Category Archives: Crossposted

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 https://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.

London Has Fallen

LondonHasFallenClearly, Americans have gotten tired of seeing American landmarks blowing up in movies, because this film, the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, featured London’s landmarks getting blown up in the sort of loving detail that has been standard popcorn-fare for recognizable American architectural stuff since Independence Day (the movie, not the holiday, although there are plenty of explosions then, too.)

It’s been a long time since I was in London. I confess, I didn’t know which buildings I was supposed to be rooting for. There was a bridge that I think may have been important, too, but I didn’t recognize it. I did notice that The Gherkin survived unscathed.

London Has Fallen spent a lot of time creating suspense for the things that we saw happening in the trailer. The build-up was pretty effective, except for the bit where they also tried to get me to care about too many of the characters. Oh, and except for the part where I knew what was coming. From the one trailer I’d seen, I knew that if the person on camera was a) a major world leader, and b) not the U.S. President or Gerard Butler, that person was going to die.

Sadly, the film flinched away from what could have been a really powerful bit of storytelling. There’s this moment where the U.S. President is uncomfortable with a particularly vicious bit of knife-work on the part of his one surviving bodyguard. And to be honest, that bit stepped across a couple of lines. It was brutal, and satisfying, and very wrong.

But we never came back to that moment. The President and his bodyguard never had a discussion about becoming what we behold, or keeping to principles even when it’s inconvenient. This was truly disappointing. I never feared for either character’s life, but the film could have made me seriously worry for their friendship, their sanity, and even their souls. But no. The film flinched.

Sure, I got all the asplodey eye candy I expected, and some genuine suspense regarding secondary, non-world-leader characters, but about an hour in, the movie promised me some soul-searching, which it utterly failed to deliver. Pro-tip: Don’t wreck an okay movie by promising an awesome moment you can’t, or won’t, deliver.

Olympus London Has Fallen enters my list at the bottom, and is this year’s first entry below the Threshold of Disappointment.

 

Zootopia

I went in to Zootopia knowing very little about it beyond the fact that it was computer animated “anthro.”

ZootopiaIt was delightful. I’ll be buying the Blu-Ray, because this is one of those films I’ll just want to have around the house forever.

I have no idea how the dyed-in-the-wool (pardon-the-pun) furry fans will feel about Zootopia, because I’m not really conversant in their culture. It is possible that furries will see the film as a re-tread of stuff they’ve been consuming, and creating, for decades. Or maybe they’ll find it fresh and wonderful. I don’t know.

Zootopia leaps across my Threshold of Awesome, and sits just under the only other film this year to make that leap, Kung Fu Panda 3. That movie is also anthropomorphic, and I’m not quite sure how I should feel about that, since I only noticed the correlation while writing this paragraph.

A Planet Mercenary Update

I just posted an update to the Planet Mercenary Kickstarter page. Here’s most of it:

We plan to ship in September 2016, rather than in May as originally planned. May is now impossible, and even July would mean rushing the editing and final layout phases. We don’t want to “rush” anything. We want this book to amaze and delight you. And now we plan for that delighted amazement to land in Autumn rather than Spring.

  • Backers can change their shipping addresses using their Backerkit links (email schlockmercenary@gmail.com, if you’ve lost your link. We’ll re-send it to you.)
  • This schedule should let us have PDFs out to all backers in July.
  • If you will be at GenCon in August, we will have a few advance copies for people to handle, but not to take home.

(Details on the schedule slip are below. Please don’t be distracted by this picture of an Ursumari and a Human)

Art by Rodolpho Langhi
Art by Rodolpho Langhi

Back in December we began working with Patrick Kapera, who is serving as our editor, and as an RPG expert who does not know the Schlock Mercenary universe. When Patrick joined us he was pleased to see that we were much closer to a finished product than he expected us to be. We were not, however, as close to a finished product as we thought we were.

At that point we expected that we would be sending things to our printer in April rather than February. Shipping to the printer in April would have meant that we could ship books to backers in July, and then have books to sell at GenCon Indy in August. During the last week of February, however, we carefully evaluated the progress we’d made, and realized that April wasn’t realistic.

Sandra and I decided immediately that we would not try to have the books at GenCon¹. That would have been terribly unfair to you, our backers, who wouldn’t receive your Planet Mercenary goodies until after people who bought them at the convention.

With this decision made, we knew that the earliest we could ship books to our backers would be September of 2016. We are now driving toward sending books to the printer by mid-June, and shipping things to backers 90 days later (it takes 90 days for our printer to turn around an order of this size.)

So where are we, really, in terms of the book?

  • Editing is 100% done on the Mayhem Cards and Mayhem rules. This means the cards can go to print now.
  • Editing is 75% done on the rules text.  These sections on character creation, basic rules, ship combat, charter rules, and equipment are by far the most time-consuming part of the editing, because there are words that must be used very precisely to avoid confusion.
  • Layout is running in parallel. As pages clear Patrick’s queue, they get final layout. Overall, the layout is only about 10% done, but every day more pages get finished.
  • Art is about half done. We took a long break when we realized that we needed much more layout finished before we could know what art to go get. During March, April, and May we’ll be grinding hard on the art.
  • The “fluff” text is about 75% done. Once Patrick reaches that stage, he and Howard will be blasting through it very quickly. Patrick’s job is to make sure that Howard tells players what they need to know while finishing the various worlds, cities, warrens, and Big-Dumb-Objects that will go into this book. In word-count terms, Howard probably has another 15,000 words to write. That’s about a week of work, once Howard knows which 15,000 words Patrick wants players to have.

It’s worth noting that one of the most popular elements of this project, the in-universe copy ofThe Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries, is coming along nicely. Howard has about 3,000 words to write here, but we already have book-blanks in hand that are telling us we’ve picked the right paper, and the right aspect ratio for the pages.

There is a remote possibility that the 70MoMEM books will go to the printer early—far enough ahead of the core RPG book that we will be able to ship Maxim books separately. We’ll post an update if the print schedule and the shipping budget can be aligned to make that happen.

We’re sorry to slip the schedule, but we believe that the extra three months are necessary for us to deliver an RPG that meets the high standards you’ve come to expect from us. Thank you for your patience, and again, thank you for your generous, enthusiastic support for this project.

—The Planet Mercenary Team
Howard, Sandra, Alan, and Patrick

1: Yes, this decision costs us about $10,000 in lost sales at GenCon Indy. We budgeted this project independently of selling things at GenCon, so we’re not actually losing any money by doing this. We’ll find other things to sell in Indianapolis this August.