10
STEADYHANDS_CRIT_BONUS=10
DEADEYE_COOLDOWN=3
DEADEYE_AIM_MULTIPLIER=0.25f
FACEOFF_COOLDOWN=4
FANFIRE_COOLDOWN=4
KILLZONE_COOLDOWN=4
SERIAL_COOLDOWN=5
SHARPSHOOTERAIM_BONUS=20

The bolded lines all got reduced to 3. My Sharpshooters got to be awesome more often, and I was more likely to use an ability early in a mission. I still had to wait to use it again, but I was less likely to get killed, or have a mission timer run out, while waiting.

If you dig through this file you’ll see that you can boost lots more than just cooldown times. Your grenadiers might not want an aim penalty for using Chain Shot, for instance. (Upon further consideration, I know your grenadiers don’t want that aim penalty. The question is whether you want it.)

DefaultGameData_WeaponData.ini

This is where I made the most changes. It’s also where I broke the game balance completely, and then backed off a bit and un-broke it.

Consider the section for the Assault Rifle:

AssaultRifle_Conventional_BaseDamage=(Damage=4, Spread=1, PlusOne=0, Crit=2, Pierce=0, Shred=0, Tag="", DamageType="Projectile_Conventional")
AssaultRifle_Magnetic_BaseDamage=(Damage=6, Spread=1, PlusOne=0, Crit=3, Pierce=0, Shred=0, Tag="", DamageType="Projectile_MagXCom")
AssaultRifle_Beam_BaseDamage=(Damage=8, Spread=1, PlusOne=0, Crit=4, Pierce=0, Shred=0, Tag="", DamageType="Projectile_BeamXCom")

I added 2 to each of the “Damage” values, and increased the Spread from 1 to 2. Now instead of doing 3-5 damage the conventional assault rifle did 4-8.  Sectoids and Officers still required two hits, but never needed three (far fewer “oh geez why won’t you die” moments.)

In my first pass I added 3 to each value, and that was too much, because far too many things could be killed with a single shot.

There’s a section like this for each of the weapons. Here’s some help with the terms, should you need it:

  • Damage: starting damage roll
  • Spread: random number to add or subtract from the roll
  • PlusOne: I don’t know, so I left it alone
  • Crit: Amount of damage to add if it’s a crit
  • Pierce: Amount of armor to ignore on a hit
  • Shred: Amount of armor to destroy on a hit

The place where I went a little crazy with no regrets was in the section for the Ranger Sword. At the top of the tech tree (“Beam”) I had doubled the damage, doubled the crit, and given it three points of Pierce. Why? Because I wanted the occasional opportunity to play Jedi Knight with the Reaper ability. SUCH FUN. Risky, too, but there wasn’t a 95% chance my Ranger would accomplish nothing and then die.

I watched part of a Twitch run where the player expressed the desire to do exactly that, and wished aloud for just such a mod. It’s a simple text edit on three lines of human-readable code.

Deeper in the file there’s a section labeled like this:

; ***** Core properties and variables for XCom weapons *****

Here you can give weapons an aiming bonus, a larger magazine size (it says “iClipSize” but we know it’s a mag), and change how much environment damage it does. I added one round to everybody’s mags, gave the sniper rifles an aiming bonus, and added some hack bonus to the gremlins. These are all pretty easy to find.

Still further in the same file, look for this:

; ***** Grenade Damage Arrays *****

And then lines like these:

FragGrenade_BaseDamage = (Damage=3, Spread = 0, PlusOne = 20, Crit = 0, Pierce = 0, Shred=1, Tag = "", DamageType="Explosion")

I bumped up the damage by two points, and the spread by one. Grenades could actually kill things, instead of just removing some cover, but they weren’t truly dependable.

Of course, I wanted to have more of them. Look for this block, and note the line I’ve bolded:

FragGrenade_iSoundRange = 30
FragGrenade_iEnvironmentDamage = 10
FragGrenade_iSupplies = 100
FragGrenade_TradingPostValue = 23
FragGrenade_iPoints = 0
FragGrenade_iClipSize = 1
FragGrenade_Range = 10
FragGrenade_Radius = 3

Maybe grenades actually DO come in an open-topped clip. Who knows? Whatever they come in, I edited this line so that now they come in twos.

This edit can be done with every grenade type. It makes grenadiers able to actually launch a crap-ton of grenades and be useful, rather than launching two and then wondering why they’re called “grenadiers” instead of “wildly inaccurate bullet-hoses.”

DefaultGameData_XpData.ini

Here’s the last set. I made changes here because I wanted to level up multiple soldiers and experiment with their ability trees. That’s pretty tedious with the defaults. Since I was playing on Legend (where there are lots of smart enemies) I edited this block:

; Legend difficulty
PerDifficultyConfig[3]=( \\
 RequiredKills[0]=0, \\
 RequiredKills[1]=1, \\
 RequiredKills[2]=8, \\
 RequiredKills[3]=18, \\
 RequiredKills[4]=40, \\
 RequiredKills[5]=70, \\
 RequiredKills[6]=110, \\
 RequiredKills[7]=175)

All I did was reduce each number by a little less than half. 1, 5, 12, 25, 50, 75, and 100 were the numbers I used. Lots more leveling up, and lots more experimentation with builds.

And that’s it

Those are the files I changed, and while I haven’t listed all of my changes in detail, I think I’ve provided enough information here that folks who would otherwise be afraid to dig into the INI files will be able to modify XCOM 2 in ways that make it more like whatever it is they actually feel like playing.

I have exactly zero desire to roll the settings back to their defaults and attempt Legendary mode. I’ve played that game, and it feels too much like a very miserable job, with rare moments of joy, and a high probability of getting fired. I understand that there are people who really dig that, but I’m not one of those people.

And I’m glad I don’t have to be in order to enjoy this game.

¹The “Max Squad Size Fix” mod is found here, if you’re a Steam user, and it lives here on Nexus. It’s possible that it will not be required in later iterations of XCOM 2. I cannot vouch for its stability or support, but I’m still using it as of this writing, and it has a 5/5 star rating from the user community.